Remarks at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library 50th Anniversary Luncheon

 

January 10, 1989

 

Well, thank you, Senator Mitchell and Ambassador vanden Heuvel. It's a particular pleasure for me to be here today, as I near the end of my career in public life. The historian William Leuchtenburg has written about how Franklin Roosevelt aroused the interest of young men and women in politics and government and drew them into the national service. From the brain trusters to the many idealists who staffed the agencies and bureaus of the New Deal, his magic brought thousands to Washington. But I can tell you from personal experience that it didn't stop there. All across the Nation, millions of new voters looked at this President who was filled with confidence in the future, faith in the people, and the joy of the democratic rough-and-tumble, and they said to themselves maybe someday they, too, would like to serve the Nation in public life.

 

I was one of those millions. Franklin Roosevelt was the first President I ever voted for, the first to serve in my lifetime that I regarded as a hero, and the first I ever actually saw; that was in 1936, a campaign parade in Des Moines, where I was working as a radio announcer. What a wave of affection and pride swept through that crowd, as he passed by in an open car -- a familiar smile on his lips, jaunty and confident, drawing from us a reservoir of confidence and enthusiasm some of us had forgotten we had in those days, those hard years. He really did convince us that the only thing we had to fear was, as Senator Mitchell has told us, fear itself.

 

And it was that ebullience, that infectious optimism that made one young sportscaster think that maybe he should be more active as a citizen. I assure you, though, he never tied that to one day holding public office and certainly never dreamed that destiny would take him to the same office F.D.R. held.

 

If I may just tell a little story here that isn't about F.D.R. but may give you an idea about how far away the Presidency seemed to me at that time -- not too long after the day I saw the President riding in the parade, I took a train out to California and ended up with a movie contract at Warner Brothers. I was known as ``Dutch'' Reagan then, my childhood nickname. The studio didn't like it, so they called a meeting to discuss what my name should be. And I began to realize how expendable what you might call my identity was in this new business I was in. So, as they were throwing names back and forth, I was just sitting there listening. They acted as if I couldn't hear. [Laughter]

 

And finally, as they kept going on and trying out various names, looking up as if they were looking at a marquis, I timidly suggested one they hadn't thought of, my real name -- [laughter] -- Ronald Reagan. They started tossing it around the table. And I'll never forget the scene. The top man said it over and over to himself: ``Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan.'' He paused for a long moment and then declared, ``I like it.'' [Laughter] So, I became Ronald Reagan. [Laughter]

 

Debates continue about F.D.R.'s impact on his age and ours. But to my mind, James MacGregor Burns caught the core of President Roosevelt's contribution when he included in his list, ``Faith in the people.'' The months before F.D.R. took office are far behind us now. We forget what they were like -- the pink slips handed out at factories across the land with no jobs anywhere if you lost yours, the soup kitchens in every major city, the look of desperation in people's eyes. And we forget that, in the unprecedented economic crisis, many had begun to question our most basic institutions, including our democracy itself. And then along came F.D.R., who put his faith, as he said, ``in the forgotten man,'' the ordinary American.

 

I remember that voice of his, as we've heard it here today, coming over the radio -- its strength, its optimism. I wonder how many of us in this room know that to this day, no program in the history of radio has ever equalled the audience he had in his fireside chats. I remember how a light would snap on in the eyes of everyone in the room just hearing him, and how, because of his faith, our faith in our own capacity to overcome any crisis and any challenge was reborn.

 

In this sense, F.D.R. renewed the charter of the founders of our nation. The founders had created a government of ``We the people.'' Through a depression and a great war, crises that could well have led us in another direction, F.D.R. strengthened that charter. When others doubt, he said that we would find our salvation in our own hands -- not in some elite but in ourselves. We'd find it where we'd always found it: in the towns, on the farms, in the stores and factories across America.

 

One other thing about F.D.R. -- he understood history and how history lives in a nation's life. He was, as you've been told, the first President to establish a Presidential library to house all his papers and collections. The first meeting of supporters of the library was held 50 years ago next month. F.D.R. addressed it, and in explaining his feeling for history, he told a story that I thought I'd tell you.

 

It was about when he was acting as Secretary of the Navy on the eve of World War I. The Germans had declared unlimited submarine warfare, and, as he said, it was perfectly obvious that as soon as they sank an American-flag ship, we would be in the war. He went to see President Wilson for permission to move the fleet to the yards, to have them cleaned and fitted and made ready for war in case it came. And Wilson refused. F.D.R. pressed his case. Wilson said no again, without giving a reason. So, finally Roosevelt figured he'd lost and started to leave, but Wilson called him back. ``I'm going to tell you something I cannot tell the public,'' he said. ``I don't want to do anything. I do not want the United States to do anything in a military way, by way of war preparations, that would allow the definitive historian in later days to say that the United States had committed an unfriendly act against the Central Powers. I do not want to do anything that would lead him to misjudge our American attitude 60 or 70 years from now.''

 

Yes, F.D.R. knew that the history of the Nation's past is part of its charter for the future. To my mind, as one who has served in the office F.D.R. once graced so magnificently, no higher tribute can be given a President than that he strengthened our faith in ourselves, which is the foundation of that charter. Policies come and go. Leaders will pass from the stage. The enduring sail and compass of our nation is ``We the people.'' When the American people are strong and confident, when their leaders hear their voices, America, whatever storms it might be weathering, will make it through. It will survive, and it will prevail. Franklin Roosevelt was what they used to call on the Mississippi a lightening captain of the ship of state because he gave us all the confidence to be lightening captains in our own way.

 

Thank you, and God bless you all.

 

[At this point, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel gave the President a copy of Eric Larrabee's book ``Commander in Chief, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War,'' and Mrs. John Roosevelt presented a letter written by Franklin Roosevelt.]

 

I shall be very proud to have both of these in another Presidential library, following in the footsteps of the man who started those institutions. And I'm grateful to all of you. I thought he was a Democrat when he was supporting me. [Laughter] But no, I had voted four times for the man we honor today. And I won't go on with that. [Laughter]

 

Thank you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 1:04 p.m. in Room 105 at the National Archives. In his opening remarks, he referred to Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, and Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine.