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Reagan and Roosevelt: Historic Equals in Affection

September 21, 1986|MICHAEL BARONE | Michael Barone is a member of the Washington Post editorial-page staff.

"His intellectual processes had always been intuitive rather than logical. He often thought lazily and superficially. But he felt profoundly. His ratiocination annoyed some observers, who, missing the intermediate steps of the syllogism, condemned his oversimplifications and felt that portentous decisions were precariously reared on idiotic anecdotes. But the individual case was really more often the symbol rather than the source of his conclusion; it was the short-cut way of putting over a vast amount of feeling, imagination and sympathy which the President himself could neither articulate nor understand, but which had a plunging accuracy of its own."

An apology for Ronald Reagan? No. These words are from a 1956 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and they were written (I have changed them slightly, to disguise the subject) about Schlesinger's favorite President, and Ronald Reagan's, and mine--Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I have been reading quite a bit about Roosevelt lately, and visited Hyde Park on vacation, and I have been struck again and again by the uncanny similarities between the two Presidents who are supposed to be so far apart on the ideological spectrum.

Take Reagan's peroration in the 1980 debate, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" That comes directly from Roosevelt's June, 1934, fireside chat. "The simplest way for you to judge recovery," he said, framing the issue for the upcoming election, "lies in the plain facts of your individual situation. Are you better off than you were last year? Are your debts less burdensome? Is your bank account more secure? Are your working conditions better?"

That must have been a conscious borrowing. But was it conscious or subliminal recollection that led Reagan to appear at the 1980 convention late in the evening to make clear his vice-presidential choice, much as Roosevelt had been wheeled over late at night to the 1940 convention after it accepted his unpopular vice-presidential choice?

Certainly Reagan has modeled his delivery and his Saturday radio addresses on Roosevelt's fireside chats. "His cadences are Roosevelt's cadences, his metaphors the offspring of Roosevelt's," writes his definitive biographer, Lou Cannon.

Does this matter? It does if you remember three things about Roosevelt that are generally forgotten today--things that help explain why F.D.R. remained more popular than his policies, his party or his political allies. If they're true about Reagan, too, they help explain his popularity and gauge his success as a politician.

The first is that Roosevelt was consistently underestimated. "A pleasant man who, without having any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President." Thus Walter Lippmann (who had watched him closely for 15 years) dismissed F.D.R. early in 1932, and you hear such dismissals of Reagan today. But we should be careful not to underrate Presidents who carry 162 states out of a possible 196 or 93 of 100.

Roosevelt was underrated partly because he ran a disorderly Administration and botched many second- and third-line issues. But he kept his eye, and got his way, on issues that were No. 1. Reagan, I think, has done the same thing. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Carter were so eager to be given credit for attention to detail that they were held responsible for the many, usually minor failings of their Administrations. Reagan's inattention to detail is so notorious that voters have long since stopped blaming him for minor snafus. They judge him, as they judged Roosevelt, on the big issues of the economy and war and peace.

The second thing that we should remember about Roosevelt is his enormous curiosity about--and his instinctive understanding of--ordinary Americans' life. He told one friend who caviled at his economic policies to go out and buy an old car and some secondhand clothes and drive around the country, and then see if he would stick to his principles. You get the feeling that Roosevelt would have liked to take the trip himself. He liked to travel the country in trains going no faster than 35 m.p.h. and was always asking about audiences' responses to movies. As a rich man and then as a polio victim, he had never lived an ordinary citizen's life. But he could imagine vividly what it was like and could speak to people in their own language.

So can Reagan. He is unabashedly sentimental, watches television and movies and even MTV, has a sure gift for the corny anecdote. This is not so easy. For nearly 50 years he has lived as a rich celebrity; it has been a long time since he lived in Dixon, Ill. But he has Roosevelt's determination to understand ordinary people's lives and speak to them in language they can understand--important gifts for a leader in a democracy.

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