A Revolutionary President

MPI/Getty Images
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, secretary of labor during Roosevelt’s administration and the first woman ever to serve in the US cabinet, circa 1943

Few expected very much of Franklin Roosevelt on Inauguration Day in 1933. Like Barack Obama seventy-six years later, he was succeeding a failed Republican president, and Americans had voted for change. What that change might be Roosevelt never clearly said, probably because he himself didn’t know.

Herbert Hoover, the departing president, had left behind an economic cataclysm. Since the 1929 stock market crash the economy had been spiraling inexorably downward for more than three years. The country had always experienced episodic “panics” and “recessions,” but nothing this bad. As Anthony J. Badger writes in FDR: The First Hundred Days, “Americans had never been there before.”

Roosevelt’s declaration that Americans had “nothing to fear but fear itself” was a glorious piece of inspirational rhetoric and just as gloriously wrong. Banks across the country had been failing for months and thousands more were on the brink as he took the presidential oath. Unemployment stood officially at 25 percent but was actually closer, Badger estimates, to 33 percent. “Farmers had been crushed by catastrophic price falls, drought, and debt. A thousand homeowners a day were losing their homes.”

Hoover, a rigid conservative intellectual, refused to abandon the old-time religion of market capitalism and was still waiting for the business cycle to work its magic. One of the inescapable sounds of the era was of Americans everywhere sardonically telling each other, “Prosperity is just around the corner.” It was the message of Hoover’s reelection campaign, and he had lost all but six of the forty-eight states.

To cope with the economic catastrophe, Americans had elected a man whom many of the finest minds of his generation considered an intellectually second-rate, rich mama’s boy, whose obvious charm obscured a deep shallowness.

In The Defining Moment, Jonathan Alter describes the young Roosevelt’s futile efforts to win the admiration of influential journalists, trying, for example, to charm Walter Lippmann, “the most prestigious syndicated columnist of that or any other era,” only to find himself dismissed in a Lippmann column as “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.” In private correspondence Lippmann was even crueler: “a kind of amiable boy scout,” he wrote to a friend.

H.L. Mencken, after pronouncing Roosevelt “one of the most charming of men,” wrote that, like most such men, he left the impression of being “somewhat shallow and futile.” Other important journalists—Herbert Bayard Swope, Frank Kent, Arthur Krock—seemed to agree. Even more remarkably, after his election some of these very critics were saying he should be given dictatorial powers. Such was the sense of panic about the Great Depression as he took office.

“The nation expected Roosevelt to claim the powers of a dictator,…

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