Jonathan Alter has penned a fine biography and history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days as President in The Defining Moment (Simon and Schuster $16.00). Alter is a frequent guest, of course, on MSNBC's Countdown, and, yeah, I know, he's become something of a wanker on the public option. (He supports it, but is not sure if it is necessary for the Health Care bill that finally emerges out of Congress.) Nevertheless, this history is well-written and parallels much of what we are now going through.
But it was worse then. Banks were dying, unemployment was much higher and the temper of the country much uglier. FDR emerged as the candidate at a rather ugly convention (where, at that time, a candidate needed a 2/3 delegate majority), facing opposition from the 1928 Democratic standard-bearer, Al Smith, and Texas congressman, John Nance Garner. In a campaign where polling was in its infancy, and where the candidate was essentially wheel-chair bound, Roosevelt scored a huge victory over the incumbent Herbert Hoover. During this time, FDR was able to put together his "Brain Trust", and then his formidible cabinet, that included Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins and Harold Ickes among others.
Alter cites Roosevelt's flexibility for much of his success. Even as the transition from the previous administration was taking place, things seemed dire. As March 4th (the then Inaugural day) approached, there was a nationwide run on the banks. Panic was in the air. Many powerful men and pundits encouraged a benign dictatorship. Walter Lippman pushed FDR to that end. William Randolph Hearst was even more persistent. Hearst produced a film, "Gabriel Over the White House" that starred Walter Huston as President Hammond, who in order to implement his agenda, fires his cabinet of party hacks, and declares martial law and dissolves the Congress, and executes his enemies in front of the Statue of Liberty. One of FDR's triumphs was to resist this kind of temptation, and not dispense with that pesky democracy stuff.
The Defining Moment is available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.
And now a scene from one of my favorite movies, and certainly one of the finest to come out of the Depression, The Petrified Forest, based on the play by Robert Sherwood:
demo, can you spare a dime?