Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Dinner, Los Angeles, California, March 1, 1958

I appreciate more than I can say the opportunity to be here with you tonight. To come from old Massachusetts to new California is an impressive experience – just as it was more than one hundred years ago. For much is different – yet much is the same. You border the warm Pacific – we border the cold Atlantic. You till rich acres of cotton – we spin it in our mills. You take pride in the growth and bustle of a new state – we take pride in the traditions and maturity of America’s oldest settlement.

Much is different – but much is the same: the industry of our people, their self-reliance, their self-respect, their courage. We share a common kinship and a common destiny . . . a common concern for the security and progress of our nation and all of its people.

We have much in common politically, as well. Massachusetts and California are both Democratic states, in terms of registration and sentiment. In the past four years, both states have sent a Republican to the Senate. Neither state, I am confident, will make that mistake again in 1958.

In the past six years, both states have twice given their electoral votes to the Republican ticket. Neither state, I am confident, will make that mistake again in 1960.

I do not wish to pose as an expert on California politics. But I am bold enough to predict a Democratic victory in this state for two reasons: first, because we recognize in Washington that the Democratic ticket in California this year is one of unusual distinction. Your candidate for Governor is known to be one of our Party’s most likeable vote-getters and brilliant lawyers – Pat Brown.

Your candidate for the Senate is a man for whom I have long had the greatest affection and admiration – a recognized expert spokesman on California problems – Clair Engle.

And I am particularly glad to be here tonight at the invitation of one of the nation’s most courageous, determined Democrats – a man with whom I spent an exhausting but exhilarating week of travel during the 1956 campaign (and I would do it again) – Dick Richards.

There is a second reason why I predict a Democratic victory in California – and that reason I base upon my talks in the past year with Democrats in every part of the country. Whatever may have happened in 1956, whatever coattails the Republicans hope to ride, whatever your Republican neighbors may have been told by the Vice President ten days ago, I can tell you that our Party is strong – that our Party is united – and that our Party is going to win in 1958 and 1960.

Victory is in the air – the handwriting is on the wall – this is going to be the greatest Democratic year since 1936.

In the Senate, for example, I do not believe the Democrats can lose a single seat – and I believe our chances are excellent to pick up a dozen or more – including California.

I do not say that victory will be easy. It will come to us only if we deserve it.

We have to offer more than the old slogans and policies of the past. We have to offer more than charges we cannot prove or promises we cannot fulfill.

We must prove our capacity for responsible leadership. We must demonstrate competence for tackling the difficult issues of our times.

And we will. For courageous, responsible leadership has been in the great moments of our history the trademark of the Democratic Party.

I was sharply reminded of this Democratic tradition four weeks ago last night. I was in New York to see the opening of a play about Franklin Roosevelt, whose memory we invoke tonight. The play is called “Sunrise at Campobello.” It is produced by an old friend of yours and mine, a great and talented Democrat – Dore Schary.

It is not a play about politics. It is not about the Presidency or the Democratic Party. It is a play about the triumph of one man and his family over disaster – the disaster of physical illness.

But I thought, as I left the theatre very deeply moved, that this play portrays more than this stirring personal triumph. It also brought to mind all the great qualities of leadership in times of crisis for which FDR was famous – not only the personal crisis of his paralysis, but the crisis of a country in economic chaos, the crisis of a world at war, and all the rest.

We urgently need those qualities in Washington today. For this nation now enters a period of crisis of greater proportions than any we have ever endured. We are confronted with a deepening crisis in world affairs, in our relations with our allies, in our prestige with the uncommitted nations. The Soviets have out-shown us in scientific achievement. They have out-maneuvered us in trade and aid. They have outstripped us in the race for ultimate weapons and outer space. The Middle East, North Africa, Indonesia, Cyprus, Latin America – every part of the world is in flames or in ferment. The Republicans in 1956 may have cried “Peace, peace” – but there is no peace.

Here at home, where they promised prosperity to match their peace, the economic situation is also approaching the crisis stage. Close to five million workers are unemployed. Millions of others are working only a few days a week.

