Historians generally agree that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were our greatest presidents. Recently, there has been a plethora of books and tapes telling the story of the place in American history that each occupies.I learned that George Washington's literacy skills were somewhat limited and that he frequently relied on Alexander Hamilton for help with his important letters and speeches. Nor was I aware that during that horrendous, freezing winter at Valley Forge, Washington ate corn mush just as his hungry, shoeless troops did, and that his wife, the aristocratic Martha Washington, mended the torn uniforms of soldiers during that winter.
I chuckled when I learned that our first vice president, John Adams, wore a powdered wig when he presided over the newly created Senate. It was disturbing to discover that the brilliant Alexander Hamilton was blackmailed when he was secretary of the Treasury because of an affair with an attractive young lady whose morals were consistent with those of her husband, who had threatened Hamilton with public exposure of the liaison. This blight haunted Hamilton for the rest of his short life because of subtle threats by his political enemies.
The election of 1860 saw three strong contenders - Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase - who conducted a tireless and suspenseful campaign. Seward was a past governor and senator from New York, and Chase was a past governor and senator from Ohio. Both men considered Lincoln a country bumpkin, and when the election results came in and Lincoln prevailed, the scene was set for a presidency with a not-so-loyal opposition. Lincoln outsmarted both and appointed Seward as his secretary of State and Chase as his secretary of the Treasury. They soon learned at cabinet meetings that Lincoln was an able executive, politically and intellectually astute, as well as a skilled politician.
I have always been a political buff, and in March 1933, I heard Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address, which gave hope to the American people, who were enduring the worst economic depression in the history of the U.S. During the week after Roosevelt's inauguration, I was glued to the radio listening to Lowell Thomas, a famous newscaster who, commenting on FDR's first days in office, said, "His name should be Franklin Dynamo Roosevelt and not Franklin Delano Roosevelt."
Within a short period, the "Dynamo" created the Works Progress Administration, the National Recovery Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as new and innovative ideas almost on a daily basis.
The economic depression was overwhelming, with middle-class men selling apples on street corners. In the Midwest, farms were abandoned and foreclosed. All business enterprises felt the brunt of an economic catastrophe.
There was an extraordinary occurrence that lent a ray of hope to Americans during those fateful years. It was the voice of President Roosevelt during his frequent "fireside chats" from the White House, which gave the people respite from the worries of the day. It was the voice of a president who exuded confidence and hope of better days to come. The people knew that Roosevelt was exerting his energy and skills each day to pull the country out of its morass.
When World War II exploded in 1939, with Hitler's Germany overrunning Poland, France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, Roosevelt understood that if England did not survive, it could mean the end of democracy throughout the world. FDR took bold and decisive steps to aid Britain by providing ships, airplanes and other war materiel. Without America, Britain might not have survived. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the entire world was set afire. Once again, FDR, in his famous "A day that will live in infamy" speech to Congress, struck a note of defiance that the U.S. would not and could not be cowed.
Millions of Americans lived through these historic days as the image and voice of President Roosevelt gave comfort to the people. It has been said by many that FDR gave his life to his country.
During October 1944, on a nasty, drizzly evening, I was leaving the R.H. Macy department store at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan when I heard police sirens coming from the east along
34th Street. I saw Roosevelt seated alone in an open car, wearing his famous cape, staring straight ahead - he looked terrible, gaunt and sickly. He had been nominated for a fourth term for the presidency, and was re-elected in November - the face I saw was not that of a well man; it was a portent of things to come.
In April 1945, as I was coming home from my office, leaving the subway station, I was stunned by a chorus of "President Roosevelt is dead - what will we do?" uttered by shocked individuals. His death was so sudden and heart-rendering - he meant so much to the American people.
During World War II, Roosevelt was steadfast in his determination that there should be no profiteering while American servicemen were dying in Europe and in the South Pacific. He sponsored tax legislation, which was passed by Congress, that provided for an excess-profits tax of 95 percent on earnings beyond amounts normally earned before the war (Halliburton take note).
Besides the excess-profits tax, companies engaged in producing ships, planes and all manner of war supplies were subject to renegotiation of their contracts. These proceedings were conducted by officers in uniform, and it was difficult and embarrassing to dispute war profits. Roosevelt also believed that individuals should not earn huge incomes, and graduated income tax rates topped off at 90 percent.
Roosevelt came from a wealthy background (his mother, Sara Roosevelt, was one of the largest shareholders in General Electric). He attended Groton, Harvard College and Columbia University Law School. He married Eleanor Roosevelt, the daughter of Elliot Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt's younger brother. During his years as president, he was concerned about the welfare of the people, especially shelter and food for those in economic straits.
I write so much more about this president, whom I admired and loved, because I was there from the first day to the last day of his presidency. This has had a profound impact on me through the years.
I cannot escape the sight I recently observed of about 1,000 men lined up for a hot midday meal served at the Church of the Holy Apostles (Episcopalian), situated on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. Also, I know that the New York Section of the National Council of Jewish Women regularly provides over 500 sit-down dinners each week for men and women who have lined up outside their building on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. Why do I mention these current and painful conditions? Because in this day and age, in New York City and other cities in our country, there are men and women waiting in line for food for survival.
On July 2, 2006, The New York Times printed an article written by David Johnston, which detailed some of the family accumulations of wealth in this nation. In particular, I was struck by the amount of Wal-Mart shares owned by the second generation of the Walton family, which amounted to over $90 billion. Repeat - $90 billion.
I believe in the capitalist system and I have done well - but is there something wrong with this picture?
Eli Mason, CPA, is a past president of the New York State Society of CPAs, a past chairman of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, a past vice president of the American Institute of CPAs, and the recipient of the American Accounting Association's Exemplar Award. He recently wrote Conscience of the Profession - A Personal Journey.
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