Opinion: Joe Biden heads for Warm Springs and the Roosevelt legacy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits with a group of musicians in the front yard of his retreat home, the Little White House, in Warm Springs, Ga. Jim Frazer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits with a group of musicians in the front yard of his retreat home, the Little White House, in Warm Springs, Ga. Jim Frazer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If you grew up on the south side of metro Atlanta, you know that a stretch of U.S. 29, from Palmetto to College Park, is called Roosevelt Highway, in honor of the president whose casket traveled along a parallel train track in April 1945 – on its way to Washington D.C.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was something close to a deity in Georgia. The year before, he’d won 82% of the state vote and all but two counties in his quest for a fourth term as president. And those were just the white voters. Black Georgians, most of whom were barred from the ballot box, lined the route of the funeral train as well.

Sometime Tuesday, former vice president and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will pay a visit to Warm Springs, which served as Roosevelt’s rustic retreat from 1924 through his 12 years as president.

To see a Democratic presidential candidate anywhere in Georgia, one week before the end of voting, is in itself a wonder. In past cycles, Republicans would beg Democrats to waste as many dollars as they could in their bootless quests to turn Georgia blue. Those taunts have disappeared. The situation is no longer a laughing matter.

That said, many of you might wonder why Biden would travel (72 miles by car from Atlanta) to a community that has become, since the death of FDR, a stately but low-key tourist spot. The reasons likely range from the very specific to the grandly thematic. We shall start small and work our way up.

Warm Springs is in Meriwether County. The city itself is in House District 137, represented by state Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City. But a good portion of Meriwether County is in House District 138, home to House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Democrats need to pick up 16 seats on Nov. 3 to take control of the state House. As part of an all-hands-on-deck effort to make sure this doesn’t happen, Republicans are pouring $1 million or so into an attempt to defeat Trammell.

Biden’s visit to Warm Springs may be, at least in part, an attempt to counter that. Take a moment to absorb that. The Democrat who is currently the odds-on favorite to be the next president of these semi-United States has a campaign schedule that will offer protection to a local state lawmaker representing a rural district. We have not been told this is intentional, but time is too short to believe in coincidences.

There appears to be a broader strategy at work, too. Meriwether County went 56% for Donald Trump in 2016. Other surrounding counties went for Trump in much larger numbers, but Talbot County — which adjoins Meriwether on its southern border — was won by Hillary Clinton with 61% of the vote.

Since Republicans came to power in Georgia in 2002, their strategy has been to run up the score in rural portions of the state to offset votes from blue urbanized areas. In 2016, Trump pushed that formula to a new level. In 2018, Brian Kemp relied on it even more, winning an estimated 90% of the rural vote in Georgia – but beating Democrat Stacey Abrams in the race for governor by only 55,000 votes.

Meriwether County is a potential wedge.

If Biden can rob Trump of a few rural percentage points there and elsewhere, he could win the state of Georgia on Nov. 3.

Considering how Biden might do that takes us back to Warm Springs.

FDR was struck with polio in 1921, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Hearing about its supposedly healing (88 degree) waters, Roosevelt made his first trip to Warm Springs in 1924. Three years later, he bought the 2,000-acre resort and turned it into a treatment center for himself and other polio victims.

The place has always had a make-do reputation. A local machine shop took a 1938 Ford convertible and equipped it with hand controls to allow FDR to drive around the countryside. More than 30 years later, that same machine shop did similar work on an Oldsmobile Toronado for Max Cleland, a future U.S. senator who had come home from Vietnam with three limbs blown away.

Even before Roosevelt’s arrival, Warm Springs was a health care center – though spa treatments have their limits. The community now has two hospitals that bear the Roosevelt name and operate under the auspices of Augusta University Health.

Health care is becoming more miss than hit in rural Georgia. By some calculations, the COVID-19 death rate is now higher in rural Georgia than suburban and urban Georgia. Some 90 miles due south of Warm Springs, in Cuthbert, the Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center closed last week — the latest of many rural hospitals to bite the dust in this state.

It would surprise no one if Biden mentions it, perhaps tossing in the issue of Medicaid expansion as well.

One of the most important things that endeared Roosevelt to Georgia was his administration’s success in bringing cheap electricity into rural communities. FDR once credited the high bills he received for the Warm Springs compound as the inspiration for his Rural Electrification Administration.

We have a similar problem today with broadband Internet, which — what with the pandemic — has proven even more crucial to education, health care and economic development in rural Georgia than originally thought. And more expensive. Delivering broadband to the most isolated communities in the state requires some government involvement — but we can’t seem to agree on how much.

So that’s another topic ripe for conversation on Tuesday.

And then there are the larger themes. Joe Crespino is the Jimmy Carter Professor of History at Emory University. Much of his work has involved the Depression-era South.

Biden’s visit is “interesting symbolically and historically because of where Biden fits within the Democratic party in 2020,” he told me. "He’s had to move to the left in the primary to accommodate a younger, more liberal wing within the party. Roosevelt was pushed by the left wing of his party.

“Yes, [Roosevelt] was a liberal. He was surrounded by liberals. But he was pulled to the left by the circumstances of the time. He became more liberal, and the New Deal became more far reaching,” Crespino said.

Roosevelt programs didn’t end the Depression, Crespino and other historians agree. That was accomplished by the economic activity surrounding World War II.

Instead, Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishment was the mobilization of American sentiment — which in his early years as president was hostile to foreign involvement — against the threat of a Nazi-controlled Europe and an insatiable Japanese empire.

This may be the touchstone that Biden reaches for. The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide scourge that, as much as we pretend otherwise, cares nothing for borders.

Still, the Trump administration has responded by pulling out of international alliances that exist to fight such outbreaks. And by pushing responsibility onto individual states rather than formulating a robust and unified national response.

With only days left in the contest, there is no time for fireside chats. But should Biden want to declare the pandemic a crisis that – similar to World War II — requires us to set aside our differences for the sake of our own survival, Warm Springs has some experience in that line.

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