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Why the hippies get punched.

We are starlight, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon…

But first, I found this article on Liberalism and what it’s up against that was published yesterday.  It’s by Edward Fawcett, who has just written a book called Liberalism.  Just read it because I think there are nuggets there that we need to digest.  I’ve already gotten some ideas about how American liberals can fight back.

Ok, now, onto the hippy punching.

As many of you know, I am a Tolkien junky.  Seriously, I can’t get enough of the guy.  Someday, we’re all going to recognize what a genius he was.  His philosophy is deep and he was a careful observer of human nature.

One of the most puzzling of his characters from the Lord of the Rings is Tom Bombadil.  Even Peter Jackson didn’t know what to do with him and anyone who has read the books remembers that the story loses momentum when the characters travel through the Old Forest and meet Tom Bombadil and his lady, Goldberry.  That’s a movie killer so old Tom and Goldberry had to go.

I took the name Goldberry on DailyKos when I started blogging because she was the river’s daughter and I love Pittsburgh.  But I also liked her part in the story as a sort of natural tranquilizer.  She’s all about rain and dancing and laughter and getting a good night’s sleep.  Ok, I’m nothing like that but a girl can dream, right?

Back to Tom Bombadil.  Tom is a merry fellow.  His jacket is blue and his boots are yellow.  He’s in tune with nature and spends his days getting to know the trees and the wind under the hill and probably puts a little weed in his pipe after his supper of bread and honey and cheese and wine.  Tom Bombadil probably owned Yasgur’s Farm.

But note that you can easily remove Tom and his old lady from the story and no one even misses them.  So, why did Tolkien write this little diversion in the first place?  Tolkien provides a very telling answer:

Tom Bombadil is not an important person- to the narrative.  I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.  I mean, I do not really write like that (he is just an invention who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.  I would not, however, have left him in if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way.

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.

But the view in Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends.  Ultimately, only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive.  Nothing would be left to him in the world of Sauron…

I find it interesting that Bombadil was created in 1933.  This was about the time when Hitler was making a name for himself.  The most recent episode of the podcast History of WWII by Ray Harris called The End of the End describes this period of time.  Churchill read Mein Kampf and saw the danger as well as admiration for what Hitler was trying to do for Germany.  He immediately asked for a report on the military readiness of Britain in the event that Hitler came to power.  He was concerned that the allies had mothballed their military might too precipitously while backing off on demands for reparations payments.  Ironically, Hitler was surveying the political landscape of Britain at the same time and was pulling for Chamberlain to ascend, not Churchill.  Anyway, go listen to the whole podcast for a better idea of what was going on.  Ray Harris is very thorough, especially with respect to Churchill’s history and motivations.

My point is that there were many in Britain who were aware of what was going on on the Continent with both Mussolini and Hitler.  Tolkien must have been one of them.  And while he hated war (he participated in the Battle of the Somme during WWI), he was not a pacifist.  When it comes to fighting for your friends and the defenseless, Tolkien thought war necessary.  That didn’t make him a war hawk.

But if you think that the Bombadil diversion is all about war, you’d be missing the point.  If Sauron could achieve his goals without the bloody orc melees, it would still result in a world where Tom Bombadil could not peacefully exist.  What I think Tolkien was saying is that you can not hide yourself away from the world, live an ascetic existence and not be affected by what goes on outside your boundaries.  If you have the power to do good and choose not to use it, you will be subject to the people who use their powers to do ill.  At the same time, hippies are useful because they have this affinity for nature and preservation and environmentalism.  So, the combination of them being utterly useless to the fight along with their love of beauty and nature makes us want to punch them in the face.  Over and over again.

I get pretty annoyed with the ‘pacifism at all costs’ faction of my side.  There are times when war is absolutely a stupid, destructive waste of money and time.  Take Iraq, for example.  That was morally an evil war and none of us should be proud of what happened there.  We sent young men and women to get blown up for a bunch of narcissistic free marketers who wanted to experiment and rob a sovereign nation of its oil.  It just doesn’t get worse than that.  And I’m not blaming the soldiers who we sent.  They’re trained to carry out orders.  But the reason we sent them to Iraq was just evil.  There’s no doubt about it.

