Richard Reeves

Where Is FDR When We Need Him?

The Roundtable defines itself this way: "The Roundtable is founded on the principle that voluntary private action offers the best means of addressing many of society's needs, and that a vibrant private sector is critical to generating the wealth that makes philanthropy possible."

NEW YORK -- No one, to my knowledge, has ever compared President Bush with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Yes, you can find many similarities in these two children of privilege, governors of large states and men of some charm, but it is not easy to imagine George W. Bush wrestling with the Great Depression and World War II. Yet here we are, and Bush, if not Congress, has declared war and is faced with a crisis of capitalism.

FDR prevailed. As he liked to say when he was attacked by businessmen, he saved capitalism from itself. And, right or wrong, he skillfully maneuvered the nation into a foreign war that was won by mobilizing the dormant industrial might of American capitalism and the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.

Can Bush do that? I don't think so.

The problems of capitalism today cannot be solved by putting a few greedy bad guys in jail, which seems to be what this president has in mind. And it is hard to see how Bush can return the United States to the peace and security the nation craves by sending small groups of high-tech soldiers to small, nasty countries. It must be clear to even the most ardent backers of Bush and the officially undeclared war on terrorism that the only way we can control events in Afghanistan and other unpleasant places is by occupying them -- forever!

The war Bush is fighting is based on the ideas and misconceptions of 19th-century European colonialism, without the hidden brutality that was the white man's burden from Algeria to Afghanistan. Our president is overreaching, overpromising and overestimating our ability to actually change the people and situations of countries where warlords reign. Moving the clock of centuries forward, we have the same problem we had in Vietnam: We can't tell our enemies from our friends -- not in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan, not in Iran, not in Russia. The list could go on.

Domestically, the president seems to think he can reform the capitalist markets he so reveres by putting a couple of bad apples in jail for a bit and asking his friends in high business places to be nice. If Roosevelt had done that, the United States might be a socialist country by now. To exaggerate, but only a little, they were all in on it. Just looking at the salaries, bonuses, benefits and options the leaders of the country's greatest companies were giving themselves and a few cronies, it seems clear that they are essentially crooks, willing to take whatever they could get away with.

When I write things like that and think I am going too far myself, I remember a conversation I had in the booming 1980s with Nicholas Brady, a former head of Dillon Read on Wall Street and a Cabinet member and senator in Washington. I told him I thought it was a shame that the best and brightest of young Americans were selling their talents to investment houses rather than what I considered worthier pursuits, including science, education and governance.

"You must be kidding," Brady said. I forget the exact words, but he went on to say that the people on Wall Street were self-selected; they were hustlers, they were greedy, they were gamblers. He made it sound like "Guys and Dolls" in pinstripes, and ended up by saying it was better that they were on Wall Street, where there were some rules and they could be watched, rather than on other streets where crime was more dangerous.

The current cycle of financial crime now, though, is more dangerous than it looks. It is easy to say that a declining stock market and dollar have no effect on you and me, but that is not true, as we will discover in pain over the next few years. The simplest effect that many of us will feel is that pensions will go down and tuitions and medical expenses will go up -- because the value of individual and institutional portfolios is plummeting. The losses suffered by pension funds, colleges and other institutional investors will come out of our hides. Putting a couple of guys from Enron or WorldCom in prison for a couple of years is much too little and too late.

The lessons most of us, including President Bush, could learn from Franklin Roosevelt might be these: Great nations must fight only great wars, and free markets are great only if someone is regulating them, protecting them from themselves and the kind of fast-buck types attracted to the action.

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