Clinton seeks a little FDR magic

Roosevelt's party is falling apart but his legacy still lives, writes Rupert Cornwell in Warm Springs

President Bill Clinton travelled yesterday to a small spa town in western Georgia to honour the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - an anniversary tribute, it could be said, to the founder and greatest hero of the modern Democratic Party from the man who may be presiding over its terminal demise.

Fifty years ago FDR died at his clapboard cottage at Warm Springs, three months after he had won a record fourth term. ``I have a terrific headache," were his last words, at noon on 12 April 1945. A few hours later he was dead of a stroke.

Yesterday's ceremonies were ostensibly to reopen the pools in whosewater FDR swam to try to recover the use of his legs, paralysed by polio. They coincided with another anniversary, of the announcement on 12 April 1955 that a Pittsburgh professor, Jonas Salk, had perfected a vaccine which would render obsolete the original purpose of Warm Springs - as a polio rehabilitation centre. Now 80, Dr Salk was present to receive a special award.

But this second visit to Georgia by Mr Clinton within a fortnight had a second, unsentimental reason: one more attempt to shore up support in a key Southern state which he narrowly carried in 1992 but which on present trends he seems bound to lose next year.

Only this week Nathan Deal, a Georgia congressman, followed the recent example of two Democratic senators and switched to the Republicans, saying his old party was "out of touch with mainstream America''. That could never be said of FDR who, even among Southerners instinctively suspicious of this Yankee patrician, won an indelible place in his countrymen's hearts.

Hence the ``New Deal'' coalition which for 30 years helped the Democrats to win the White House: blacks and other minorities, hyphenated Americans, the East Coast liberals and die-hard Southerners who had never forgotten Civil War defeat. But the coalition is crumbling: many ethnic voters became the ``Reagan Democrats" who deserted the party in droves in the Eighties.

Even among blacks, Republicans are starting to make inroads. Now Mr Deal's defection, which could be followed by a dozen or so more in the House, shows how the ``yellow-dog'' Democrats of Dixie - vital for the party's successes under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and most lately Clinton - are a breed nearing extinction.

But if his party is falling apart, Roosevelt's legacy lives. His model of Big Government, to tackle the Great Depression, may have had its hour.

But the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich,pays tribute to FDR even as his ``Contract with America'' tries to demolish the welfare system and other pillars of the New Deal.

In fact, most of what began with FDR and flowered under Lyndon Johnson's ``Great Society'' programme will probably mostly survive. Social security has been declared sacrosanct by both parties, while much of what Mr Gingrich has rammed through the Housewill be diluted or ignored by the Senate or vetoed by Mr Clinton.

In foreign policy, too,much of Roosevelt's vision is now reality. Colonial empires have crumbled, as has the Soviet Union. China is emerging as a mega-power. The United Nations has perhaps its best chance yet of becoming the strong multilateral body that he envisaged.

But even in his grave Roosevelt cannot escape those modern American scourges of Congressional meddling and strident interest groups. He left instructions that he wanted a tiny memorial, the size of the top of his White House desk, outside the Federal Archives building, midway between the White House and Capitol Hill. That was installed in 1965.

Nevertheless, Congress is building a 7.5-acre Roosevelt Memorial Park, to be ready by 1997, between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.Groups representing the disabled are outraged there will be no depiction of FDR in his wheelchair, to which he was confined after getting polio in 1921. In his day, he forbade reference to his illness, and the press obliged. But, say activists, to persist in the fiction passes up a heaven-sent chance of fighting the prejudices with which the physically handicapped must still contend.

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