'I will never buy Time again." So swore several of my friends upon hearing that George W. Bush had been named 2004 "Man of the Year." I explained that the designation is less of an award than a recognition of an individual's importance, that Henry Luce wasn't sucking up to Hitler when he named the German tyrant for the same honor in 1938. "This is worse," one wrote, "because Hitler was merely evil. Bush is stupid as well." Unfortunately, a notable headline got lost in the hate fest: "President George W. Bush: American Revolutionary." Time's description goes to the core of what makes Bush such a polarizing figure, why mentioning his name starts half the nation sputtering with rage reminiscent of the most extreme Clinton haters, why the half of Bush-worshipers swoon in delirious rapture. Bush may look to Abe Lincoln for inspiration, and he certainly shares the first Republican president's contempt for habeas corpus. The historian Richard Norton Smith compares the "audacious" Bush to Truman. But there's a closer analogy to another radical: fellow revolutionary Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR won the presidency legitimately, with a decisive margin that gave him a mandate to reform a shattered economy and engineer a dramatic political alignment of the two parties. But that's where the dissimilarities end.
A walk through the museum at Roosevelt's home in New Hyde Park, N.Y., reveals that Franklin, like fellow New England blueblood-turned-populist Dubya, made his fortune the old-fashioned way. He inherited a famous name from a cousin who happened to be a brilliant war hero turned president, Theodore Roosevelt, and buckets of cash from mom and dad. His Columbia report card reflected a "C" student. Why study when success is all but assured? On the other hand, he may have done as well as his inadequate brain would let him. FDR's writing was the product of an arrogant and blustery personality; when he discussed current events he came off like a self-entitled dimwit propelled by unjustified intellectual assurance. Remind you of anyone?
Republicans mystified by how crazy Bush drives Democrats should ask their conservative grandparents about FDR. Odds are that they're still seething 60 years after his death, and for many of the same reasons. For one thing, patricians FDR and GWB shared a taste for autocracy. Roosevelt refused to compromise with Republicans, bullying Congress into passing a comprehensive platform of New Deal legislation that replaced the laissez-faire capitalism of the 1920s with notions of state control of business inspired by nascent Soviet socialism. If Bush's effort to unravel Social Security seems radical, it should. However, Social Security and similar wide-reaching government programs were just as unnerving to conservatives when FDR enacted them.
Both men surrounded themselves with toadies whose longevity of tenure was directly related to their loyalty. Moreover, Bush wasn't the first leader to corrupt the Supreme Court. When Republican justices stymied FDR's plans for expanding the New Deal, he proposed increasing the high court's size — by a number of new justices appointed by him — to neutralize the federal judiciary. That effort failed, but the Court stopped declaring his programs unconstitutional. Republicans never forgave his brazen power grab. And both saw war as a chance to reap political gain. Bush consolidated power after 9/11, cowing opposition Democrats to ram through long-stalled schemes like the privacy-busting USA Patriot Act and to argue for terrorism-unrelated changes like fast-track signing authority for free trade and tax cuts for the rich. Ultimately he conned the public into war against Afghanistan and Iraq, even convincing the public that the systematic round-up, indefinite detention and torture of thousands of innocent Muslims was necessary to protect them.
For his part, the opportunistic FDR used the gathering storm of World War II to justify breaking tradition and running for an unprecedented third term. Hoping to provoke attacks that would push an isolationist public into joining the fighting in Europe, he concocted a lend-lease British-armaments plan that exposed American ships to German U-boats. No one knows whether FDR was aware that the Japanese planned to attack Pearl Harbor (or whether Bush knew 9/11 was coming), but he took advantage of wartime solidarity to push for domestic items on the Democratic wish list that had nothing to do with fighting the Germans or Japanese. To his and America's eternal shame, he ordered mass arrests of thousands of patriotic Americans of Japanese ancestry, supposedly to protect us from "fifth columnist" sabotage. They were shipped to remote concentration camps and robbed of their homes and businesses. For the most part, the courts went along.
FDR also shared Bush's proclivity for supporting unpopular foreign leaders. Bush attempted to install Ahmed Chalabi, a convicted embezzler who had left Iraq as a child, as president of occupied Iraq, and picked former Taliban official Hamid Karzai to rule Afghanistan because he had worked for the same oil company that was trying to build a lucrative oil and gas pipeline across that country. Although General Dwight Eisenhower and other better-informed officials ultimately undermined him, Roosevelt snubbed French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle while extending full diplomatic relations to the Nazi collaborationist puppet regime of Marshall Henri-Philippe Pétain throughout the war.
Bush and FDR both deployed high-flying rhetoric about waging war to liberate the oppressed, but neither made much effort to conceal their military campaigns' true economic motives. Bush refused to extend the Afghan occupation outside Kabul, where women remained veiled behind burqas, and FDR, whose private notes prove he saw World War II primarily as an opportunity to open foreign markets to American exports, denied entreaties to bomb rail lines used to deport Jews to the death camps.
Both FDR and Bush viewed power as most effectively wielded with a bludgeon and as a means to transform the economic order, legal system and even the map of the world to suit their visions. They didn't care whether the American people, much less those who voted against them, agreed with what they did. Their disdain for the people they served allowed them to achieve their goals.
Ted Rall's most recent book is Wake Up, You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right (Soft Skull Press).