Afghanistan was a different story.  We had an obligation to put the Taliban and Al Qaeda down for our safety and the safety of others. Should we have gotten involved in Libya?  I would argue yes.  There was a tipping point in Libya and we helped it over the edge.  Better to pull the bandaid off quickly than allow a civil war to go on indefinitely.  I don’t know where the tipping point is in Syria but I don’t like the way the instability and breakdown of government in the region is going.  I think the Kurds have got the right idea.  They were prepared and vigilant and well trained.

But pacifism is only one part of the equation when we are fighting the bad side.  Right now, the bad side is moving rapidly to quash net neutrality and fair elections.  Sometimes, I feel like the Bombadils of our side are still wringing their hands about GMO crops and slinging words like corporatist around while the bad guys are done with dialog and moving in for the kill.  I worry about politicians and activists who are not focused on the very imminent threats to their survival and are still looking for a way to scapegoat the Clintons.

We’ve never lived in a feudal system, although that seems to be changing rather rapidly.  But it pays to remember that back in the middle ages, the forests were owned by the king and managed by his agents.  It wasn’t just the forests that were his property but every animal and twig.  Poaching deer and collecting firewood could get you hanged.  I’m not sure what the status of water lilies would have been but there wouldn’t have been any crackling fire in the grate in Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest.  Sleeping peacefully would be impossible.

Now, the Chamberlain Obama administration has its own reasons for punching the hippies but I think the hippies give them plenty of material to work with.  This is a shame because our side can use all the help it can get.  But unless they are willing to give up their isolation and put their efforts behind a power, and all the icky things that power needs to do to accomplish its goals, they’re going to end up on the wrong side of history by default.

JMHO

 

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Tuesday: One more and I’ll stop (for awhile)

Blame Luther for breaking up the band

So, the “religious liberty” meme is going to be the one to beat this year.  We’re all a bunch of heathens and we need religion.  That’s what the argument’s going to be.  If only we lead more virtuous lives with the guidance of some religion, we’d all be more prosperous, more fulfilled human beings and we wouldn’t need so much government assistance.  The problem with this country is that we’ve gone too far away from God and now is the time to put him back in our lives, put him front and center, so that we can weather the economic austerity that is coming our way.  If we play by the rules and love God with all our hearts, we will be blessed.  If we don’t, we get what’s coming to us.

And the reason religious liberty has to be so gosh darned important is that without it, it’s harder to keep everyone in line, feeling guilt and shame about their personal circumstances.  If there’s no guilt or shame, people won’t blame themselves for all of the rotten things that have happened to them.  No, they might start figuring out that they’ve been had, suckered in by really ruthless financial industry psychopaths who believe that what’s theirs is theirs and what’s yours is theirs.  So, to make sure we are not watching what they do, the religious liberty thing is going to get a lot of attention.

The problem is that that’s only going to work for some people.  The rest of us know that the bible is not an accurate historical document and it’s unlikely to be divinely inspired if there are multiple divinities that inspired it.  And for those of us in the life sciences, evolution is non-negotiable.  I couldn’t do my work without knowing all about natural selection.  The fact that I can do an evolutionary trace on the proteins I work with is pretty strong evidence that evolution is true.  We’ve seen the results of prayer.  Um, it doesn’t really work all that well.  And on and on and on.

The thing is, I don’t have any problem with the idea that YOU can believe all of the things about religion that you choose to believe.  If you want to think that a bunch of celibate old guys in red beanies in Rome, who kept the organization they were in when they changed religions in the fourth century, have all of the answers to guide your life, knock yourself out.  If you want to believe that Jesus is coming to rescue you from all of the rottenness of the world and the pedophiles and kidnappings and rapes of pretty blonde women and the murder of innocent, sweet little babies and that those of us who don’t believe absolutely everything you say are going to suffer from a really horrific and painful death while you hover above it all and watch us die in torment, go ahead.  Everybody in the world has their own particular and personal belief system that may be a slightly different variation of their neighbor’s, or it may be radically different.  And that’s OK.  Believe whatever you want.

But if you’re going to bring that belief system into the public square and insist that we all live by the rules created in 1300 BCE in spite of all of the progress that we have made in the past 3000 years, you’d better have a really good reason for it and should be able to  demonstrate definitively why imitating baby farmer Michelle Duggar and her ultra conservative family is better than any other alternative.  In fact, I have watched enough of the Duggars to know that their philosophy has a lot more of the liberal tradition than they would care to admit.  They have friends and neighbors that have waaaaay too many children stuffed into tiny little houses.  The Duggars don’t lecture these people and tell them to keep an aspirin between their knees.  No, they help them build a new house.  They donate their time and money and materials.  They feed poor people at soup kitchens.  They never ask anything in return.

