Monday, January 01, 2018

FDR – The Paradox – Part 1

A little boy goes to his dad and asks, “What is politics?” The dad says, “Well son, let me try to explain it this way: I’m the breadwinner of the family, so let’s call me capitalism. Your mother, she’s the administrator of the money, so we’ll call her the government. We’re here to take care of your needs, so we’ll call you the people. The nanny, we’ll consider her the working class. And your baby brother, we’ll call him the future. Now, think about that and see if that makes sense.”

The little boy goes off to bed thinking about what dad had said. Later that night, he hears his baby brother crying, so he gets up to check on him. He finds that the baby has soiled his diaper. The little boy goes to his parents’ room and finds his mother sound asleep. Not wanting to wake her, he goes to the nanny’s room. Finding the door locked, he peeks in the keyhole and sees his father in bed with the nanny. He gives up and goes back to bed. The next morning, the little boy says to his father, “Dad, I think I understand the concept of politics now.” The father says, “Good son, tell me in your own words what you think politics is all about.” The little boy replies, “Well, while capitalism is screwing the working class, the government is sound asleep, the people are being ignored and the future is in deep s--t.”

The little boy’s summary could also serve as an overview of the status of our country’s condition on March 4th 1933, the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd president.  What was triggered by the stock market crash of 1929 was termed “the depression.” But far more descriptive of the country’s condition is the synonyms associated with the word depression. Here are some: desolation; desperation; discouragement; dispiritedness; distress; downheartedness; dreariness; hopelessness; misery; sorrow; unhappiness.

While all of those emotions undoubtedly applied, the combined multiplying effect was devastating. However the one that was most immobilizing in my opinion was “hopelessness.”  This condition was totally understandable since joblessness had reached 25 percent in the worst days of 1932-33, real GDP fell more than 25 percent, erasing all of the economic growth of the previous century, the banking and credit system of the nation was in a state of paralysis.  The sharp drop in GDP, and the anecdotal evidence of millions of people standing in soup lines or wandering the land as hoboes suggest that these rates were unusually high.

It was estimated that between one million to two million people were actually homeless. One visible effect of the depression was the advent of Hoovervilles, which were ramshackle assemblages on vacant lots of cardboard boxes, tents, and small rickety wooden sheds built by homeless people. Residents lived in the shacks and begged for food or went to soup kitchens. To keep them “warm” when they slept, they used what were called “Hoover blankets”––made from newspapers. There were hundreds of Hooverville’s throughout the country and hundreds of thousands of people lived in them.

One of the best characterizations of the status of the country on the day of FDR’s inauguration can be found in the June 24th, 2009 issue of Time Magazine:

“March 4, 1933, was perhaps the Great Depression's darkest hour. The stock market had plunged 85% from its high in 1929, and nearly one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. In the cities, jobless men were lining up for soup and bread. In rural areas, farmers whose land was being foreclosed were talking openly of revolution. The crowd that gathered in front of the Capitol that day to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Inauguration had all but given up on America. They were, a reporter observed, ‘as silent as a group of mourners around a grave.’

“Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was a pitch-perfect combination of optimism (‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’), consolation (the nation's problems ‘concern, thank God, only material things’) and resolve (‘This nation asks for action, and action now’). The speech won rave reviews. Even the rock-ribbed Republican Chicago Tribune lauded its ‘dominant note of courageous confidence.’ F.D.R. had buoyed the spirits of the American people — and nearly 500,000 of them wrote to him at the White House in the following week to tell him so. The FDR Presidential Library and Museum lists the following about the speech: ‘The new president offered hope to a desperate people’: ‘This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper.’ Then, in bold words that reverberate in public memory, he proclaimed, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

In 2009 US News published an article titled:  JFK, FDR, and the Secret History of How a Great Inaugural Address Is Written.  It read:

“Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address and John F. Kennedy's inaugural are rightly remembered as among the best speeches presidents have given to commence their terms. FDR's admonition that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ and his confident, calming tone soothed the jangled national psyche at a critical moment. Kennedy's singing imagery of a new generation of Americans coming to power with a spirit of self-sacrifice (‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’) inspired the nation and set the tone for his administration. But the two speeches have something more in common: a secret history, or perhaps a history of secrets.”

