FDR had been especially in my mind because of a visit I had with an old friend on Election Day. She had her ballot out on the table and was going to make sure it was dropped in a voting box before the end of the day. She told me that she has voted in every election since she was 18 years of age. She recalled that the first time she voted was for FDR in 1932. You can do the math and figure out her age. I was struck by the historical parallels between the election in 1932 and 2008. Now I recognize that we need to be careful about making too much of these parallels; but since more and more we are hearing that we are facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression I was drawn to a little reflection on that election seventy-six years ago.
Although stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down, Roosevelt refused to give up his desire to be active in politics. In 1928, seven years after he had been stricken, he was elected governor of New York. He followed the political trajectory of his relative Teddy. The first stop for both was Assistant Secretary of the Navy; the second was Governor of New York; and the third was the White House.
Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1932 election was Herbert Clark Hoover who had taken office just before the depression hit. He didn’t cause it, but he also seemed incapable of dealing with it. What else Hoover lacked was Roosevelt’s unique ability to persuade and reassure.
In a foreshadowing of Obama’s themes in the just concluded election, FDR focused his campaign on the common people who were being hurt by the depression. His speech during the campaign, “The Forgotten Man,” established the main themes of his campaign:
It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry--he staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.And the common people listened to him. Roosevelt won in a landslide, winning 472 electoral votes to Hoover’s 59.
Two days after the election, Adolph Berle, one of those known as FDR’s “brain trust” presented the President-elect and his cabinet-to-be with three stark “either/or” statements of the dire situation they faced:
First, there would either be economic recovery or there would be a revolution.I spent some time this week reading and listening to Roosevelt’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1933. At this “History Matters” website you can read his address, but at the “Sounds of History” website you can actually listen to the address as it was broadcast to the nation on radio. As I listened and read at the same time, I was struck by the relevance of FDR’s words seventy-five years ago for today.
Second, there would either be social reform of a restored economy or attempted political stabilization in a disintegrating one.
Third, either the "recovery" Hoover claimed was in progress would arrive, or FDR would have to clean up the mess.
I will only include some selections from his twelve-minute speech. Although I hope the ones I select convey the spirit and heart of FDR’s focus, the selection will subjective. But you do have the option of reading the entire speech yourself.
Before reading the speech, I did not realize that his words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” came from this address and from the first paragraph. I was glad to see them in context:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.Roosevelt became one of America’s most beloved presidents, but he was also one of its most vilified, especially by the wealthy. Unlike Obama, Roosevelt came from wealth, which made his identification with common people reprehensible to those who, in the title of H. W. Brand’s new biography, considered him a “Traitor to His Class*.” Roosevelt was called a communist and socialist for his “New Deal” legislation that was directed at common people and that rescued the economy. Roosevelt’s failings—and he had them; the most notable for me was his internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—do not negate the assessment of his presidency made by The Economist in a review of Brand’s book:
…our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men…
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men…
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources…
Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
There are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States.
Roosevelt was the greatest American president since Lincoln, his colossal abilities tested by personal illness, economic catastrophe and world war. He used every tool to hand to direct the United States in peace and war: party, bureaucracy, Congress and the media of the day. Whoever wins the presidential election of 2008 will find those levers rusted, weakened or twisted. His task will be to reconnect the presidency to the country and to the world—something that will take the talent and character Franklin Roosevelt brought to lead America from the nadir of economic distress to the zenith of power.Our President-elect Barack Obama faces not only the severest economic crisis faced since the one FDR faced in 1933, he has, at the same time, to contend with two wars, and the collateral damage of an eight year assault on the American ideals of justice and civil liberties. He will need the “talent and character” of FDR, and more.