But Jim Bob Duggar is a Republican and the Duggars have chosen to endorse Rick Santorum.  The Duggars send mixed messages.  Anti tax Republicans reject EVERYTHING the Duggars say they are about.  They want to withhold money, assistance and help from anyone they think is undeserving.  I’m sorry but I’m not sure that the families that the Duggars help are all that much different from any other family they don’t know personally that has a lot children and insufficient space and resources.

The difference seems to be religion.  The Duggars’ friends and the poor they serve are Christians.  And I just have to wonder, is it really moral to be so choosey?  Should it matter what religion a person is if they need help, food, housing or protection from greedy conmen in business and the banks?  Isn’t that what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about?  (BTW, the parables and beatitudes of Jesus and the details of Occupy Jerusalem Temple are about the only things in the New Testament worth rescuing)

Are we to believe that the Duggars, a good, kind hearted family, would not be a good kind hearted family without their religion?  And if their religion demands good kind heartedness, aren’t they obligated to extend that to others outside of their religion?  And if they ask nothing in return from their neighbors who are Christians, should they expect something in return for all of their help from non-Christians?  Isn’t it possible that good, kind heartedness benefits everyone and makes the world a better place regardless if God is intervening?  Wouldn’t God want you to be nice to everyone, even if he isn’t watching? And wouldn’t you reach more people if you could pool your resources and figure out a more systematic way of helping everyone?  And wouldn’t that come back to you in the form of less crime, more healthy, happy people and more prosperity?  The Duggars are almost there.  They just need to include the whole world in their benevolence and learn to judge the rest of the world with as much generosity and compassion as they do their Christian friends.

Anyway, I got off topic again. Where was I?

Oh, yeah, before you start imposing your religious liberty on others, at least admit that you are also obligated to have other people’s religious liberty imposed on you in return.  But if that is not acceptable, let’s narrow our choices.  Before we make new rules to live by, let’s all agree on which God we’re going to pay attention to.  I don’t mean some Mesopotamian gods that got edited to a single entity and a creation story based on some ancient Babylonian mythology.  Let’s get real.  Let’s look at all of the religions and investigate all claims equally.  There has to be a one true religion among all of the religions in the world.  That’s the one we should follow.  So, I propose that we get appoint a committee of believers and non-believers.  After all, Santorum says that even non-believers have a part to play in shaping government in the public square just like the faithful.  So, all interested parties, believers and non-believers, should get together and decide which religion has the greatest credibility, the most verifiable miracles, the best predictive values and the most moral code.  The scientists should be particularly helpful here.  When we can all come to an agreement on which religion that is, that’s the religion we should pick to influence our government.  After all, it wouldn’t be fair to deprive the other religious adherents of the one true God.  But if the Catholics lose, they’re going to have to sit on their cassocks and shut up.  Same goes with the Evangelical Christians.  For all we know, we might all end up as Sufis or Scientologists.  But if it turns out that they have the one true religion, it would be wrong to not follow them.

Liberty doesn’t mean the freedom to just worship any god willy-nilly.  That’s an affront to the very concept of an supernatural authority figure.  He doesn’t want religious liberty, with everyone picking their own way to worship him.  He wants there to be rules about what you can and can not do religiously.  He wants you to pay attention to what he says and obey without question.  So, please, let’s not have anymore Catholic politicians acting like adolescents without any parental supervision, making their own decisions about what is “free”.  Adolescents have no sense of their own mortality and mortality is a very serious business, requiring sober reflection, not liberty.  Rick Santorum and the other religious Ricks owe it to themselves and their mortal souls, as well as ours, to stand for one religion and one religion only.  Let’s not shrink from the task before us and let us resolve to find out what that religion is.

Can I get an Amen?

In the meantime, Dr. Laurence Krauss gives an authoritative lecture on Science and Religion and suggest that you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice one for the other.  Like, who died and made him god?

