FDR, not a Czar


The Society gathered for its first induction debate of this semester to discuss Resolved: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a bad president. On the affirmation were Mr. Luke Schafer (COL ’16) of New York and making her induction, Ms. Mattie Haag (COL ’18) of Ohio. And on the negation were Mr. Patrick Eisen (SFS ’17) of California and Mr. Connor Sakati (SFS ’18) of New Hampshire.

After defining “bad” as bad qualities in terms of presidency, Ms. Haag reconstructed the horrid living condition of interned Japanese Americans during World War II. The cruel and unjust Executive Order 9066, which turned the Pacific War into a racial war, was Roosevelt’s decision alone: “He didn’t have to … but he did.” Faced with Jewish refugees aboard USS St. Louis, Roosevelt also denied them safety by turning them away. Questioning his inaction on immigration issue, Ms. Haag proclaimed, “Could he have done more? Absolutely!” For her, Roosevelt’s choices reflected an intrinsic ideology of isolationism and a serious breach of individuals’ free will. And such a disrespect of our intrinsic rights is inexcusable independent of time.

Mr. Sakati, however, asked us to place Roosevelt in a time of existential threat to U.S. and to democracy. “An excellent head of state,” Roosevelt instilled a sense of optimism with his fireside chats, saved the economy with the as-yet-unknown Keynesian economic theory, won the World War II with a brilliant Southern Strategy and shaped the post-war world order with newly-found international institutions. Furthermore, he left behind a legacy that presidents should care about the American people and safeguard their right to live in safety. Ending his speech, Mr. Sakati echoed Churchill’s eloquent eulogy for Roosevelt as “the only one man” who could lead U.S. at this time of crisis.

“But at what cost to American democracy?” Mr. Schafer asked. He defined “bad” as violating the obligations of the presidency – a limited executive. Faced with barriers to implementing his New Deal, Roosevelt usurped judicial power with the 1937 court-packing scheme, crossing a line of democracy. Besides the mere listing of good or bad policies, Mr. Schafer suggested that we could also debate Roosevelt’s constitutional legacy. Taking powers for himself during time of needs, Roosevelt sure demonstrated effectiveness and charisma, but he also put into question the timeless value of our Constitution. When later presidents followed suit to take increasing power for themselves, Mr. Schafer left us with the question, “What is the value of limited executive?

Promising to keep his speech short, Mr. Eisen responded that we elected “Franklin D. Roosevelt” and gave him power. Though Roosevelt seemed a “two-faced” man with a confusing character, he was qualified “as a leader” with his deceiving knack in negotiations. He chose to defy the precedent of every single president before him, not because of his thirst for power, but because “he was a man of the people” and a traitor to his privileged class. With presidential dignity, he even disguised his disability despite real personal pain. In this light, Japanese American internment was a “stupid overreaction” and “stood up to the legal challenges of the day” while isolationism was an unbendable will of the state.

Referencing the Southern Strategy, Mr. Perez-Reyes accused Roosevelt of not valuing Soviet lives and laying down the foundation of the Cold War. But Mr. Diasti (NHS ’14) brushed the specifics aside to take up Mr. Schafer’s deontological approach. Since only the Supreme Court and the Philodemic cared about the Constitution these days, Roosevelt was not bad in violating it. “No one cares about the Constitution until you don’t have one,” Ms. Hernick promptly responded. She then asked us to “compare the moral weight” in Roosevelt’s “narrative of success story”. But comparing obscure presidents who did nothing in safe constitutional boxes and beloved great presidents who ran up against the document, Sgt. Willis declared that “We love the Constitution in theory” but not when it constrains Presidents to fulfill their goals.

Mr. Naft, citing the scandals of Woody Allen and Crosby Show, believed that Roosevelt’s reputation created by a “good momentum” needs to be scorned because of his anti-Semitism and racism. But Mr. Edgar pointed out a difference in our personal preference and our collective desire to show “how bad-ass America is.” Questioning making moral judgments by votes, Mr. Kendrick asserted the purpose of democracy – government exists to protect people’s lives. And Roosevelt, with his “imperial presidency,” undermines this objective standard.

Ms. Allie Little (COL ’18), sharing her unlucky experience failing the driver’s test, stressed that a good presidency should be judged by the country’s feeling. Ms. Brittany Logan (MSB ’18) linked Roosevelt to the two-faced Harvey Dent as he tried so bad to become a good president. Calling Roosevelt “Frankie,” Ms. Zoe Sun (SFS ’18) considered safety and efficiency to be the top priorities of crisis presidents. Mr. Alex Barnes (SFS ’16) focused on economic policy and noticed that Roosevelt’s taxing of everyday consumer goods “disproportionally affected the less affluent.”

“I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilizations,” President Whelan responded with a quote. According to him, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” fundamentally changed the way we view the government and redefined it as one that exists to serve the people. Speaking against his mentee, Mr. Young criticized New Deal for disadvantaging the poor and extending the Depression – an action breaking the vow in words. Ms. Coccia, however, excused Roosevelt based on economic crises hard to alleviate, partisan politics pushing his hands and the societal call for Japanese Americans Internment. Just as many other presidents, he “did not do something so horrendously wrong.” Mr. Harden asked us to reconsider whether great equals good, asserting that Roosevelt was great and bad at the same time. But Mr. Wilson pointed to Roosevelt’s “active participation” and “creative political activities” in his Keynesian Economics and Social Security, exactly what we need today.

Reading the chilling Executive Order 9066, Chancellor DiMisa accused Roosevelt of not just violating our rights, but also giving in to what people want. His total lack of concern for foreign citizens and his war crimes in World War II cannot be repeated today. Historicizing conflict, Ms. Grace believed that Roosevelt was revered so fondly in our nation’s collected memory for a reason. But Mr. Quinn chose not to credit Roosevelt for a larger historical trend of government expansion but to judge him for serving only “privileged people”, “white people”, “his people.” Vice President Thanki, imagining herself interned for national security, would still understand a country’s necessity to show a “hard stoic face” to the world. But Mr. Mouch, with an idealistic anti-utilitarian zeal from the last debate, called the internment a betrayal to the American ideal of freedom and liberty.

A fuming and frustrated Mr. Eisen immediately ased the affirmation to have some historical empathy, saying “What do you want from the man? Jesus.” He claimed that the negation, his “one-man crusade,” was ultimately the side not giving in and seeing the truth because the Constitution is a living document. Mr. Schafer maintained that presidents are not Czars and investing so much power in one man would only lead to betrayal. Though he conceded that we might need the reform Mr. Wilson proposed, it should come from the Congress and legislatures of the people.

Mr. Sakati reminded us that though Roosevelt “pushed the limits,” he never “undermined the system.” Apart from his contribution to the economy and his inspiration in World War II, Roosevelt was also the first modern president who changed the way we think about leadership: “Our nation will be different because of him.” But Ms. Haag believed that Roosevelt crossed the line by taking power for himself and away from the American people. Dutifully responding to almost all previous speakers, she ended upon a reinterpretation of Roosevelt’s own quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But Roosevelt clearly feared the enemy races in his “selective service” of the people – something great presidents would not fear.

With a vote of 39-3-30, this resolution was negated. Congratulations to our two newest members of the Society: Mr. Sakati and Ms. Haag! And Huzzah for a great start of PhiloFresh this semester!


Xinlan Hu

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