- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

The 100-day marker against which presidents are judged is a yardstick that journalists have devised in recent years.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was touted for the standard, but only in retrospect. Besides, FDR´s situation was unique in 1933; the economy was in shambles, with banks falling like ducks in a carnival shooting range. As Will Rogers put it after FDR´s inauguration: "I don´t know what additional authority Roosevelt may ask, but give it to him, even it´s to drown all the boy babies."

The president, in an unprecedented action, called Congress into special session on March 8; alphabet agencies were created so swiftly that after five score days Congress adjourned and someone decided to count the achievements: 15 messages of FDR had been translated into 15 pieces of legislation.

But no period in the last 68 years has necessitated such a rush to legislative achievement. President Harry S. Truman hoped Congress would quickly enact a 21-point program later dubbed the Fair Deal. On Sept. 4, 1945, he found that he couldn´t outdo FDR.

Calling Congress into special session, he got only a watered-down employment law by February 1946, and lost out completely on his high hopes for civil rights legislation, an education package, health care, and pro-labor laws. Even after his stunning upset victory in 1948, Mr. Truman was kept in check by Southern Democrats who thwarted reform save for the raising of the minimum wage, liberalization of displaced persons laws and a National Housing Act promoting the construction of 810,000 public housing units.

When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, the Fair Deal was put on indefinite hold.

Even a strong-armed former congressional leader like Lyndon B. Johnson couldn´t speed up the reform process when he became president after John F. Kennedy´s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. In his first 100 days, LBJ got Congress to pass a tax-cut bill, but it wasn´t until Day 232 — July 12, 1964 — that he got the Civil Rights Act. After a year in office, the president had also chalked up a War on Poverty law, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, the Wilderness Areas Act and the Housing Act.

Mr. Johnson´s Great Society program — enunciated during the 1964 campaign — was impressive, but scarcely a 100-day phenomenon after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1965. Medicare, for instance, wasn´t passed until July.

In the old days, presidents — save for George Washington´s administration, which had to start the new government under the Constitution weren´t supposed to be activists.

They were supposed to run a tight ship, not waste taxpayers´ money and keep the nation unentangled in foreign affairs.

Not until the Progressive reform movement of the early 20th century did presidents propose a legislative agenda notable for enlarging the federal government´s regulatory and social welfare arms. But the sentiment waxed and waned until FDR´s New Deal.

Afterward, historians used many tests for rating presidents. Veteran historian Thomas A. Bailey´s groundbreaking 1964 work, "Presidential Greatness," focused on 43 tests for the nation´s leaders, of which "achievement" is only one. Shunning the temptation to make presidents "great" because they were able to maneuver Congress into passing laws, Mr. Bailey could be brutally critical of FDR and favor President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

"Whatever the necessity, Roosevelt encouraged the masses to develop their wishbones more than their backbones. At a cost of some twenty billion dollars and six years of agony, the 'Happy Borrower´ did not cure the Depression: he merely administered aspirin and sedatives."

"If (Eisenhower) achieved no sensational successes, he made no catastrophic blunders. … Historians will almost certainly never give him as high a mark as voters did, but perhaps we ought to be grateful that this untrained soldier and popular idol turned out to be an eminently respectable and respected President, remembered for his dignity, decency, and dedication.

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