What we’re up against

Chosen for you

I had lunch with some former colleagues last week and told them I was going to Occupy Congress next week.  Some of them looked like I had lost my mind while others were curious.  One of them grew up in the former Soviet Union.  Once I assured him that I wasn’t marching for a grand socialist solution, we had an interesting conversation. He told me that in his country, the KGB put a label on you, he gestured to his forehead, and never let you alone.  He said, “Don’t misunderstand me, I am on your side, but what you are dealing with is not just in this country.  It’s global.”  And then he gave me a knowing look and, ya’ know, I think I got it.  That was a weird feeling and not necessarily in a good way.

I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating, we are now engaged in a struggle between global authoritarianism and small “l” liberalism.  This is a global event.  It’s the shock doctrine on a universal scale.  It’s why there’s a push for austerity everywhere.  Too often, Americans see their politics on a small scale, as if what happens here is just like the political superbowl between two teams that meet every four years.  The media covers the players in the same way with statistics and color commentary.  The primaries are like the playoffs leading to the big one in November complete with nachos and guacamole and a lot of beer.  It’s a process unique to Americans, just another Detroit vs Green Bay.

But that’s not what’s happening anymore.  Our electoral process seems local but it’s part of a global pattern where the players are picked by a small evil group to which no one we know belongs.  And they are presented to us in a process where the outcome is pre-ordained.  In fact, I don’t think we Americans have actually picked our president since 1996.  In every electoral contest since then, the good guys have lost.  I am not referring to McCain.

You THINK you have a choice but you don’t.  It’s time to face up to that fact.  If progressives were smart, they would stop playing this game and at least expose it, even if they feel (incorrectly, IMHO) they can’t do anything about it this go around.  As long as they still think that this is a contest between Barack Obama and whoever the Republicans pick, progressives are dooming us whatever the authoritarians want.  The answer is not to try to influence the Republicans.  You are wasting your time and playing their game.  The answer is to try to put the screws to the Democrats.   And it is a very good idea to find out who the authoritarians most fear.

Otherwise, we may wake up in mid-November to the same situation they have in Hungary right now where the ruling party has rewritten the constitution and has cemented its future electoral victories in place for a couple generations.

Have courage, friends.  The days of comfort for the soft American are over.

I’m off to Philly today to do some work type things.  Later Taters.

The U.S. government further nationalizes over religion, liberalism takes another hit

(Cross-posted from Heidi Li’s Potpourri)

The proper relationship between markets and governments in a liberal state is a debatable one. Adam Smith, generally understood to be one of the major progenitors of modern laisezz faire economic-political theory, did not advocate for the absence of the government intervention in economic affairs. Indeed he felt that the state, via law, would be required to create efficient markets because, in the era in which he wrote, professions and financial institutions were dominated by private parties who had not achieved that domination through economic division of labor and competition – the hallmarks of the Smithean classical economic theory. Rather, professions and financial institutions were dominated by guilds and churches, among other groups, who had achieved their economic position not by virtue of serving the economic interests of the community well, but as a side-effect or perk of attaining power in other ways. Smith’s economic theory qualifies as liberal not because it advocates minimal government intervention in economic affairs, but because of its egalitarianism: Smith argued that in order to create equal opportunity for individuals pursuing their economic self-interest (which he believed would have the fortuitious effect of creating an overall efficient wealth creating economy), power had to be removed from the special interest groups of his day (the guilds, the churches, etc.) that denied that equal opportunity on grounds that had nothing to do with economic interests (e.g. excluding some people from some sorts of jobs on the grounds of the religion) or with simply shoring up economic self interest that was not being exercised within a system likely to maximize overall wealth creation.

Today, President Obama has signed an executive order creating “a revamped White House office for religion-based and neighborhood programs, expanding aninitiative started by the Bush administration that provides government
support — and financing — to religious and charitable organizations that deliver social services.” (See this New York Times article, also reprinted after the jump in this post for all quotations).

This is precisely the inverse of a Smithean approach to government and the economy. Wholly apart from questions related to the constitutionality of the expanded office and its powers, this inversion must be noted on grounds of its illiberalism. What the expanded office does is to advantage certain groups – faith-based ones – not on grounds of the likelihood of their contributing to efficient wealth production, but on the grounds that the President believes they are “good” and will do “good”:

“No matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone,” Mr. Obama said. “There is a force for good greater than government.”

