Reagan's quotes are in bold. Mind you, this is Reagan AFTER leaving the Democratic Party, and AFTER becoming President.
"As president, Reagan often mentioned his admiration for FDR’s spirit of leadership. On a trip back to his alma mater, Eureka College, in 1984, he reminded his listeners what it was like to experience the Great Depression, and how the Fireside Chats had been so reassuring. “All of us who lived through those years,” he instructed them, “remember the drabness the depression brought. But we remember, too, how people pulled together, that sense of community and shared values, that belief in American enterprise and democracy that saw us through. It was that engrained American optimism, that sense of hope Franklin Roosevelt so brilliantly summoned and mobilized.” In his view, FDR was instrumental in reviving an inherent American optimism that was endangered by the economic crisis.
Twice he spoke at events honoring Roosevelt. The first was in 1982. He had visited the FDR exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, then returned to the White House for a luncheon that included the Roosevelt family. Naturally, when speaking in front of someone’s family, one avoids comments critical of a loved one. The speech was instead a tribute to FDR’s leadership. Reagan called him “one of history’s truly monumental figures,” “an American giant, a leader who shaped, inspired, and led our people through perilous times,” one who could “reach out to men and women of diverse races and backgrounds and inspire them with new hope and new confidence in war and peace.”
He recalled the first time he had seen FDR, a moment he still remembered vividly—a campaign parade in Des Moines, Iowa, in 193:
"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 reservoirs of confidence and enthusiasm some of us had forgotten we had during those hard years. Maybe that was FDR's greatest gift to us. He really did convince us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself."
Reagan acknowledged that FDR had his critics, but on this occasion, he chose rather to emphasize how Roosevelt viewed all Americans as part of one social class only, a class called “We, the People.” FDR, he insisted, shared the people’s “zest for life and laughter” and praised his willingness to “make fundamental changes.” He concluded his oration with these words of encouragement:
"Every generation of Americans has faced problems and every generation has overcome them. Like Franklin Roosevelt we know that for free men hope will always be a stronger force than fear, that we only fail when we allow ourselves to be boxed in by the limitations and errors of the past.
This is not a political gathering. It's a celebration of a great man who led our nation through historic times. It's a celebration shared here today by many who knew and loved him well. Friends, colleagues, and relatives—and for my part, a young sportscaster who first felt the awe and majesty of this office when that familiar caped figure drove down the avenue in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936, the figure who proved to us all that “Happy Days” could and would come again."
Reagan delivered this speech at a time in his presidency when the economy was still floundering. One can see that he used the occasion to show how he was following the same leadership path as FDR: believing in freedom rather than fear; being willing to make fundamental changes when necessary; forging a new path that corrects the errors of the past. His policies were wholly different than FDR’s, but he made the connection with the former president based on leadership style. Writing in his diary later that evening, he commented, “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR. four times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”
That diary entry indicates he saw a fundamental difference in the approaches of the New Deal and the Great Society. The Great Society had given the nation “massive increases in social spending,” yet no reduction in the number of citizens below the poverty line, fewer men in the work force, and an astounding increase in children born out of wedlock. Why was this? “I believe the answer lies in the firm difference between the New Deal and the Great Society,” he declared. “The New Deal gave cash to the poor, but the Great Society failed to target assistance to the truly needy and made government the instrument of vast transfer payments, erecting huge bureaucracies to manage hundreds of social programs. The Great Society failed in two crucial aspects: It fostered dependence on government subsidies, and it made the transfer of money from Washington bureaucrats to those in need seem like a mission impossible.” He continued, “I was a New Deal Democrat. And I still believe, today, that there is only one compassionate, sensible, and effective policy for Federal assistance: We must focus domestic spending on the poor and bypass the bureaucracies by giving assistance directly to those who need it.”
The second event honoring FDR occurred just before Reagan left the presidency. It was at the FDR Library, another luncheon with Roosevelt family members present. The outline of this speech was similar to the earlier one, but Reagan went into more detail concerning what he considered Roosevelt’s legacy. He asserted that FDR “aroused the interest of young men and women in politics and government and drew them into the national service.” It was his “magic,” Reagan believed, that drew idealists to Washington. The effect was felt beyond the Potomac region, though. “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.” Reagan confessed he was one of those millions.
As he did in the previous speech before the Roosevelt family, Reagan acknowledged the debates that rage concerning FDR’s legacy, but he chose to focus once again on the dire circumstances of the era and how FDR inspired people.
"The months before FDR took offce 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 FDR, who put his faith, as he said, “in the forgotten man.”
There are other ways in which Reagan revealed his debt to FDR, or at least ways in which he looked to FDR’s example as a guide for his own actions. In the 1970s, Reagan wrote and delivered weekly radio commentaries. Those, by themselves, are a tribute to FDR. In one of those commentaries, he mentioned specifically that government employees have no right to strike. Whom did he quote on that issue? “Franklin Delano Roosevelt said ‘A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of govt. until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of govt. by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable & intolerable.’” Reagan concluded, “FDR summed it up pretty well.”
While preparing his run for the presidency in the 1980 campaign, he wrote to the publisher of one of the most conservative newspapers in America regarding how to choose a vice president. “I must confess,” he admitted, “there is a corner way down inside of me that thinks it’s wrong for one man to dictate who the second man on the ticket will be.” He thought perhaps the Republican convention delegates should have more of a say. His model? “Maybe something like FDR used to do when he would approve a list of acceptables for the convention.”
Even after his conversion to political conservatism, Reagan tended to excuse FDR for his policies, pointing out his good intentions while criticizing the results of those intentions. Was FDR trying to destroy the free enterprise system? Not at all, responded Reagan. He was simply “out to save it at a time of severe stress that had already caused democracy to crumble and fascism and totalitarianism to rear their ugly heads in so many other countries. In America, freedom was saved, and it gave us the strength to rescue a strife-torn Western world in the 1940s and 1950s.” Perhaps FDR did not realize what he had unleashed:
''With his alphabet soup of federal agencies, FDR in many ways set in motion the forces that later sought to create big government and bring a form of veiled socialism to America. But I think that many people forget Roosevelt ran for president on a platform dedicated to reducing waste and fat in government. He called for cutting federal spending by twenty-five percent, eliminating useless boards and commissions and returning to states and communities powers that had been wrongfully seized by the federal government. If he had not been distracted by war, I think he would have resisted the relentless expansion of the federal government that followed him. . . . Government giveaway programs, FDR said, “destroy the human spirit,” and he was right. As smart as he was, though, I suspect even FDR didn’t realize that once you created a bureaucracy, it took on a life of its own. It was almost impossible to close down a bureaucracy once it had been created.''