By Adam Cohen, The Penguin Press, New York, N.Y. 384 pages, $29.95
On Inauguration Day March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president of a nation where 30 percent of its citizens were unemployed, 5,000 banks had failed, stocks prices had plummeted 85 percent, and hunger was so prevalent that in New York City alone 20 percent of all school children suffered from malnutrition.
The nation was teetering on the brink of collapse. Roosevelt, an invalid who out of the public eye was carried like a small child, inspired his countrymen by telling them they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Adam Cohen does a masterful job of relating the first 100 days of Roosevelt’s administration by focusing on the four men and one woman who shaped the “New Deal.”
The author begins by describing the near-religious commitment of Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt’s predecessor, to laissez-faire economics and a puritanical belief that aid to the poor would morally damage them. Hoover’s solution to the Great Depression and poverty was rugged individualism.
Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest aide, said it best when told that things would work out for the unemployed “in the long run.” He responded, “People don’t eat in the long run – they eat every day.”
Roosevelt and his five-member “Brain Trust” fomented a revolution that in turn created modern America. They introduced a new philosophy that Americans had responsibilities to one another and that the government had a duty to intervene when capitalism failed.
“We all go up, or else we all go down, as one people,” said Roosevelt.
Cohen writes that the patrician, sheltered Roosevelt became a man of the people because of his crippling illness. It gave him the ability, when he delivered the first of his fireside chats, to envision “a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, a farmer in his field.”
Raymond Moley, Roosevelt’s chief speech writer, was the leader of the president’s Brain Trust. A Columbia University government professor, Moley was the recruiter of the “New Deal” leaders. He created the central tension of the first 100 days by advocating spending to fight the depression while spending less to balance the budget.
Moley and William Woodin personally persuaded the governors of every states to declare a bank holiday on Inauguration Day, thus saving the banking system by preventing withdrawals until confidence returned. The immediate passage of the Emergency Banking Act allowed financially stable banks to stay open, troubled banks were put under conservators and those that could not be saved were closed permanently. Thus, capitalism was saved in eight days.
Roosevelt’s highest priority was reducing the federal budget. The Economy Act slashed federal spending. He viewed the federal budget as an overspending family on the road to bankruptcy.
Lewis Douglas, Roosevelt’s first budget director, believed a balanced budget and a stable dollar were crucial to confront the economic crisis. The Economy Act passed with bipartisan support as Republicans were moved by a sense of duty to Roosevelt, and the good of the country was put above party politics.
Henry Wallace, from a long line of Iowa farmers, drafted the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which controlled productivity and oversupply and provided relief for farm mortgages. Roosevelt, the author believes, viewed himself as a gentleman farmer who had an affinity for agricultural work based on his upbringing in Hyde Park, N.Y.
The Home Owners Loan Act extended to home mortgages the same relief as farm mortgages. In a time when thousands of urban homes were being foreclosed every day, a moratorium was imposed and millions of farms and homes were saved.
A large portion of Cohen’s book is devoted to the role of Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s labor secretary and the first woman appointed to a cabinet position.
Perkins was an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Washington Square Park, where 46 immigrant seamstresses perished. This tragedy impelled her to become a lifelong crusader for workers’ rights. Perkins, more than any member of the Brain Trust, transformed the U.S. political landscape forever.
But before we can understand the revolution that occurred in American political thought we must understand the view of poverty prior to 1933. Our beliefs were descended from the “poor laws” of Dickensian England, which assumed the poor were to blame for their condition. Poverty was considered a moral failure caused by laziness and drunkenness.
Roosevelt surrounded himself with men and woman who, based on their life experiences, had learned that people fall into poverty due to harsh economic circumstances and felt that the government had a moral duty to improve those circumstances.
Before the Perkins era, the Labor Department pursued illegal immigrants and not much else. But in the first 100 days, the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed, which provided minimum wages, maximum hours and child labor protection. It also detailed public work projects, including highways, public buildings, public land conservation, water and electricity development, slum clearance and public housing.
Perkins’ work laid the foundation for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps and the social network that today fights poverty, hunger and disease.
Cohen notes that Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, was the heart and soul of the New Deal. He created the home relief system and tried to dispel notions about people who accept government aid. “Are they hobos?” he asked a conference of mayors. “Are they unemployable? Are they a bunch of people who are no good and who are incompetent?”
No, they were not, he insisted.
“Take a look at them if you have not and see who they are . . . carpenters, bricklayers, artisans, architects, engineers, clerks, stenographers, doctors, dentists, ministers,” he said. “I think there are the best people in the United States on these relief rolls.”
Hopkins fathered the National Industrial Recovery Act, which created the Civil Works, Works Progress and Public Works administrations.
Roosevelt’s first 100 days not only improved the lives of destitute Americans, but, more importantly, fundamentally changed the country.
For the first time the federal government recognized a responsibility, a moral duty, to look after its citizens. The government was no longer a passive force observing its citizens’ problems.
As Cohen states, “the relationship between the American people and its government would never be the same again.” And the biblical question was answered in the affirmative by Roosevelt and his New Dealers: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
The parallels between 1933 and 2009 are frighteningly similar. President Barack Obama is faced with a collapsing banking system, millions of home foreclosures and a plummeting stock market.
But a great distinction is that Mr. Obama bears the additional burden of unsupportive Republicans in Congress. So the question remains: Will our crisis conclude with a result similar to the one eventually produced by Roosevelt’s first 100 days?
Andrea M. Alonso is a partner at Morris Duffy Alonso & Faley.