Whether or not one agrees with President Obama’s metaphysics (if by forces for good he is referencing supernatural beings) or his confidence in the beneficence of organized religious groups (including, see article, The Church of Scientiology) has nothing to do with the illiberalism of the government funding religious groups to expand their resources for “to lift up those who have fallen on hard times,” as President Obama put it.

If one of the tasks for our society is to aid those who have fallen on hard times, we have two established, liberal ways to accomplish that task. We can entrust the job to the market, assuming that entrepeneurs will find a way to serve their own economic interest while helping others. Indeed, many mega-churches can be understood as doing just just this: they participate in the supply-and-demand cycle for charitable services, often advantaged by all sorts of tax-exemptions, not just on income but on property owned. Or we can choose to add social safety nets officiated over by civil servants acting directly on behalf of the state.

The Time article notes: “In announcing the expansion of the religion office, Mr. Obama did not settle the biggest question: Can religious groups that receive federal money for social service programs hire only those who share their faith?”

Sometimes a conspicuous lack of an answer tells us more than any answer could. The fact that this question – whether faith-based organizations who receive direct government funding to engage in economic activity may discriminate on the basis in their own hiring practices – has not been giving a resounding no tells us that there is not even aspiration to liberalism in this effort to further meld government and religion in this country. Recall, Smith specifically objected to the negative that churches had on the creation of efficient provision of goods and services because churches imposed noneconomically relevant criteria who could participate in the provision of those goods and services. President Obama’s new office flies in the face of this point.

Perhaps this is why his executive order was signed stealthily, “away from the view of television cameras or an audience”?

Continue reading

Virginia might actually get a liberal leader…while the DNC gets…something else

McAuliffe also brings a political portfolio well to the left of Democrats Mark R. Warner and [Tim] Kaine, who toiled in the state party for years before they were elected governor by pledging bipartisan cooperation and campaigning as moderates. (From the AP via WTOP, emphasis added)

It has been quite the weekend for political announcements. Our illiberal President-elect is consolidating his takeover of the Democratic Party by appointing another illiberal to head the DNC – Tim Kaine, outgoing governor of Virginia. Meanwhile, Terry McAuliffe  has announced his formal bid for the governorship of Virginia.  (Click anywhere below to go to the video announcement on Terry’s site.)

McCauliffe My decision

As a liberal, I applaud Terry McAuliffe’s decision to run for governor of Virginia. Terry has worked hard for other liberals, most obviously for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. I heard Terry give his reasons for supporting Senator Clinton on various occasions. He supported her candidacy because he believed (as did I, and millions of others) that she was both the most qualified member of the field and the most liberal of the field, in the American tradition of liberalism. That tradition calls upon people to work hard for their personal successes. Consider, for example, Terry’s own work to build a number of successful businesses, work that meant he has neither needed nor sought a salary for his work in politics, including his stint as DNC Chair, when he actually managed to put the DNC on a sound financial footing (an accomplishment soon squandered by the now almost-never-heard-from Howard Dean). American liberalism also calls upon government, applying measures available within its Constitutionally delimited sphere, to provide an equal opportunity for anybody’s hard work to pay off.  Although nobody is guaranteed a pay off in this tradition, everybody is guaranteed a fairly level playing field, at least in principle. Continue reading

“FDR: A Democracy-Builder”: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, democracy, and liberalism

[cross posted from Heidi Li’s Potpourri]

I am against the beatification, secular or otherwise, of politicians past or present. But some politicians have a record of greatness, some a record of achievement, some no record of anything, others a record of which to be embarrassed.  I believe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt has a record of greatness – not, not perfection, but greatness, that in part stems from his firm footing in the values of liberalism. Democracy, self-government by citizens, is a form of government that can further liberalism, so long as citizens and elected leaders appreciate the connection between each individual’s  autonomy, the need to permit others their autonomy, and the need to collaborate in the grand effort of self-government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appreciated these connections, recognizing the value and dignity of the individual. Roosevelt appreciated the state’s affirmative obligation to do more than simply stave off threats to individual autonomy. He understood the state’s role in ensuring a social safety network that enabled the exercise of autonomy. While he experimented with the means to keep American democracy liberal, his programs were consistently aimed against absolutism and in favor of individual self-determination.

The selections below come from an article printed originally in 1995 (emphases mine, the link takes you to the full article). I find these selections as apt today as they were when first written, more than ten years ago.

