Democratic Presidential nominee James Cox (left) and Vice Presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt (right) campaigning in Dayton, Ohio. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Wikimedia)

“We Can Never Go Back”: Franklin Roosevelt and the Jagged Path of Progress

A century ago, Democrats nominated one of the most important figures in American history to run in the 1920 presidential election. That person, however, did not sit at the top of the ticket.

To be sure, the party’s nominee for president — James M. Cox — enjoyed a distinguished career as a newspaper magnate, member of Congress, and governor of Ohio. But it is the name of vice presidential nominee Franklin Delano Roosevelt that echoes through the ages.

Upon accepting his nomination, FDR delivered a speech that set forth his progressive vision for American foreign and domestic policy. And while he and Cox would fail in their bid for the White House, the themes Roosevelt outlined would shape his eventual tenure as president.

FDR’s remarks, when viewed with the hindsight of 100 years, paint a fascinating portrait of a leader whose appointment with destiny had yet to arrive. Moreover, they may serve as a harbinger for the extraordinary opportunity now presented to 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The Franklin Roosevelt who ran in 1920 could scarcely imagine the future that lay before him. He had yet to endure the physical ailment that would soon ravage his body. And he could not anticipate two monumental events — the Great Depression and World War II — that would finally allow him to realize the vision he introduced as a vice presidential candidate.

In 1920, the 38-year-old Roosevelt was still a relative political novice. Prior to the Democratic National Convention, he held the post of assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson — his first role in the federal government. Party bosses selected him as Cox’s running mate based largely on the famous surname he shared with his fifth cousin, former President Theodore Roosevelt.

An alliterative campaign poster for the 1920 Cox/Roosevelt ticket. (Robert Runyon, Wikimedia)

Yet FDR’s acceptance speech showcased his precocious abilities as an orator and a statesman. In fact, he began his address by focusing on foreign policy.

At the time, America was less than two years removed from the First World War. And while Roosevelt praised the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans in winning the fight, he soon dove headfirst into a hot-button issue: He called on our country to join the League of Nations championed by Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt believed the League represented the best hope of building lasting peace and ensuring the misery of global war never happened again. In addition, he saw it as a chance for the United States to take a seat at the diplomatic table — alongside the great powers of Europe — in forging a new post-war order. “The coming years are laden with significance,” he said, “and much will depend on the immediate decision of America.”

Next, Roosevelt turned to domestic matters. He rejected a scatter-shot approach to advancing progressive policies. Instead, he demanded “a well-considered, coordinated plan of development” to fulfill a sweeping agenda. He sought to combat illiteracy, invest in large-scale infrastructure projects, implement stronger labor protections, and raise the quality of life in urban and rural communities alike.

FDR concluded his remarks with a stirring call to action — urging voters to reject those who idealized a bygone era of the country. He told the crowd, “Some people have been saying of late: ‘We are tired of progress. We want to go back to where we were before.’” Of course, that refrain still echoes today, through the slogan of “Make America Great Again.”

Roosevelt made clear his opinion on such misguided sentiments, and made a prediction for the coming election:

We can never go back. The ‘good ole days’ are gone past forever…America will choose the path of progress, and set aside the doctrines of despair [and] the narrow road to yesterday.

Despite FDR’s optimism, however, the public wasn’t quite ready to join him on that path of progress. Cox and Roosevelt suffered a landslide defeat to Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Republicans would go on to hold the White House for the following 12 years. During that period, an isolationist faction sank America’s entry into the League of Nations — undermining our standing on the world stage. On the domestic front, Republican administrations prioritized policies that placed the interests of America’s businesses over its working-class households.

The United States would not rally behind Roosevelt’s vision until the occurrence of two transformational events. It took the Great Depression to propel FDR into office with a mandate for broad social change; the “well-considered, coordinated plan” he described in 1920 would form the foundation of the New Deal. Then, it took World War II for America to become a preeminent power and to help establish the charter for the United Nations.

Another significant event happened to FDR between 1920 and 1932. Less than a year after losing his bid for vice president, he suddenly fell victim to a mysterious paralytic disease. For three agonizing years, he largely eschewed public life as he recovered and coped with his illness.

But Roosevelt refused to let his ailment defeat him. As a matter of fact, many historians credit the ordeal with making him a better leader. It provided the privileged and patrician Roosevelt with a deeper connection to those experiencing suffering. This heightened compassion gave him better insight into the pain of people decimated by poverty and war. And his struggle with paralysis imbued within him a belief that no adversity was too great to master.

Joe Biden can heed the lessons of FDR’s long path to the White House. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann, left and Jim McIntosh, right, adapted)

FDR’s journey illustrates a fundamental lesson: presidents are often defined by circumstances far beyond their control. Without economic depression, international warfare, and personal crisis, Franklin Roosevelt may never have left the same indelible mark upon history.

Today, Joe Biden confronts a similar situation. The 2020 presidential election will unfold against the backdrop of immense, transformational forces: a global pandemic, a severe recession, and a massive grassroots uprising against systemic racism and police brutality.

Like Roosevelt, Biden has overcome political setbacks — and incredible personal loss — on his long journey to winning the Democratic Party’s nomination. And, like Roosevelt, he understands that transformational challenges require a bold response.

Biden has embraced a far-reaching platform on issues ranging from climate change to racial justice, health care to gun violence. Fittingly, Senator Bernie Sanders has stated that these proposals, if enacted, would make Biden “the most progressive president since FDR.”

But it wasn’t easy for FDR to achieve his agenda. In 1920, when Roosevelt called on America to embark upon the “path of progress,” he had little idea about the jagged road waiting ahead for him — and for our nation as a whole.

FDR proved himself ready for the moment. And it looks like Joe Biden will do the same.

Hang Liu

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Read Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1920 acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination for Vice President here.

Follow Hang Liu and West Wing Writers on Twitter.

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