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FDR's Triumph For Democracy

The most influential person of the 20th century as chosen by Time and CBS News. Written by's Gary Paul Gates.

Of all the political movements that shaped and defined the 20th Century, the one that had the greatest impact was the triumph of democracy. And no one did more to achieve that victory than the man Time magazine and CBS News have chosen to honor as the person of the century - Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt was elected president in the bleak autumn of 1932, the country was mired in the most severe economic catastrophe in its history. Because of the Great Depression, millions of Americans not only felt betrayed by the capitalist system but were losing faith in the democratic institutions that governed the nation and held it together.

Visionaries on the left looked for salvation in the new creed of communism, and pointed to the Soviet Union as the wave of the future. Others were enamored of the fascist dictatorships that had seized power in such major European countries as Italy, Germany and Spain.

The hardship of economic crisis had spawned a dangerous political crisis. But Roosevelt met that daunting challenge with vigor and confidence.

"This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper," FDR promised in his first inaugural address. Then came the words that will forever be enshrined in America's political lexicon: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But strong rhetoric was merely the opening salvo in Roosevelt's determined effort to rally the nation to his leadership.

The battle cry of his presidential campaign had been his pledge to provide "a new deal" for the American people, and that became the umbrella term for the flurry of innovative legislation he pushed through Congress during his first few years in the White House.

Most of the new programs and policies were frankly experimental, as FDR was the first to admit. As a result, some of them didn't work and had to be abandoned. But others - such as Social Security and unemployment compensation - would endure and become cornerstones of American life.

Just as enduring was his impact on the nation's highest office. In a sharp departure from the passive, laissez-faire governing style of his predecessors, Roosevelt transformed the presidency into a bold instrument of action and power - and so it remains to this day.

Although economic conditions gradually improved after FDR became president, the New Deal was no miracle cure. The Depression was a formidable foe that persisted into the early 1940s when the need to mobilize for World War II finally put the nation squarely on the road to prosperity.

But for millions of Americans, the mere fact that Roosevelt had done so much to commit the federal government to the struggle for relief and recovery was enough to restore their faith in both democray and capitalism.

Roosevelt shattered tradition when he chose to run for a third term in 1940, and soon after winning that election, the Commander-in-Chief of the world's largest democracy had to confront an even greater threat to freedom: the military aggressions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

In leading the allies to victory over those two despotic forces, FDR both preserved and strengthened democracy at home and abroad. Moreover, that supremely critical triumph in World War II pointed the way to the democratic revolutions that swept communist governments out of power in Eastern Europe later in the century.

At the heart of Roosevelt's political appeal was his buoyant personality. In spite of his polio affliction, which left him paralyzed, FDR exuded vitality, charm and radiant confidence.

"Meeting him," Winston Churchill once said, "was like uncorking a bottle of champagne."

Roosevelt was one of three finalists drawn from the list of outstanding men and women Time and CBS News have selected as the 100 most influential people of the century. The other two were Mohandas Gandhi and Albert Einstein.

Gandhi was picked in the Top Three because the struggle he led against British colonial rule in India changed the face and future of political revolution.

Until he came along, political rebels had mainly been firebrands who believed that violence and bloodshed were necessary to achieve their goals.
Gandhi rejected that approach, and by adopting the unorthodox tactics of nonviolence and passive resistance, he turned a political revolution into a moral crusade.

In fact, he was essentially a spiritual leader who once defined the movement he launched as an attempt "to introduce religion into politics." And throughout the world Gandhi was revered as a saintly man.

Even so, he did make enemies along the way. For the sad irony is that in 1948, just one year after India finally achieved its independence, Gandhi - the great apostle of nonviolence - was assassinated by one of his own countrymen. To many, his murder brought to mind the Biblical assertion that "a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country."

But Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolence proved to be a powerful legacy, one that has had enormous influence on other revolutionary leaders.

Martin Luther King was an ardent disciple of Gandhi. So was Nelson Mandela. And the nonviolent crusades for freedom and justice that they led in their countries were, in large part, inspired by Gandhi.

As for Einstein, he was nothing less than the intellectual giant of the 20th Century. In a period of history that was blessed with great advances in science, he stands out as the supreme scientific genius of his time - and perhaps the most profound scientific mind of all time.

Until Einstein came up with his famous theory of relativity, the laws of physics hadn't changed since Sir Isaac Newton set down his principles of time and motion - ravity - in the 17th Century.

Einstein utterly demolished Newton's central assumption that time is absolute, and in doing so, he forged a link between time and space that, in effect, transformed the basic law of the universe.

In writing about that astonishing achievement, one awestruck admirer noted that Einstein "discovered, just by thinking about it, the essential structure of the cosmos."

Another landmark discovery came from his study of the connection between energy and matter, which led to his celebrated formula - E equals MC squared - and which, in turn, led to the atomic bomb.

But that is just part of the legacy. Einstein's revolutionary theories also served as the guiding lights to space travel, to television and to other electronic breakthroughs that have brought us to the computer age and the wonders of cyberspace.

Even those of us who have trouble grasping the complexities of Einstein's theory of relativity can appreciate the droll wit of the limerick it inspired:

"There was a young lady named Bright/ Who could travel much faster than light/ She went out one day/ In a relative way/ And came back the previous night."

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