It's cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C., and there's no better
place to retreat from the lobbyist feeding ground that is called the U.S.
Congress than the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. The stench of the
trough recedes, and the optimism of spring is restored as one wanders
down the beautiful Cherry Walk along the Tidal Basin to absorb the words
of a president who cared so deeply about putting government at the
service of all.
At the Capitol, the avarice of the over-represented rich and powerful
is on sickening display as their lackeys rush to pass the current
president's plans to stuff the pockets of their kith and kin. This is a
president who never learned that it's possible to be a leader born of
privilege and yet be absorbed with the fate of those in need.
Not so Roosevelt, a true aristocrat whose genuine love of the common
man united this country to save it during its most severe time of
economic turmoil and devastating world war. At the memorial, his words,
cut in granite, are a stark reminder of how far greed has taken us from
the simple but eloquent notion of economic justice that 64 years ago a
president dared embrace:
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance
of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who
have too little."
Does George W. Bush not know there are tens of millions in this
country, many of them children, who have too little? Is it conceivable
that he believes the best way to serve them is a tax cut whose main
purpose is to add to the abundance of the super-rich? We may no longer be
the nation that Roosevelt saw as one-third "ill-housed, ill-clad,
ill-nourished," but we are uncomfortably close.
Rich people can be progressive, as Roosevelt so admirably
demonstrated, but only when they step out of their own too-comfortable
skins, a feat Bush the Younger has yet to attempt. Roosevelt, like Bush,
was raised by servants, but for FDR they became the constituency he most
Objecting to Bush's feed-the-rich policies is not class warfare, as
GOP reactionaries claim, but rather a rational attempt to save capitalism
from its worst excesses. That's why more than 800 wealthy Americans, led
by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates Sr., have risen to decry the proposed
repeal of the estate tax, which would further exacerbate class
differences based on accident of birth.
Even more obscene is the Bush administration's attempt to blame
environmental safeguards for poverty when it's the poor who are stuck
with toxic land and foul water. Roosevelt was ever mindful, as this
administration isn't, that it's counterproductive when economic crisis is
used as an excuse to rape the environment. In his message to Congress on
Jan. 24, 1935, Roosevelt warned: "Men and nature must work hand in hand.
The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of
balance also the lives of men."
That was said in the midst of the country's deepest economic
depression, yet now we have the sight of our presumed leader smashing
environmental safeguards when faced with the prospect of a mild
Finally, what Roosevelt and his saintly wife, Eleanor, brought to
Washington, and which Bush seems bent on denigrating, is a respect for
government as an indispensable ally to our betterment. At the FDR
memorial, one is overwhelmed by the breadth of Roosevelt's achievements
in putting the power of the government at the service of the people.
Projects that transformed this nation, ranging from the Tennessee Valley
Authority, which brought electricity to vast darkened swaths of this
nation, to the Works Progress Administration, which treated artists not
as a suspect and subversive cadre but rather as an indispensable source
of light in the bleakest of times.
There was no rural hovel or city ghetto beyond the reach of FDR's
government. When Roosevelt died, I was a young kid living in a Bronx
tenement being raised by a family of often unemployed workers, until
Roosevelt became our salvation. Millions like us, of all ages, poured
into the streets at the news of FDR's death, crying from love but also
from fear that the man who had stood between us and the abyss was no
longer our president.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who lived a few subway stops from my
neighborhood, and who was in my class at the publicly funded City College
of New York, has written in his autobiography that he and his family felt
the same way about Roosevelt. Maybe he should take his boss down to the
FDR memorial some quiet night to consider a new role model.
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column. Web Site: www.robertscheer.com
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times