An estimated 25% of our industrial capacity is idle. This year alone, an estimated five million people will have to leave the farm. More than 14 thousand businesses will fail.

We may still prevent a complete economic disaster – but only if we can obtain the kind of leadership demonstrated by Franklin Roosevelt. That kind of leadership is sorely lacking in this Administration.

We need something more in the way of leadership than those who talk blithely of a “breather” in the economy . . . or those who say everything will get better if we wait until the end of the year . . . or those who come home to California to say reassuringly: “There is nothing wrong with the economy that a good dose of confidence won’t cure.”

In this same address, the Republican office-holder and office-seekers of California were told: “We are betting on prosperity to bring victory for the Republicans” in November. Let me say, my friends, that we in the Democratic Party will accept that bet.

For our part, we are not betting on a depression and we are not running against Herbert Hoover. We are betting on the American people preferring action at a time of economic crisis.

Because it will take more than “a good dose of confidence” to reverse the downward trends in employment, production, construction and agriculture – in new housing, automobiles, freezers, refrigerators and furniture. It will take more than “a good dose of confidence” to restore the automobile industry to something more than 60% of capacity . . . to operate our steel mills at more than 55% of capacity. Do you realize that our manufacturing and mining output dropped 7% last year – at the same time the Soviet Union was reporting its industrial production rose 10%?

The steel industry, for example, is operating at less than 55% of capacity. At least 125,000 steel workers are unemployed. Two hundred thousand others are working on a part-time basis. We could be turning out an additional 50 million tons of steel ingots a year from the blast furnaces, open hearths and rolling mills that are currently shut down. They have not been knocked out as a result of enemy action. They have been knocked out by an economic slow-down that has been too long ignored. But the effect on our economic vitality is just as bad.

We need that steel here where the population will nearly double before the century is out. We need that steel – and a prosperous economy – a lot more than we need “a good dose of confidence.”

The important fact to remember is that once a recession is underway, it takes more than “a good dose of confidence” to cure it. Consumers, pinched by the all-time high cost of living, restrict their purchases. As a result, factories cut their production and lay off workers. As a result of that, our railroads are receiving fewer freight car loadings. And as a And as a [sic] further result, more than 68,000 railroad employees have been recently laid off – 12% of all railroad workers are now jobless – and employment in the railroads has dropped below one million for the first time since the great depression of 1929. And so the snowball of recession – now poised on the brink – starts its awesome, even faster plunge down the road of economic decline.

But this same Republican orator had, in an earlier address, outlined a four-point program which he said would do the job: new defense contracts, which actually represent a comparative decline; new post offices already authorized; new highways already underway; and new housing starts which were previously approved.

Not one of these points could be considered a real anti-recession weapon.

Not one is going to put money in the pockets of these who need the purchasing power.

Not one is going to make enough jobs for the right people in the right places at the right time. That four-point program – if you can call it a program – can be summed up in four words: too little, too late.

Your Republican friend – and fellow Californian – made no mention of raising unemployment benefits to our millions of jobless workers – even though these unemployed men and women now receive an average benefit equal to only one third of their previous earnings.

He made no mention of helping our distressed areas of substantial labor surplus – even though such areas now include one third of the nation’s major industrial centers.

He made no mention of extending minimum wage protection – even though 35 million workers now lack that basic floor under our purchasing power.

He said nothing about farmers forced from their land, miners out of a job, businessmen without customers or contracts.

No, he did not mention any of these programs that would put money in the pockets of those who need it most. On the contrary, he said, the Republicans – unlike the Democrats – believe in “spending for things you need.”

But I ask you, my friends, which do we need most – $2 billion in new post offices, which produce no new wealth – or 200,000 new public school classrooms – 838,000 hospital beds – new reclamation and water power projects, such as the Trinity River Project – or new homes for the 17 million Americans whom Fortune Magazine says “live in dwellings that are beyond rehabilitation – decayed, dirty, rat infested, without decent heat or light or plumbing”? That’s what we need more than post-offices. Our Republican friend said, “It’s time to quit running America down.” I say it’s time to start building America up.