What did Franklin D. Roosevelt accomplish? It is vital to understand it now, as we Americans consider making fundamental alterations in his legacy. Essentially, he preserved and enlarged the promise of human freedom in our time. Or, as Joseph Alsop put it, “On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded.”

The America of 1933, racked by four years of depression, was all but exhausted with democracy. Every bank in the country was in the process of closing its doors. Thousands of square miles of farmland had become a desert. Between one-quarter and one-third of the work force was unemployed, and millions were being evicted from their homes and their land every year.
Depression was neither a natural catastrophe nor an isolated event. Things had never been quite so bad, but every 5 to 10 years, for the better part of a century, the country had suffered a wrenching economic collapse, much worse than any recession Americans have endured since World War II. Bank failures and Wall Street panics were common, and usually led to nationwide meltdowns.

Most elderly Americans lived in abject poverty. Working men and women worked six days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day. They were routinely joined at the job by their children; few people ever finished high school, let alone college.

A system of apartheid, rationalized by bad science and enforced by lynching, ruled in the South. Another system of quotas routinely kept blacks, women, Jews and ethnic whites out of the best jobs and schools.

Farmers could rarely make a living; more and more were reduced to the serfdom of share-cropping. Nine-tenths of rural Americans did not even have electricity.

The root causes of these conditions were basic, long-standing flaws in American democracy. More shocking than the conditions in which Americans of 1933 lived was how little say they had in anything that mattered. Banking and investment were dominated by a small circle of self-interested, often dishonest men. Politics in every large city was usually controlled by corrupt political machines. In the South, millions of blacks and poor whites were kept from the ballot box by poll taxes, literacy tests and force of arms.

The power of landlords and large corporations was rarely contained. Unions were small and powerless. The courts repeatedly struck down the most basic minimum wage, child labor, consumer protection and worker safety laws.

The Depression only brought these ongoing social crises to a head, yet few at the time saw more democracy as an answer. The very idea of democracy seemed to be outmoded in the swift and steely industrial world. Hard new nostrums abounded in the 1930s and ’40s: communism, fascism, socialism, technocracy, corporatism.

What Roosevelt possessed was the essential flexibility of mind for a democracy. It was indicative that during his first presidential campaign he promised above all “bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Not everything he tried worked well, and some things did not work at all, and many of the New Deal’s innovations have required revision. Roosevelt himself would have been baffled by the notion that they would not, for he was not erecting a Marxist utopia but a viable, modern democracy. What he did was to turn his entire administration into an ongoing debate on democracy. ….

Best of all, he extended this debate into the living rooms of every home in America. FDR gave the press unprecedented access to the White House, and there were the “fireside chats.”
….

Yet for all [Roosevelt’s] democratic pragmatism, we look for something more. The life of Richard Nixon provides an example of what can come from expediency ungrounded in any deeper principle. Was there any guiding spirit, anything more to Franklin Delano Roosevelt than tactics and timing, to account for the great outpouring of grief 50 years ago? [note from Heidi Li: The original article was published on the anniversary of FDR’s death]

There are at least two stories from his life that I think are telling. One was the account that he was unimpressed by the Grand Canyon: “It looks dead. I like my green trees at Hyde Park better. They are alive and growing.”

“He responded to what was vital, not to what was lifeless; to what was coming, to what was passing away,” wrote Mr. Schlesinger. “He lived by his exaltation in distant horizons and uncharted seas.”

The other story is from when he was first trying to win back some use of his legs after the attack of polio that crippled him. He would try, every day, to make it the quarter of a mile from his Hyde Park home to the post office on his crutches.

It was a torturous journey for a man with no working muscles from his hips down. Sometimes he would fall – and have to wait, lying face down in the road, for someone to come along and help him back up. “For better or worse, I believe that the Roosevelt who could not walk was in most respects very like the one who could,” writes Geoffrey Ward, and most current biographers would concur. It was Roosevelt’s strong, optimistic – and deceptive – character that got him through the loss of his legs to polio, and not the polio that built the character.

Yet what better training has any president had – in patience, in humility, in building a basic sympathy for the human condition? Franklin Roosevelt understood the clumsy, halting progress of us all, and nurtured it, and the American people loved him for it as they have loved few men since.