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News & Columns

Fear Not

By Holly Mullen
Posted // August 22,2007 - Gather round, children. You shall hear a story from a bygone era—1936. It was a moment when the majority of Utahns bucked their Republican DNA and practiced their free agency, so to speak. In spite of their church leaders’ stern directive to do otherwise, nearly 70 percent of the state (by extension, nearly all of it Mormon) did the unthinkable: They voted for a Democrat.

It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had already carried Utah four years earlier in his first presidential run, when the Great Depression had rendered a full quarter of Utah’s population jobless. LDS Church President Heber J. Grant had counseled Mormon voters to go Republican. The voters knew better.

Four years later, church leaders tried again. From former BYU professor and historian Michael Quinn’s 1994 book, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power:

“Oct 31, 1936—First Presidency publishes unsigned editorial in the Deseret News, which argues against re-election of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Editorial, written by J. Reuben Clark, accuses FDR of unconstitutional and communist activities. In response, one thousand Mormons angrily cancel their subscriptions to the News. Three days later, 69.3 percent of Utah’s voters help re-elect Roosevelt. Utah’s electorate re-elects F.D.R. again (1940, 1944), despite First Presidency’s opposition.”

Such was the reach of FDR, a man I’m embarrassed to say I know little more of than his famous quotation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

And I’ve been living in a culture of fear for the past seven years. I’ve had it. I just plunked down $35 for what so far is reading like a seminal work: FDR by Jean Edward Smith.

(And, at 857 pages, it ought to be nothing if not seminal.)

Until now, my main exposure to FDR had come during my childhood, via regular moments of hero worship. In our home, the hierarchy of perfection, my mother’s personal trinity, was this: Jesus. FDR. JFK.

My parents were born five days apart in 1927. Their experiences of the Depression were those of young children. But dark times carve deep memories, even and perhaps especially, in children. I never doubted their recounting of the facts.

My mother was worse off in those times than my dad; for one thing. as I recall his father never lost his job. My mother, on the other hand, moved at least a dozen times in her first 10 years of life. Several of those upheavals took her back and forth from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, where she lived with her unemployed father’s family. Her stories made me thirsty—the family traveling across the Mojave Desert, pre-air conditioning and pre-Interstate, towing a trailer straight out of The Grapes of Wrath.

In the preface to FDR, Smith lays out a map for the biographical trip. He says the question frequently arises as to how Roosevelt, from his old-money, blue-blood, Hudson River clan, developed such an uncanny sense of caring for the poor and disenfranchised. Smith agrees with most historians that FDR’s lifelong struggle with polio (he was paralyzed from the waist down for half of his presidency) certainly helped ground him politically and empathically. But long before he was elected president, Roosevelt had spent extended periods in Warm Springs, Ga., taking mineral-springs treatments for his polio. Smith says exposure to intractable rural poverty in the Deep South began shaping FDR’s thought process years prior to his life in national politics.

Smith describes the Roosevelt I want to know better this way: “His unquenchable optimism never faded.”

There are 18 months left of the Bush administration, the most despondent presidential leadership I’ve seen in my lifetime. Whatever glimmer of hope lit the way for frightened and insecure Americans 75 years ago, I’m craving to understand. We are grinding on in a baseless and protracted war that fewer people support and growing numbers of men and women have no desire to fight. Like FDR, the current president asks us to put faith in his leadership and that all will be OK.

But there is one key difference: leadership. On that score, a greater apples-to-oranges comparison between GWB and FDR couldn’t exist. Still, isn’t that a part of the mystery so many of us would like to figure out? How did this country go from a Roosevelt to a Bush II in fewer than 70 years?

It’s possible we’ll never again find a leader with the power and humanity of FDR. Perhaps the stink of big money has corrupted politics to the point we may never get a do-over. Or maybe world power has simply grown too diffuse. Who knew China and India would roll into the new millennium calling so many economic shots? It’s tough to imagine something like a Yalta Conference these days, with a “Big Three” like Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill as sole players on the world stage.

So I’m off to celebrate what’s left of my 24th of July with a good book and a cold beer. FDR is a pioneer I really want to know.
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