FDR: A Finished Portrait


Fifty years ago today, Franklin D. Roosevelt died while sitting for a portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga. It is probably true that everyone school age or older in 1945 remembers today where he or she was when the news came. FDR was only 63 and was thought, mistakenly, by the public at large to be in good health. After 12 years as president in the dawn of the age of mass communication, he was the most familiar public figure in American history. So his death was a more sobering, saddening, personal and unexpected event than even the attack on Pearl Harbor had been over four years before.

The war that attack brought had consumed Roosevelt's thoughts, energy and strength to the point he could be considered a casualty of war. Had he retired in 1944 to tend to his health, he quite likely would have lived longer.

He was a masterful commander in chief, even to those critics who disliked his New Deal pre-war years. Dwight Eisenhower later said 1944 was the only year he would have voted for FDR. As wartime leader not only of his nation but of the world's democracies, Roosevelt certainly earned the respect of his commanders, contemporary journalists and subsequent historians.

His pre-war accomplishments, while more controversial, have proved enduring. Social Security is almost certainly the most popular federal government program ever enacted. Other New Deal new departures in economic and social regulation survive nearly intact 60 or so years after enactment.

Not only was President Roosevelt the most familiar public figure of his day, he was the most popular. No president in the history of the Gallup Poll stands as high as he in approval ratings measured during White House tenure. His popularity was in large part a result of his sunny, optimistic personality. But it was also a result of his canny presidential skills. He was masterful (and often manipulative) in dealing with cabinet members, recalcitrant office-holders and heads of state.

Elizabeth Shoumatoff did not finish her portrait. History has finished its. Love and respect for FDR by his contemporaries have been matched by historians. In every serious survey of academics and students of political history, FDR has rated second or third on the lists of "great presidents," with only Lincoln and in some cases Washington rated above him.

He is the fountainhead of modern American liberalism and an idol of both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

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