It was once called Welfare Island, home to the sick and indigent. Now it is Roosevelt Island, home of a new memorial to former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On a crisp October day with the New York skyline as a backdrop, a very dignified crowd turned out for the memorial’s dedication in Four Freedoms Park. Former President – and Democrat – Bill Clinton spoke.
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a Republican, was in the audience.
So was Carl Bernstein, the author and journalist. Not to mention some of Roosevelt’s great-grandchildren.
FDR, as he is known, towered like a skyscraper over all of them. Park literature describes him as the greatest president of the 20th century for leading the US back from the brink of financial ruin and through World War II.
There was no shortage of praise.
“Most importantly he gave the generation living through those terrible times hope,” David Woolner said.
“And he really changed the relationship between the American people and their government.”
It’s hard not to compare Roosevelt to the current US president, Barack Obama.
Like Obama, Roosevelt was a Democrat who took office in the wake of a stock market crash fuelled by greed and speculation. He was vilified for imposing regulations on the banking industry, called a socialist, accused of run-away government spending, not to mention undermining the free market system and the very fibre of America itself.
But no one can deny that under his stewardship the economy climbed steadily back.
“He didn’t deny we need a strong private sector and he never had the government take over the economy,” Clinton said. “Except during the Depression, he knew there was no private demand and no private activity to stimulate the economy so it can grow again.”
Clinton said modern Democrats could learn a thing or two from FDR.
“He was relentlessly optimistic and he was not apologetic about what he did,” he said.
And he forever altered the role of government in the US.
‘Old enemies of peace’
Before FDR there was no safety net for the poor and out of work. When he took office unemployment was at 25 per cent and about half of the elderly population was living in poverty.
He started the Social Security programme to provide a basic pension during retirement and put the able bodied to work on government projects, building roads and bridges.
Like Obama, Roosevelt was assailed by Republicans during his first re-election. But old black-and-white film clips show a man who relished taking on his opponents, those he described as “the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering”.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he said to cheers in 1936.
“They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.”
The rich and powerful may have hated him, but the masses loved him FDR. He won his first re-election in a landslide [46 out of the then 48 states].
Obama invoked FDR in his convention speech this year in trying to sell his own plan for economic recovery. “It’ll require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one,” Obama said.
But in almost the same breath, he acknowledged the criticism of his – and Roosevelt’s – opponents: “And by the way, those of us who carry on his party’s legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government programme or dictate from Washington.”
A former US ambassador to the UN and chair of Four Freedoms Park, William Vanden Heuvel, describes Obama as a mediator, Roosevelt as a fighter and master politician.
“When you have a political force opposing you, whose object is to destroy you, then you have to fight hard. Roosevelt fought hard and was elected four times as president,” he says.
No president has ever served as long, and few have changed the country so dramatically.