Vladimir Putin has had some great publicity lately. Time magazine recently dubbed him the Person of the Year. What that says about "You" - the previous recipient of the P.O.Y. designation - I don't know. Time gave Putin that title because he represents a mounting preference for authoritarianism over the chaos of democracy and the uncertainty of the free market. He "has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power," the editors declare.
While Time saw fit to linger on "the Russian president's pale blue eyes," it left out a fascinating rationale for Putin's power grab. For much of the last year, the Russian government has been lionizing an American president who roughly seized the reins of power, dealt briskly with civil liberties, had a harsh view of constitutional niceties and crafted a media strategy, which critics derided as "propaganda," that went "over the heads" of the Washington press corps.
George W. Bush? Nope. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Putin has routinely invoked FDR as his role model. "Roosevelt laid out his plan for the country's development for decades in advance," he gushed at a news conference last fall. "At the end of the day, it turned out that the implementation of that plan benefited ordinary citizens and the elites and eventually brought the United States to the position it is in today."
"Roosevelt was our military ally in the 20th century, and he is becoming our ideological ally in the 21st," Putin's chief "ideologist," Vladislav Surkov, explained at a state-sponsored conference commemorating the 125th anniversary of FDR's birth.
There's a rich irony here. For years, liberals have wailed about the moral hazard of Bush's supposedly crypto- (or not-so-crypto) fascist presidency. And yet it's FDR, Lion of American Liberalism, who, some seven decades after his death, endures as the role model for Russia's lurch toward authoritarianism, if not fascism.
Interestingly, there's precedent for this. Both Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany invoked FDR's New Deal as proof that their own programs were, in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's famous phrase, "the wave of the future."
"America has a dictator," Benito Mussolini proclaimed, watching FDR from abroad. He marveled at how the forces of "spiritual renewal" on display in the New Deal were destroying the outdated notion that democracy and liberalism were "immortal principles." "Roosevelt is moving, acting, giving orders independently of the decisions or wishes of the Senate or Congress. ... A sole will silences dissenting voices." That almost sounds like Harry Reid talking about Bush.
Mussolini reviewed FDR's book, "Looking Forward," proclaiming the author a kindred spirit. The way Roosevelt "calls his readers to battle," he wrote, "is reminiscent of the ways and means by which fascism awakened the Italian people." "Without question," he continued, the "sea change" in America "resembles that of fascism." Indeed, the comparisons were so commonplace, Mussolini's press office banned the practice. "It is not to be emphasized that Roosevelt's policy is fascist because these comments are immediately cabled to the United States and are used by his foes to attack him."
In Germany, the newly empowered National Socialists were equally eager to claim FDR's New Deal as an endorsement of "Hitler's New Deal" - in historian David Schoenbaum's phrase. The German press adored FDR. In 1934, the "Vlkischer Beobachter," the Nazi Party's official newspaper, described Roosevelt as a man of "irreproachable, extremely responsible character and immovable will" and a "warm-hearted leader of the people with a profound understanding of social needs." A review of "Looking Forward" noted that "many passages ... could have been written by a National Socialist. In any case, one can assume that (FDR) feels considerable affinity with the National Socialist philosophy." Hitler sent FDR a letter celebrating his "heroic efforts" and "successful battle against economic distress." Hitler informed the U.S. ambassador, William Dodd, that New Dealism was also "the quintessence of the German state philosophy."
Obviously, one can only credit the opinions of Nazis so far. And it should go without saying that FDR led the way to crush Nazism and fascism in Europe in the name of democracy. Even so, we forget how (BEGIN ITALICS)martial(END ITALICS) FDR was, long before World War II loomed on the horizon. Almost every New Deal program was rooted in the logic of Woodrow Wilson's "war socialism." The dubious constitutionality of the New Deal was rationalized under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act. In his first inaugural, FDR dubs all of America a single "great Army" he would lead in a "disciplined attack upon our common problems." In fireside chats, he'd call for such things as a great "summer offensive against unemployment."
Meanwhile, some in FDR's administration admired fascism. Gen. Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration and Time's Man of the Year in 1933, had an abiding fondness for Mussolini's Italy. He distributed "The Corporate State," an Italian fascist tract, to his colleagues and hung Il Duce's portrait on his wall. The Blue Eagle - the symbol of the National Recovery Administration, often compared to the Nazi eagle and the swastika - was, according to Roosevelt, like the "bright badge" soldiers wore "in war, in the gloom of night" so that "comrades do not fire on comrades." "On that principle," FDR told the country, "those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance." At one point, FDR aide Harold Ickes had to warn the boss that Americans had started to "to unconsciously group four names, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Roosevelt."
Back in the here and now, GWB has done nothing remotely like what FDR did (for good or for ill, some might say). Despite the constant bleating about his hostility to the rule of law and civil liberties, he hasn't tried to, say, pack the Supreme Court, or round up hundreds of thousands of Japanese (or Muslim) people.
Bush's critics certainly have a point that our leaders need to think about the example we set. It's advice liberals should have heeded long ago.