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FDR, Clinton, And Social Revolution

PRESIDENT Clinton continues to imply that these days are like those of the 1930s and that he, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, will solve our economic woes. That was what that trip to Hyde Park, N.Y., was all about.

I'm troubled by this historical reference. To begin with, during the latest recession this country never came close to dropping to the painful depths of the Great Depression.

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As a youngster growing up in a small Midwestern city, I saw and experienced real lack. Everyone, it seemed, was hurt. It was a lot like Russia today. Those who fared best were those on the land. The farmers could still eat well from what they raised. But they were not spared either: Many went bankrupt.

Today there is too much suffering. Something must be done about widespread joblessness, particularly in the inner cities. I see more homeless people on the streets than I have seen since the '30s, when those who were cruelly labeled "bums" moved around the country, riding the rails. Hardly a day passed without one of those poor fellows knocking on the door and asking to work in exchange for a meal.

My folks always scratched up something for them to eat. And there was always wood to be chopped, ashes to be cleaned out of the furnace, or some other chore for them to do.

I have a vivid recollection, too, of the late '30s when little children were daily picking through garbage cans and depositing discarded food in the wagons they pulled from house to house.

Then there were those runs on the banks and the resulting heartache. Many people I knew lost their life's savings. The "Depression" was not an economic description of what was going on. One could feel the discouragement in the air, day after day, year after year.

Roosevelt presided over a social revolution that the American people were crying out for. That anguish was clearly apparent in the overwhelming vote they gave FDR in 1932.

The maldistribution of wealth certainly called for adjustment. At that time some economists were saying that 97 percent of the wealth was in the hands of 3 percent of the people. Others said the differential was a bit less - but still terribly bad.

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When I heard at the time that the president of General Motors made $300,000 a year I was appalled. Now I'm equally dismayed by the millions of dollars going to top executives and to athletes in a society where so many Americans have to make do with little or no income.

But this is not the 1930s. FDR put together the beginning of an economic safety net. And other administrations, particularly that of Lyndon Johnson, enlarged and strengthened that net. With FDR came Social Security, electricity for the rural areas, and much more. He also provided temporary job programs, which helped to take the sting out of the Depression.

Mr. Clinton, too, seeks an economic stimulus through a temporary job program. But much of his plan is also directed toward a redistribution of income. He is talking about a country where he uses figures that indicate the richest 10 percent has one-fourth of the income. He would change all that. But his tax plans would whack not only the rich but also those in the middle-income brackets.

Actually, for most of us the Clinton economic program is confusing because he has moved in so many directions to make the plan palatable: In fact, one of the key members of Congress in dealing with the president's economic package is "still trying to figure it all out," one of his aides told me.

Yet Clinton portrays himself as another FDR, suggesting that he, like Roosevelt, is ushering in another social revolution.

Clinton, too, is a master salesman. But there is no Great Depression out there today. Indeed, there are signs now that the recession is behind us. Thus Clinton may find it impossible to sell revolution. He'll be fortunate to simply bring about a decided change.

What it comes down to is this: Roosevelt had a clear mandate, repeated again and again as he won four terms. Clinton received 43 percent of the vote. At the outset he is doing wonders in pulling the people behind him and his plans. But he is no FDR, nor will he possess FDR's staying power. He must act fast.

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