Sunday, May 4, 2014
Ideals ("The Fight for the Four Freedoms" by Harvey J. Kaye)
No president can be perfect. It's a difficult but inevitable aspect of a government that is built, run, and refreshed by its people: we are flawed, and therefore our system--not to mention the men and women we elect to control it--is flawed. Even those whom we lionize for their bravery and steadfastness, their roles in molding our nation into something more perfect and more unified, made decisions while in office that, even by the standards of their day, would be considered illegal, thoughtless, or inhumane. For instance, in the course of the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which gave him the power to deny spies and political prisoners all of the judicial guarantees provided by the Constitution; it also allowed soldiers to search homes and seize property without a warrant, gave the president the authority to establish martial law, which Lincoln did in Kentucky, and invalidate any lawsuits against government agents because of otherwise punishable crimes, such as trespassing and false imprisonment. Lincoln did this while waging a war against the Confederacy for seceding and, in doing so, committing treason against the very same Constitution Lincoln himself was ignoring.
Eight decades later Franklin Roosevelt gave in to racial fear-mongering and forced more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans to be removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps throughout the country. (In other parts of the country, the relocated populations were of German heritage rather than Japanese heritage.) Rendered through executive order, Roosevelt's decision came at a time when Hitler was himself overseeing a much similar, though much wider and more brutal, practice against the Jewish population of Europe. At the time, Roosevelt's decision was seen as a necessary evil, one based on what can only be described as a cautious paranoia; today, we know it as an indefensible crime against humanity and a shameful, unjustifiable chapter in our history.
Every president, regardless of their political affiliation, their legacy, or the length of their service, made decisions that we today look on as misguided, if not dangerous or shameful. Even those who took brave stands for what was right--historically significant moments, the kind that define a president's legacy--were often forced by public opinion or electoral defeat to soften their attitudes, if not walk back their ideas entirely. (Teddy Roosevelt speaking out against lynching and dined with Booker T. Washington, only to refrain from advocating for civil rights legislation or confronting Southerners directly, is the most obvious example of this.) And yet, for just as long as we've had presidents, we've suffered under the delusion of executive perfection--of the ideal candidate, the most influential statesman, the Great American President--and it colors not only our own beliefs but how we understand and learn from our own history. If we spend our entire educational careers desperately seeking out personifications of American exceptionalism, only to see those characterizations dashed when the truth is revealed, we are creating a fantasy that can never be fulfilled--a dream that will inevitably become a nightmare.
This is the fate of anyone who endeavors to write an appreciation of a president and his ideas: at some point in the process of researching and writing, the author must reckon with the disappointments inherent in being Commander in Chief. Legislative failures, military entanglements, economic downturns, domestic failings, social unrest, electoral rebukes, indecision--it is part of their history and therefore must become part of the narrative; otherwise, you are rewriting history through intentional ignorance or spin. Thankfully, most of the historical works we see today respect this balance--between the successes and failures, between what the president sought and what they actually accomplished, between their words and their actions--and those that do not are quickly and derisively dispatched to the dusty attics of history, as they should be.
But what of those who write of their president's ideals, write of the president himself, and also include the inevitable failings without ever reconciling the two to create a unified history? That is to say, what of the author who writes of Lincoln's grand defense of the American Constitution and his grave subordination of the very same document without ever addressing this discrepancy? What of the author who praises Theodore Roosevelt for his progressive stand against racism, derides him for his own personal prejudice and weak support for civil rights, and allows both truths to coexist without seeing this as a problem worth addressing?
This dangerous possibility both haunts and vindicates Harvey J. Kaye's The Fight for the Four Freedoms, a look at how one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest legacies persists in American discourse despite repeated attempts to undermine it and a series of presidents who were unable to bring it to life.* Believing that all people require the same four freedoms in order to live a truly purposeful and enjoyable life--freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear--Roosevelt spent his final years as president failing to see adequate legislation enshrining these four freedoms in law. Kaye specifically focuses on the first, "Freedom from want," as a way to weave Roosevelt's story--and the story of the subsequent eighty years--with the current state of our country, in which millions of Americans find themselves unable to pay their bills, support their families on full-time salaries, send their children to college, or ensure a comfortable future for themselves and their loved ones, all the while chief executives and businessmen reap huge profits. As far as Kaye is concerned, it is this pillar more than any other that is the most prescient to our world and, in failing to be realized legislatively, the one that could do the most good for the greatest number of people.
Kaye has an obvious affection for Roosevelt's four freedoms, and his disappointment in Roosevelt for not achieving these four goals--because of the war, because of Republican intransigence, because of racism, because of conservatives and capitalists--colors much of the book, and palpably so. He is even more critical of those who occupied the White House after Roosevelt, regardless of whether they embraced his legacy or attempted to dismantle it; this includes the current president, who has tried and failed on many occasions to create laws that lessen the wealth gap and income disparity that has so damaged our country over the last quarter-century. Kaye still believes that Roosevelt's four ideals can be realized--in fact, he seems to believe the future of our country and the health of its Constitution depend on it--but much of his 200-odd pages are a dire history of lofty speeches, progressive ideas, and a willing population, all ending in bitter disappointment time after time.
Yes, no president is perfect, but there are those whose attempts at success were more effective than others. Lyndon Johnson came closer than almost any other elected official to turning FDR's dreams into reality; through the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, and significant new immigration and education acts, Johnson created a path for millions of Americans to gain greater levels of equality, security, and pride. However, even Johnson's legacy is tainted--in this case, by a war so controversial and devastating that it will certainly be the single most important aspect of his presidency for the next fifty years. And here is the paradox in Kaye's book: the difficulties of being president do not prevent Roosevelt's four freedoms from ever being realized; however, the imprecision of those freedoms--how we define want and fear, how we gauge speech and worship--means that success in fighting for any one of these four may go unnoticed, unappreciated, or derided as not good enough. How do we measure a president's success when it comes to democratizing speech, guaranteeing open worship, eradicating want, dispelling fear? If a president were to accomplish all four, with little compromise, would that be good enough? Or would we look over the unavoidable imperfections of their career and say, with a sigh and a nod towards history, that it wasn't enough, that it could've been better? Or would we look over their limitations and say, confident, that they did the best they could?
We as a nation will always suffer from prejudice, will always face inequality in our neighborhoods, will always have a reason to be afraid. There will always be a great need for healing and improvement because we are a land of people: human beings, young and old, who are just as flawed as the people to our right and left, just as imperfect as those who came before us and who will come after. And as time moves forward and more of history is written, we see the small steps of progress that each successive generation makes--not enough to quench our troubled national conscience, no, but enough to know that we are not the animals we used to be. If we are fated to never realize the four freedoms that Roosevelt proposed eight decades ago, we can at least be comforted by the knowledge that we are a better, more freer people than we were yesterday, and we will be even more free when we wake up tomorrow. Free from our bigotries, from our unrealizable desires, from meaningless fears. We won't realize this until much later, as changes like this are incremental, but so is the passage of time itself.
*In the interest of full disclosure, Kaye is professor at my alma mater, where he lectures on many of the same topics addressed in his book. However, I was never one of his students.