Exactly twenty-five years ago tonight the nation waited for the kind of leadership I have described. Exactly twenty-five years ago tomorrow President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt boarded the train for Washington. He was figuratively watched, with hope and fear, by millions of unemployed workers – dispossessed farmers – panicky bankers – and pessimistic businessmen. The nation was in a state of collapse. His predecessor insisted that everything that could be done had been done – that “the major difficulty is in the state of public mind” – that the primary need was for “confidence” – and that the new President-elect could best secure this through balancing the budget and abandoning his schemes for public works and mortgage guarantees.

Twenty-five years ago tonight Franklin Roosevelt faced a crisis of paralyzing proportions. Twenty-five years ago tomorrow he boarded that B & O train with the weight of an anxious nation on his shoulders. As President, he travelled alone. The responsibility, the decisions, the opportunity were his alone.

But Franklin Roosevelt brought down to Washington with him something more than confidence. He brought imagination and ideas. He brought determination and action. He brought leadership – articulate, thoughtful, visionary, resourceful leadership.

And as the Republicans packed to move out, Robert E. Sherwood contrasted the old and the new administrations in a brief sardonic poem:

“Plodding feet
Tramp –tramp
The Grand Old Party’s
Breaking Camp.
Blare of bugles
Din – din
The New Deal is moving in.”

“The Presidency,” FDR had told a reporter the previous year, “is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. Without leadership, alert and sensitive to change, we are bogged up or lose our way, as we have lost it in the past decade.”

What we need in America today is not so much confidence in the economy, but confidence in our leadership. We want “leadership alert and sensitive,” Roosevelt’s words, to the harsh changes occurring in the economy. That is necessarily the role of the Chief Executive in modern America. That is the role fulfilled by Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. That role is not being fulfilled today.

We are told instead to wait for the upturn in March. We have waited – March has arrived – and our confidence is diminished further. We see no new ideas, no bold action, no “blare of bugles.” We see only “plodding feet . . . tramp, tramp” – and “the Grand Old Party’s . . . breaking camp.”

When an Administration lets fall the reins of leadership, they must be firmly held by Congress – today a Democratic Congress. We must exercise that leadership.

We must pass measures assisting our unemployed workers and our labor surplus areas.

We must restore the vitality of our anti-recession weapons, now rusting from neglect and depreciation.

We must restore the purchasing power of our hard-pressed small farmers and small businessmen.

We must build the public works our nation needs – schools, hospitals, reclamation projects, power dams, urban renewal.

We must give help where help is needed – in our allocations of defense contracts, in our tax and fiscal policies, in our programs of aid to agriculture and business.

We must raise the nation’s standard of living instead of the cost of living – for the aged and the handicapped, for the migrant farm worker, for the unorganized and the underpaid and the underprivileged – and we must give them their full and equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed or national origin.

And above all, in the words of Justice Holmes, whether we sail with the wind or against the wind, let us set sail – and not drift or lie at anchor.

So long as there is one child without milk, so long as there is one family without a decent home, so long as there are aged persons without pensions, working mothers without fair wages, struggling farmers without income – so long as there are overcrowded schools, inadequate hospitals and families on relief – so long will the need for the Democratic Party continue – and so long will we be called upon to assume the responsibilities of leadership.

I do not pretend to say that the future will always be rosy, even under a Democratic Administration. There will be crises, there will be problems. But only the Democratic Party has the enthusiasm and the determination and the new ideas necessary to meet those problems.

We can build the schools and the hospitals and the homes and the dams that our nation needs.

We can wage unrelenting war against drought and poverty and illiteracy and illness and economic insecurity.

We can build, through strength and justice and realistic leadership, a lasting peace.

And we can go forward to a new and better America, never satisfied with things as they are, daring always to try the new, daring nobly and doing greatly. It is in this spirit that we meet here tonight. It is in this spirit that we will sweep the nation in 1958 and 1960.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 900, Folder: "FDR Memorial Dinner, Los Angeles, California, l March 1958".