The secret behind the Kennedy speech probably deserves an article in itself, however we will concentrate here on the Roosevelt speech.

In his book, FDR and Fear Itself, Davis W Houckprovides a detailed narrative of how the speech came to be written; an explication of the text itself; and its reception. For example he comments that “Some were so moved by Roosevelt’s delivery that they would have been willing to make him a dictator, and many believed such inspired words could have come only from a divine source.” The general assumption, not denied by FDR, is that he wrote the entire speech by himself. That’s the paradox.

Houck refutes that, exposing the secret by introducing Raymond Moley a law professor at Columbia University from (1928–1954) where he was a specialist on the criminal justice system. Moley supported the then New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, and it was Moley who recruited fellow Columbia professors to form the original “Brain Trust” to advise Roosevelt during his presidential campaign of 1932.  Roosevelt had called upon Moley to write several important speeches for him, and he turned to him again to write his first inaugural speech.

Although Moley was responsible for FDR’s use of the term “the Forgotten Man” in earlier speeches, and he claimed credit for inventing the term “New Deal,” (though its precise provenance remains open to debate), he is not credited with penning the famous line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” So, who is?

Donald Trump would undoubtedly call him “Little Louis” (he was just over five feet tall), or “Scarface Louis” (because of injuries to his face from a bicycle accident when he was a young boy).  In a book written about him titled FDR’s Shadow, a reviewer wrote, “He [Louis Howe] was a key architect of FDR’s political career and helped bring Eleanor Roosevelt out of her shell. Yet even many political junkies have never heard of Louis Howe.”   Essentially, Howe was FDR’s éminence grise, powerbroker, influence peddler, and eventually kingmaker.  He was also FDR’s closest confidante, as well as providing Eleanor Roosevelt’s, as she described it, “political education.”

Howe met Roosevelt in 1912 while a reporter for The New York Herald covering the future president’s successful effort as a freshman state senator in New York to defeat Tammany Hall’s choice for US Senate (at the time senators were elected by state legislatures). Soon after that he devoted much of his attention to helping FDR rise through the ranks of politics. He served as FDR’s campaign manager and as what today would be Chief of Staff, for 34 years, until his death at 65 in 1936.

Unfortunately, Howe has not become as well known a figure as he deserves, and to some degree Roosevelt can be blamed for that.  Taking credit for his famous first inaugural speech FDR deprived Howe from another historic accomplishment.  The night before the inauguration in 1933, FDR and Moley edited the speech written by Moley, and Roosevelt said he would like to hand write the entire typed speech, and did so. When he finished, according to the Robert Schlesinger US News story mentioned  above:  “Moley rose from the long couch on which he had been sitting, took his typed draft from the table and tossed it onto the still-glowing embers in the fireplace. ‘This is your speech now,’ he told his boss.”

US News continued: “FDR had that sort of ownership in mind more than Moley knew. The handwritten draft is on file at the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park, with a typed note from the president attached to it explaining that it is “the Inaugural Address as written at Hyde Park on Monday, February 27, 1933. I started in about 9.00 P.M. and end at 1.30 A.M. A number of minor changes were made in subsequent drafts but the final draft is substantially the same as this original.”  (This does not equate with the FDR revered by most.)  Moley is pointedly omitted from this account, conjuring an image of FDR writing his great speech alone. And it is an image that held for more than three decades until Moley, incensed, published a White House memoir (his second) setting the historical record straight. 

US News continues: “FDR’s ploy also met its immediate goal as well. Howe arrived the next day and gave the speech an edit of his own, dictating a version with a new first paragraph, which included the exhortation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Thus it was Louis Howe (not Moley or FDR) who penned the ten most famous, and most impactful words ever spoken at an inaugural.  That explains another mystery but not FDR’s paradoxical behavior.

More on FDR next month.


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