One thing that is quite clear -- Americans don't know a whole lot about their own History. And in many cases, what they do know, is distorted in very interesting ways.
FDR is an interesting case in point. In recent years much about him and his 11 plus year Presidency, has focused on the fact that he could not walk on his own, and when photographers and observers were not about, (well hush hush) he used a wheel chair. In the popular mind what he did to deal with the Great Depression has been replaced by the idea he hid his disability, and maybe even his polio. For the sake of PC, Eleanor had to shed her Fox & Mink Furs on her memorial statue, and Franklin needed to have a chair with real wheels. I consider both issues and advocacy moves distractions from the core history.
No one who supported FDR in his four campaigns did not comprehend that he could not walk alone, and that he had been paralysed. Myth has it that because Secret Service lifted him out of cars, and no one took pictures, it was secret. Hell no. You didn't have events such as FDR's Birthday in January every year, where collections in every movie theatre in the land were organized for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- The March of Dimes -- and not know what it was about. You knew that part of that money was for local institutions that offered all who needed it rehabilitation therapy, some of it was for research, and some for Rehab research. And while the vaccines came nearly ten years after he died -- both were funded by the FDR Birthday Bashes we had back in those days -- and there is not a disease specific organization out there that does not borrow from the March of Dimes model. Moreover the current Federally Funded disease models borrow from it. In FDR's days the only medical research money was in the Military, and that was small change, but he changed all that, the Feds now respond to the Polio model. FDR died in 45, I think it was 1954 when I got a polio shot, and now except for a few isolated places, the disease is gone. And so the pressure to represent this man in his Wheel Chair -- Why? Of course it is how he lived, but it was not what he did. What he did was rehab, research best practices in rehab, and finance the research necessary to a cheap universal vaccine. So why over the last several decades have our eyes been diverted to a wheel chair? Wrong Icon in my mind.
Over the past several decades we have been told that Government can't actually accomplish all that much, particularly big Government. Everything needs to be under private contracts -- business models and all the rest. Not for Profit Public Model very Bad, and For Profit Business Excellent. I ask -- would the private sector have created a polio vaccine that cost pennies, and was denied no one on account of price, and quickly became universally available through Public Health Officials? I think a better way to represent FDR would be an injection needle, or a sugar cube with a drop of vaccine on it.
FDR was always curious as to what actually caused the Great Depression, and during his early years in office, while inventing programs right and left to deal with the consequences, he kept asking for research. He got one answer in 1941 from the Conant who made plain that the US Population was profoundly underskilled and undereducated. At the time the US was sending about 5% of young adults to college, and only 50% were graduating from High School. For a modern economy, Conant said, the US needed 30% of its young adults to go to college or advanced skills schools, and at least 80% needed to complete High School. The depression had been caused, according to Conant, by too many underskilled workers chasing too few low skilled jobs. It was the higher skilled jobs that added economic value. In 1941, FDR put the study in a desk drawer. In 1944 it was the primary reason he ended up agreeing to the Educational Benefits in the GI Bill. The GI Bill was a way to approach that necessary 30% that might avoid a future Great Depression. Actually FDR didn't like discrimination on Educational Benefits between Vets and non Vets -- but no situation was perfect. By 1955 a little more than 50% of High School Grads were going on to College or into training programs, and we were approaching overall HSchool grad rates of 75%.
My point is simple -- Government Policy, and sometimes Big Government can solve problems -- and just as our eyes have been diverted from FDR's private financing of Polio Re-hab, and the basic research and then the Vaccine to wipe out the disease by the figure of him in a wheel chair, and the stupid idea that his condition was secret, so too have we been diverted from comprehending other accomplishments, such as seeing a quite practical way to create a much more valuable workforce, by building Ed. Benefits into the GI Bill of 1944. In essence we have been denied an understanding of our history, and thus made open to the propaganda that big government can do nothing at all, or at least nothing well.
I do not necessarily favor re-creating New Deal style programs -- though I also do not necessarily oppose that -- what I do think is important is working to reject the notion that Government, big or little, is necessarily bad. Part of that is understanding that FDR's programs did work in many ways. They didn't solve all problems, but they also did not all fail. Equally important is understanding how the campaign against "Big Government" has been a shotgun approach to negating the idea that Government can actually do good things for the common interest. Too many voters do not comprehend the counter argument to that point. Too little history of what was changed by "Big Government" policy of that earlier era has survived as comprehended or taught history.
Attached to this is the matter of whether problems can be solved by human intervention. Falwell and Robertson would have us believe that all things are at the will of a god that they communicate with on a regular basis. I suggest that such arguments about divine intervention just reinforce notions that collective Government can do nothing, or nothing right. I prefer John Kennedy's words -- On this Earth, God's work must surely be our own. But it is also necessary to confront the idea, that planning and programs are all necessarily bad, and always incompetent.