Hindsight, history, and the edges that get ‘smoothed out’

HINDSIGHT, HISTORY, AND THE EDGES THAT GET ‘SMOOTHED OUT’…. Matt Yglesias flags a fascinating item from Mike Tomasky, which included an anecdote I don’t remember having heard.

It’s worth noting, for example, that the second act to become law under the New Deal, after the Emergency Banking Act, which was a progressive piece of legislation, was a conservative bill, the Economy Act. It cut salaries of government employees and benefits to veterans, the latter by 15 percent. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, writes that literally an hour after signing the banking act, Roosevelt outlined this bill to congressional leaders, saying the next day and sounding more than a little like some Robert Rubin progenitor had been whispering in his ear: “For three long years, the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy.” (And maybe one had: Schlesinger notes that Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, was certainly no Keynesian.)

Just imagine Obama having tried something like that, alienating both veterans and AFSCME within a week of taking office. The Economy Act was opposed by many liberals in the House, so FDR turned to conservative Democrats and Republicans, who passed it.

The point, of course, isn’t that Franklin Roosevelt was a sellout, betraying the party’s liberal base in his first week. Rather, it’s anecdotes like these that remind us that even FDR — the giant of the 20th century, the Democratic icon, among the greatest presidents in American history, and the leader whose example other presidents should follow — was far from perfect when championing progressive ideals.

Matt added, “On the big picture, FDR made his peace with segregation and LBJ led us into Vietnam. But if you look at the history in detail, you see many smaller fights and betrayals that were the subject of much passionate fighting at the time they occurred. Stepping back further, this stuff gets smoothed out and drops from view.”

This came up a bit during the debate over health care reform, when we were reminded of just how weak Social Security was at its inception — the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases.

Of course, changes in popular media have altered the public’s understanding of current events. Had FDR been leading in 2010, not only would Republican attacks on Social Security been more widely trumpeted through a well-financed, right-wing national campaign, but many on the left would likely label him “as bad as Hoover,” and a president who accepted a compromise rather than fighting for some of the same constituents who got him elected in the first place. Indeed, there were no doubt some who did believe this, but it was considerably more difficult for the public to remain informed at a granular level, and even more difficult for dissatisfied supporters to register their opposition and get attention for their “I voted for him but he’s losing me” complaints.

When evaluating the current president, it’s interesting to ponder what, with the passage of time, will “get smoothed out and drop from view.”