13 Presidents Ago… When the President was a Leader

Presidential Yatch Potomac

USS Potomac, ca. 1938

This post by Walter Abernathy

In the middle of the social and economic catastophe caused by the coronavirus, the call for a Green New Deal is more relevant than ever. Based on the broad set of programs that pulled millions from crushing poverty caused by the Great Depression, the original New Deal was introduced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933.  Instead of splashing cash into the pockets of financiers and industrial titans, the programs focused on putting people back to work. This post is about Roosevelt’s lasting legacy and ways you can help preserve it. -Editor

Thirteen presidents ago one of this country’s greatest, Franklin D. Roosevelt, took his first oath of office.  It was March 4, 1933.  The country was in the midst of the Great Depression.  Unemployment raged through the nation and reached as high as 25 percent, and some 5,000 banks had failed, taking the savings of their investors with them.  Bankruptcies flourished as 1,200 cities and counties fell to the broken economy.  At times, unemployment of working-age adults in industrial cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia soared as high as 40 to 50%.  Charitable approaches to poverty and hunger were devastated.   In Detroit they killed the edible animals in the zoo to feed the hungry.

Perhaps, the most often recalled passage of FDR’s inaugural address is the healing advice that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

Equally important, but not as well remembered was his call for bold action after three years of no economic progress under the Hoover administration.  You can imagine what his words followed by the actions of the New Deal meant to a long- suffering nation.  It was not a time, nor was he a man for small plans.

FDR’s New Deal was not a “bailout” for corporations.  Instead it was a “build-up” for workers and individuals to provide needed goods.  Over the decade from FDR’s 1933 inauguration a constellation of federally financed programs put millions of jobless Americans back to work, and helped to revive a distressed economy.  The result was a rich landscape of public works across the nation, often of outstanding beauty, utility, and craftsmanship, all built to service civic purposes by a newly empowered workforce.

The Great Recession of 2008-2012 invites comparison with the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  There were no mass jobs programs, government investment shrank, infrastructure continued to decay, and the wealthiest 1% gained a larger share of national income while working people saw their incomes stagnate – exactly the opposite of what FDR’s administration achieved.  The jury is still out on the success of the current health crisis bail-out as we see more funding directed to corporations in a poorly directed, top-down effort.

These times are prompting more and more calls for a comparison and lessons learned from FDR’s New Deal.  Even the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has suggested we can learn from FDR’s programs.

In California we are fortunate to have one of the few historical symbols of Roosevelt’s life. The Presidential Yacht USS Potomac, FDR’s Floating White House, has been restored and preserved in operating condition at Jack London Square in Oakland California. It now serves as an educational touch point for one of the most important times in our country’s history.

The Potomac played an important part in his presidency as a place he could conduct business, entertain and relax.   He spent so much time on the ship that one wag noted he would probably live on her if he didn’t have a “lifetime lease” on the White House.   He used the ship for transport to his meeting with Winston Churchill off Newfoundland to agree on the Atlantic Charter.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Queen of England

President and Mrs. Roosevelt with King and Queen of Great Britain aboard the Potomac in 1939.

The King and Queen of England were FDR’s guests for luncheon onboard and a trip on the river Potomac to George Washington’s grave in Mount Vernon.  The ship became the White House for the many days he lived onboard. The key players of the New Deal, including Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, often joined FDR on the USS Potomac.

USS Potomac in dry dock

USS Potomac about to begin renovations in 1980s

Under the auspices of the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht USS Potomac, a 501-c-3 non-profit, tax-deductible corporation, the ship is a floating and operating museum to FDR’s presidency.   An educational curriculum is provided by historically-trained docents with a “Student Cruise Program” including lesson plans for children in the 7-14 year age span.

Because of the 2020 health crisis the USS Potomac has been forced to curtail operations this cruise season with a loss of income but continued costs to maintain, insure and staff the vessel.   The goal of the Association is to get her back in operation including sponsorship of student cruises starting in the spring of 2021, public health conditions permitting.

Operating on San Francisco Bay, the USS Potomac brings to the West Coast the legend of liberal democracy that was the anchor of FDR’s presidency.  And at a new time not for small plans.

To this end a public fundraising program with a goal of raising $1 million is underway by the Association.  We hope you share our view that the lessons to be gained from FDR need to be preserved and passed-on to future generations and ask that you consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Here is a link to a video that will show you more about the ship and our appeal:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kIpOic1Y1Q&feature=youtu.be

USS Potomac 1995

USS Potomac, 1995

To help support Roosevelt’s legacy of a liberal democracy, please help us preserve the USS Potomac and it’s educational programs. Be sure to note “Contrary Perspective” with your donation.  We will enter your name in the Log Book on the Presidential yatch, and send you a certificate to document your contribution.


Help us preserve and perpetuate the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his dedication to liberal democracy.

Walter Abernathy was Executive Director of the Port Authority of Oakland in 1981 when he acquired the remains of the USS Potomac, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s former floating White House, at a federally sponsored public auction.  He joined with James Roosevelt, FDR’s oldest son, and community leaders in restoring the vessel as a National Historic Landmark. The effort was supported by many, including substantial funds from President Ronald Reagan, who liked Roosevelt and considered the Potomac a national historical treasure. The renovated boat started operations on San Francisco Bay in 1995.

2 thoughts on “13 Presidents Ago… When the President was a Leader

  1. There is no chance whatsoever of a “New Deal,” “Green” or otherwise, being launched in the waning months of the term of the currently incumbent President of the United States. Boldly assuming Joe Biden claims that office come January–not in the least bit assured!–we could expect a little more help for the working class, but continued giveaways to corporations and ongoing absurd, obscene expenditures for war. (And I’m not aware Biden has ever been particularly friendly to “green” energy/technology.) The present political-financial situation in our country, with royal treatment for corporations and their CEOs while the income gap between the “top” and the rest of us grows ever wider, is a measure of how far this nation has been mired in the mud of greed and corruption since Roosevelt’s era. If a “new FDR” presented her- or himself as a potential “savior,” that person would be laughed off the political stage within a day.

    • Greg , “Hope lives eternal. ” The spirit of the New Deal can be and is necessary to redo the belief in our liberal democracy and resurrect our economy. The sustaining of FDR‘s presidential yacht, The Potomac, in the Bay Area, the most liberal part of our country, is important. It will be there to remind the Democratic Party that the center of power should be in the hands of the people rather than the banks. The New Deal is a most important legend of FDR. The Republicans have spent 50 years trying to step by step destroy FDR’s New Deal. Now is the time we need the thinking behind the New Deal. I plan to contribute $250 to sustain The Potomac. Let’s get a little optimistic about things. It can happen and we will make it happen.

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