The second world war found democracy fighting for its life. By 1941 there were only a dozen or so democratic states left on earth. But great leadership emerged in time to rally the democratic cause. Future historians, looking back at the bloody 20th century, will likely regard Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the leader most responsible for mobilizing democratic energies and faith, first against economic collapse and then against military terror.
F.D.R. was the best-loved and most hated U.S. President of the 20th century. He was loved because, though patrician by birth, upbringing and style, he believed in and fought for plain people — for the “forgotten man” (and woman), for the “third of the nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” He was loved because he radiated personal charm, joy in his work, optimism for the future.
(VIDEO: The Iconic Photo of FDR)
But he was hated too — hated because he called for change, and the changes he proposed reduced the power, status, income and self-esteem of those who profited most from the old order. For decades, his New Deal reforms were accepted as familiar, benign and beneficial, although in recent years such government-run social programs have again come under critical scrutiny.
He was not a perfect man. In the service of his objectives, he could be devious, guileful, manipulative, underhanded, even ruthless. But he had great strengths. He relished wielding power and rejoiced in party combat. He was a realist in means but an idealist in ends. Above all, F.D.R. stood for humanity against ideology; against the totalitarians’ love of abstractions, he wanted to find practical ways to help decent men and women make a better world for themselves and their children. An optimist who fought his own brave way back from polio, he brought confidence and hope to a frightened and stricken nation.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
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