Lesson for Obama: GOP Mud Didn't Stick to FDR

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Rosemarie Ostler writes about the cultural history of American English. She is the author of "Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics" (2011).

With the recent Great Recession, many Americans have begun reminiscing about Depression-era president Franklin Roosevelt.  Pundits often compare him with our current president and conclude—whether for better or worse—that there aren’t many similarities between the two.  FDR and President Obama do, however, share at least one trait.  They triggered the same sort of brutal, over-the-top invective from their enemies.  Several of the attacks now being made on President Obama are remarkably similar to those flung at President Roosevelt—both in tone and in content.

Claims that President Obama’s economic stimulus is forcing the country toward socialism echo attacks made against Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Anti-Roosevelt newspapers printed editorials “proving” that FDR was a hard-core communist and predicting that if he remained in office, the Soviets would soon be running the White House.  A typical Chicago Tribune headline that ran shortly before the 1936 election shouted, “MOSCOW ORDERS REDS IN U.S. TO BACK ROOSEVELT.”  Journalist H. L. Mencken called Roosevelt “a blood brother of Lenin.”

The term “class hatred,” now popular among those who object to Obama’s calls for tax increases, was also used to criticize Roosevelt.  One 1940 pamphlet complains of Roosevelt “preaching and promoting class hatred,” as well as assessing the taxpayer “a billion dollars every time someone [shoots] off a firecracker in Europe.”

While the Right was attacking Roosevelt as a left-wing extremist, the Left was complaining that he was far too sympathetic to Wall Street and the rich.  They accused him of rescuing capitalism at the expense of workers.  Earl Browder, leader of the Communist Party USA, called Roosevelt a “Wall Street tool” who stabbed the poor in the back.

An anti-Roosevelt convention held in Cleveland during the summer of 1936 attacked FDR from both directions.  Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, heir-apparent to Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” movement, exhorted the crowd:  “We must make our choice in the presence of atheistic Communistic influences!  It is the Russian primer or the Holy Bible!  It is the Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes!  It is Lenin or Lincoln—Stalin or Jefferson!”

Demagogic “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, a disillusioned former supporter of the New Deal, stood up at the same meeting to attack Roosevelt for going too easy on Wall Street.  He claimed that FDR was “the great betrayer” who had failed to “drive the money changers from the temple.”  Coughlin nicknamed the president “Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.” 

As with President Obama’s health care plan, President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs caused much hand-wringing over the future of the Constitution.  Mencken wrote in 1936 that Roosevelt’s reelection would “set off the most violent attack upon the Constitution ever made, at least since the Hon. Abraham Lincoln adjourned it during the Civil War.”

The American Liberty League and several other organizations were formed with the aim of protecting the Constitution.  Some distributed red-white-and-blue “Save the Constitution” stickers or license plates with the same motto.

Roosevelt inspired an unreasoning bitterness in some Americans that went far beyond objections to his policies—what Harper’s writer Marquis W. Childs described as “a consuming personal hatred.”  He was the subject of virulent personal attacks and bizarre rumors.  Many Roosevelt haters firmly believed that the president was insane.  One popular story—usually told by someone who knew someone who was there—had the president greeting White House visitors with strange, inappropriate laughter that continued during the interview.  A favorite epithet was “That Madman in the White House.”

The hostility toward Roosevelt extended to his family, especially Eleanor, whose social activism caused resentment.  One critic described her as “a terrible woman who thinks she knows everything.”  Another sneered at her newspaper column as “silly drivel.”  Like her husband, she was accused of being a communist and was said to entertain communists in the White House.  One rumor claimed that Mrs. Roosevelt was active in the public sphere because she was positioning herself to succeed to the presidency after her husband.  According to this theory, she would hold power until the Roosevelt sons could take over.

Conspiracy theories peaked with the 1940 campaign.  Those who believed all along that the Roosevelts were planning to found a dynasty saw the proof in FDR’s run for a third term.  Anti-Roosevelt buttons read, “No Franklin the First,” “No Royal Family,” “No Crown for Franklin,” and “We don’t want Eleanor either!”

The now-classic Hitler comparison also began appearing.  One slogan claimed “Hitler was elected the first three times.”  Other rallying cries included “Don’t tear down the Statue of Liberty! Refuse dictatorship!” and “Save your church! Dictators hate religion!”  Earl Browder wrote that the New Deal was “in political essence and direction … the same as Hitler’s program.”

Fears that Roosevelt would bring the United States into Europe’s war led to anti-Semitic attacks against the president.  Voters were told that he wanted to go to war to save the Jews, that he was Jewish himself, and that his family’s real name was Rosenveld.

Throughout his time in office Roosevelt made feisty responses to his critics.  He energetically defended his programs while reminding voters that the economy had collapsed during a Republican administration.  At a Madison Square Garden speech given shortly before the 1936 election, he said of his opponents:  “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.  I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.”

In spite of the buckets of mud being thrown at him, Roosevelt remained popular with the majority of voters.  He was re-elected by an overwhelming margin in 1936 and went on to win re-election twice more.  Not all the mud stuck.

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