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FDR scorned, the FEC starves.

When I first saw the new FDR memorial, I thought, some rightwinger is going to have a field day with this. Sure enough, Pat Buchanan erupted in the pages of The Washington Times: "To watch self-styled `conservatives' vie with one another in bending the knee at the shrine of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is to appreciate the rot at the core of a once-great movement."

Buchanan, in whose addled mind the Cold War rages on, is still mad at FDR about Yalta. And he sees the New Deal as a dangerous slide toward socialism. He is honked off that Republicans in Washington participated in dedicating a memorial to a President whose "regime was shot through with communist spies and traitors."

But you don't have to have rabies to agree with Buchanan that there's something amiss about the recent canonization of FDR. At the dedication, President Clinton and members of Congress came together to pay homage to a man whose legacy they are busily destroying. It was a little surreal. And then there's the memorial's monstrously ugly design.

It is, as a conservative talk-radio host put it, "the first P.C. memorial." Forget the controversy about whether or not to put FDR in a wheelchair. (There's only one tiny little wheel visible on the back of his chair. You have to crawl around behind the statue to see it.) The whole memorial is so inclusive as to lack any focus at all. The date on which FDR came down with polio is memorialized, in what looks like a concession to the disabled. But so is just about every other historical event during the course of Roosevelt's life. Statues by George Segal show people standing in bread lines, an anonymous Depression-era civilian listening to a fireside chat, and an impoverished rural couple. There's a frieze of a funeral cortege with some anonymous mourners and an anonymous dead person, near the giant words carved in stone: "I Hate War." There's even a replica of a dam with water flowing over it, called the "TVA Cascade," in honor of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The overall effect is of a historical theme park--as if war and bread lines were quaint relics of the past, instead of the seething modern problems they are.

I was still moved by those famous lines: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, illclad, ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

But it's a long way from that rousing idealism to three cheers for volunteerism, capital-gains tax cuts, and the "balanced budget with balanced values" of today.

It's hard to visit the memorial without a feeling of hollowness, especially when you think of the President who dedicated it, comparing his own accomplishments to those of FDR, even as he goes about dismantling the New Deal. Clinton, after all signed the law that did away with the federal entitlement to welfare. Now he is getting ready to privatize Social Security. He has agreed to a balanced-budget deal that institutionalizes tax cuts for the rich and cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs for the poor.

I suspect that the FDR memorial looks like such a mess precisely because of our readers' abandonment of all that FDR stood for. Instead of stopping to contemplate FDR's legacy, we have this overblown, sentimental amusement-park ride of a memorial. Down with war! Up with people! Rah, rain, rain! Even Newt Gingrich is welcome to get on board.

"Have conservatives no heroes that we must slaver over this unprincipled politician and icon of the American left?" Buchanan demanded. "Have we no heroes that we must beg for folding chairs at the dedication of a monument to the amoral man who destroyed the Old Republic?"

If only the memorial lived up to such passionate disdain. Buchanan is right that FDR was a radical. His life is a rebuke to the shallow, greedy politics of today. It ought to stick in a few conservative craws. But except for Buchanan, our fatuous, bipartisan politicians seem all too ready to swallow it up.

I went over to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) recently, where chairman John Warren McGarry was looking tired. "What happened in 1996 was catastrophic," he said. As campaign-finance scandals exploded during the last election cycle, the FEC--the government agency that investigates violations of campaign-finance law--was swamped. The agency requested a special $1.7 million supplement from Congress to deal with "scandalous matters arising out of the 1996 elections." Nothing doing.

Even as campaign-finance scandals erupt all over town, Congress has not allowed the FEC's funds to keep pace with inflation. "We're shrinking," says McGarry. Out of the FEC's $28.16 million budget, Congress has "fenced off" $2.5 million for computers and modernization, which means the FEC can't hire any new staff. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, hates the FEC. The agency "has no one to blame but its own agency officials" for losing the $1.7 million supplement this year, he wrote in a letter to Roll Call. "Each year, my committee does the best it can to assess the needs of this agency, but the fact remains that it desperately needs a good old-fashioned numbers scrubbing. I intend to see that such a scrub happens." In other words, Livingston and his colleagues intend to hobble the agency even further.

Among federal government agencies, the FEC is a reporter's dream. The press office returns phone calls right away, and the whole agency prides itself on being the most user-friendly government office in Washington. Anyone can walk in and get access to the FEC library. There's even a comprehensive web site. But as complaints and citizen requests for information pour in, Congress is quietly starving the FEC. "We cannot handle these cases unless we get the money," said McGarry. With all the financial scandals that have emerged in the last year, won't Congress be shamed into supporting the FEC? "You'll have to ask Congress," says press officer Ron Harris. Good idea. Voters should embarrass their representatives by pressing the point.
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Title Annotation:Franklin Roosevelt memorial; Federal Election Commission's lack of funding
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:1030
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