In view of the ideological chasm that seems to separate the admirers of Franklin D. Roosevelt from those of George W. Bush, one might suppose that these two presidents exhibited completely different character and conduct, yet a close examination reveals that they actually have much in common. The similarities, however, are scarcely reassuring to those who are worried about what President Bush might do next.
Roosevelt and Bush came from similar class backgrounds, each being the scion of a wealthy, well established Northeastern family. After early schooling at home, Roosevelt went to the elite Groton School in Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard College, and attended Columbia Law School. Bush, the grandson of a U.S. senator and the son of a U.S. president, went to the elite Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and graduated from Yale University and from Harvard Business School. Neither man ever achieved any notable success on his own in the private sector, and both leaped at opportunities to trade on their family background and social connections by involving themselves in politics at an early age.
Despite the advantages of study at premier educational institutions, neither man possessed much interest in or capacity for deep thinking, specializing instead in conducting themselves as bon vivants and backslappers. In a biography of Roosevelt, John T. Flynn remarked on “the free and easy manner in which [Roosevelt] could confront problems about which he knew very little.” Indeed, Roosevelt affected complete insouciance about his lack of understanding of many matters for which he had responsibility as president. Of Bush’s intellectual caliber, obviously, the less said the better. Neither had to dwell on the concerns that cause ordinary people to lose sleep, such as earning an honest living or meeting the challenges of an occupation, trade, or profession. The old adage “it’s who you know” must have had special resonance for both men.
Neither possessed sterling personal character. Roosevelt was an inveterate liar. His “first instinct,” according to New York Times reporter Turner Catledge, “was always to lie,” although “sometimes in midsentence he would switch to accuracy because he realized he could get away with the truth in that particular instance.” Bush, too, in the view of his legions of enemies and detractors, has resorted frequently to lies, most notably in his series of shifting prewar and subsequent justifications for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. His critics may be wrong, however, that he has–in the strictest sense–lied in these pronouncements. It may be that he simply does not distinguish truth from falsehood, and rather than making the effort to do so, he prefers to float along on his arrogance in a sea of delusions. Many observers have remarked on Bush’s astonishing insulation from information that might contradict his bizarre interpretations of events in the outside world. Evidently, he does not read newspapers or even watch much news on television, relying instead on the briefing papers and verbal reports fed to him by his aides and on the opinions expressed by the sycophants with whom he surrounds himself. Roosevelt seems to have had the wit to know that he was lying; Bush seems content to live in a reality-free environment, confidently awaiting the divine intervention that will transform his fantasies and wishful thinking into facts on the ground.
Both men sought successfully to plunge the nation into war, and having done so, both then gained stature from serving as a “war president,” although Roosevelt’s war was the greatest cataclysm of all time, whereas Bush’s is a much smaller conflict, albeit one replete with important global consequences. Both men engaged in war with cavalier disregard for constitutional scruples. In 1940 and 1941, Roosevelt made the United States an undeclared belligerent working hand in hand with the British, even going so far as to give away a substantial chunk of the U.S. Navy to a foreign power wholly on his own authority in the so-called “destroyer deal.” Bush, despite having sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” eschewed the clear constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war and sent U.S. forces to attack Iraq as if he were a Caesar beyond earthly restraint. Both men preferred, especially in the conduct of foreign policy, to do as they wished, taking Congress or the courts into account only as a courtesy or in pro forma consultations and hearings. Before Roosevelt transformed himself from Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War, his administration had run out of steam and faced mounting opposition in Congress and among the general public. Similarly, Bush’s administration was drifting and pointless until the 9/11 attacks elevated the president to the status of “great leader” and changed his uncertain gait into “bring ’em on” swagger.
Neither man learned anything from political opponents or from the failure of his polices to pan out, lapsing instinctively into an “us against them” mentality for dealing with differences of opinion, interpretation, or moral judgment. When the New Deal failed to bring the economy fully out of the Great Depression and then, in 1937-1938, knocked it into a “depression within a depression,” Roosevelt could only sputter that his enemies among the “economic royalists” had mounted a strike of capital to sabotage his presidency. Bush, confronted with the manifest catastrophe of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, finds nothing to fault and no one in his administration to hold accountable for the debacle. Those such as Colin Powell, who recently mustered the courage to tell the president that “we are losing,” the president prefers to send packing, perceiving in their honesty only disloyalty to his noble quest, with its patient willingness to prolong the pointless savagery and slaughter indefinitely.
Both Roosevelt and Bush presided over a huge spurt in the growth of government financed in substantial part by running up debt. Under Roosevelt, domestic spending and economic regulation mushroomed prior to the gargantuan military buildup of the war years; under Bush, domestic and military spending and regulation all have zoomed upward. Although Roosevelt’s sweeping regulatory measures bulked far larger than Bush’s, the current president did make the largest addition in decades to the government’s welfare apparatus—the prescription-drug benefit attached to Medicare, which is sure to exceed its already enormous cost estimates before long. Bush’s spending increases have been at the fastest rate since the guns-and-butter heyday of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and Bush has not seen fit to veto a single spending bill, no matter how outrageously packed with pork it might be.
No doubt other parallels might also be mentioned, but the foregoing remarks suffice to establish my main point. In government, as many commentators have noted, no failure goes unrewarded. Indeed, the greater the failure, the greater the reward. Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush exemplify in strikingly similar ways the veracity of this observation.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute, author of Against Leviathan and Crisis and Leviathan, and editor of the scholarly quarterly journal, The Independent Review.