He was born into a life of wealth and rare privilege, led the United States through its darkest economic crisis and rallied his countrymen and allies toward total victory in the worst war the world has ever known.
In the process, he overhauled the presidency and all it stood for, rewrote the contract between Americans and their government and charted the rise of the United States into the pre-eminent power of the Nuclear Age.
Even today, 50 years after his death at a resort in Warm Springs, Ga., Franklin Delano Roosevelt casts a shadow across the national landscape unlike that of any other leader.
The only man ever elected to the White House four times, Roosevelt was the voice, the inspiration and the very embodiment of an era that defined this nation for two generations.
Adored to near worship by supporters who believed he twice saved the country, despised by critics who saw him as monarchical, if not dictatorial, Roosevelt changed the American dream, the American way of life and the American view of the world.
He quite simply reforged the conscience of the nation, and he did so with spirited style, no complaints about the weight of high office and no apologies to his many foes.
“Roosevelt loved it; he told us he loved it,” said Timothy P. Maga, professor of diplomatic history at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. “That smile with the cigarette holder stuck between the teeth - that was sincere.”
Historians still argue whether Roosevelt was driven by ideology or politics in his calls for social and racial justice, his muted efforts to widen participation of blacks in the economy or his somewhat begrudging willingness to help blue-collar workers get a fair shake in contract negotiations.
Debate also persists over whether Roosevelt was calculating enough to intentionally allow Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as a way to muster support for a U.S. declaration of war on Tokyo or whether he simply was inept in ignoring repeated warnings and underestimating Japanese military might.
Set in context, though, Roosevelt shines as a statesman steeled by a stark and unyielding imperative: to guide his nation through dangerous and difficult times that challenged the very survival of Western civilization as he knew it.
“FDR simply believed that the Depression and World War II had both demonstrated that the United States needed a president who could make decisions and make things happen - a strong executive branch,” said Rutgers University history professor Warren F. Kimball.
A Harvard-schooled Democrat hobbled by polio, Roosevelt seemed an unlikely defender of the Western world when he took office in 1933, declaring in his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
There was plenty of that to go around. The Great Depression had shut down half of the country’s factories and most of its banks. It was crushing farmers and squeezing the hope out of families everywhere.
Roosevelt assembled the heaviest machinery Washington ever had unleashed upon an economic ill. He called his creation the “New Deal,” based on his belief - radical for its time - that the federal government has an obligation to cushion its citizens against the most ravaging consequences of an untamed marketplace.
Combining hundreds of new regulations, scores of laws and massive public spending, Roosevelt spawned a host of new institutions, most of which, in one form or another, remain in place today.
For example, Roosevelt established the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, in 1933 as a central ingredient in the economic development of the rural South. The TVA brought badly needed flood control and low-cost hydroelectric power to the impoverished region, encouraged interstate economic integration and cemented the Southern states to the Democratic Party for the next 40 years.
Moreover, Roosevelt used the TVA to advance another forwardlooking precept - equal opportunity employment. His demand that the agency offer jobs to black Southerners as well as to whites made him a hero in the Depression-era home of a young boy who would grow to set his own civil rights agenda: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The New Deal stopped the collapse and it gave people confidence that the thing wasn’t going to go down the drain completely,” said Charles Sackrey, who teaches economics at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.
Roosevelt also had to summon the strength of his entire nation and bend its every effort to a single goal: the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Emperor Hirohito’s Japan.
Nearly any American who was alive at the time still can recall the sound of Roosevelt’s solemn yet firm voice crackling over the radio and delivering word of Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor:
“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of Japan.”
It took less than an hour for Congress to approve Roosevelt’s call for a declaration of war.
Three days later, Germany, adhering to its pact with Japan, declared war on the United States, engaging the major powers and their Allies in a global conflict that would claim an estimated 45 million lives - some 300,000 of them American.
On April 12, 1945, just two months into his fourth term as president, Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage while visiting the Georgia mineral springs he valued as therapy for his polio-stricken legs.
Three weeks later, on May 7, Germany surrendered, followed by Japan’s capitulation Aug. 14.