President Roosevelt addressing a packed audience at the annual Jackson Day Dinner, on January 8, 1940:
President Roosevelt: “The relative importance of politics and Government is something not always easy to see when you are in the frontline trenches of political organization.
In a period of thirty years, during which I have been more or less in public life—in my home county, in Albany, in Washington, in Europe during the World War, in New York City, in national conventions, back in Albany and finally again in Washington—I have come to the conclusion that the closer people are to what may be called the front lines of Government, of all kinds—local and State and Federal—the easier it is to see the immediate underbrush, the individual tree trunks of the moment, and to forget the nobility, the usefulness and the wide extent of the forest itself.
It is because party people in County Court Houses, or City Halls, or State Capitals, or the District of Columbia are, most of them, so close to the picture of party or factional warfare, that they are apt to acquire a false perspective of what the “motives” and the purposes of both parties and their leaders should be for the common good today.
They forget that politics, after all, is only an instrument through which to achieve Government. They forget that back of the jockeying for party position, back of the party generals, hundreds of thousands of men and women—officers and privates, foremen and workmen—have to get a good job done, have to put in day-after-day of honest, sincere work in carrying out the multitudinous functions that the policymakers in modern democracy assign to administrators in modern democracy.
People tell me that I hold to party ties less tenaciously than most of my predecessors in the Presidency, and that I have too many people in my Administration who are not active party Democrats. I must admit the soft impeachment.
My answer is that I do believe in party organization, but only in proportion to its proper place in Government. I believe party organization—the existence of at least two effectively opposing parties—is a sound and necessary part of our American system; and that, effectively organized nationally and by States and by localities, parties are good instruments for the purpose of presenting and explaining issues, of drumming up interest in elections, and, incidentally, of improving the breed of candidates for public office.
But the future lies with those wise political leaders who realize that the great public is interested more in Government than in politics; that the independent vote in this country has been steadily on the increase, at least for the past generation; that vast numbers of people consider themselves normally adherents of one party and still feel perfectly free to vote for one or more candidates of another party, come election day, and on the other hand, sometimes uphold party principles even when precinct captains decide “to take a walk.”
The growing independence of voters, after all, has been proven by the votes in every Presidential election since my childhood-and the tendency, frankly, is on the increase. I am too modest, of course, to refer to certain recent elections. Party regulars who want to win must hold their allies and supporters among those independent voters. And do not let us forget it.
There are, of course, some citizens—I hope a decreasing number—with whom I find it difficult to talk rationally on this subject of strict party voting. I have in mind, for example, some of my close friends down Georgia-way, who are under the impression that they would be ostracized in society and in business if it were to appear publicly that they had ever voted for a Republican. I also have in mind some very close friends in northern villages and counties who tell me, quite frankly, that though they would give anything in the world to be able to vote for me, a Democrat, it would hurt their influence and their social position in their own home. town. (Laughter)
I have in mind the predicament of one of the ablest editors of a great paper who some time ago said to me, very frankly:
“I am really in complete sympathy with your program, Mr. President, but I cannot say so publicly because the readers and the advertisers of my paper are ninety per cent Republicans and I simply cannot afford to change its unalterable policy of traditional opposition to anything and everything that comes from Democratic sources. Of course, Mr. President, you understand.”
And might I add, that the President understood.”
A reminder for another January, this one in 2018. Here is that complete address from January 8, 1940.