The New Deal: A Modern History

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New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik tells the epic story of the New Deal through the outsized personalities of the people who fought for it, opposed it, and benefited from it, rendering vital lessons for our own time.

As America struggles with an economic debacle akin to the Great Depression, nothing could be timelier than an authoritative account of the New Deal, masterfully written by Michael Hiltzik, author of the acclaimed history of the Hoover Dam, Colossus.

In this richly peopled, vividly rendered narrative, Hiltzik describes how the urgent short-term relief measures of Franklin Roosevelt's Hundred Days evolved into a transformative concept of the federal role in American life. Rather than the product of a single ideology, the New Deal emerged from the clash of ideas held by advisors from very different backgrounds. With historical and psychological insight, Hiltzik sheds light on the lives of the gargantuan characters who fought for and against it: Herbert Hoover, whose own administration gave birth to many of the programs that would become part of the New Deal; General Hugh Johnson, the West Pointer whose pugnacious leadership of the National Recovery Administration symbolized the New Deal for millions of Americans; Harry Hopkins, whose closeness to Roosevelt earned him the moniker ''deputy president''; and many other fascinating figures. What emerges is a saga of how FDR managed to recast the federal government into something that still inspires: a unifying structure with the concept of social justice at its heart.

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About the Author:

MICHAEL HILTZIK is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who has covered business, technology, and public policy for the Los Angeles Times for twenty years. In that time he has served as a financial and political writer, an investigative reporter, and a foreign correspondent in Africa and Russia. He currently serves as the Times' business columnist. His other books include Colossus, The Plot Against Social Security, Dealers of Lightning, and A Death in Kenya. He received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for articles exposing corruption in the entertainment industry. Among his other awards for excellence in reporting are the 2004 Gerald Loeb Award for outstanding business commentary and the Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association for outstanding legal reporting. A graduate of Colgate University, he received a master of science degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1974. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.

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FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT BEGAN Inauguration Day at a 10 A.M. religious service with his family, his cabinet appointees, secretaries, aides, and a few close friends. The location was St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House, chosen because it had no steps to complicate the wheelchair-bound President-elect’s entry from the street. Inside, the Reverend Endicott Peabody, rector of Groton, FDR’s old school, read from the Protestant Book of Common Prayer and beseeched the Almighty to favor and bless “Thy servant, Franklin, chosen to be President of the United States.”

The official party dispersed as soon as the service ended, Roosevelt to the White House for the start of the ritual procession toward the 1 P.M. oath-taking in front of the U.S. Capitol. The wisest among the other attendees had hired cars for the day and promptly drove off. Frances Perkins, the new secretary of labor, found herself standing forlorn on the sidewalk with her daughter, Susanna, and a couple she recognized as Mr. and Mrs. Henry A. Wallace. They introduced themselves to each other, joined forces to hail a passing cab, and tried to figure out how to reach the Capitol entrance reserved for dignitaries.

The members of the new administration drew what encouragement or counsel they could from the faces of the crowds lining the ceremonial routes and assembling before the Capitol. Tugwell remarked on the public’s apparent determination to squeeze just a little enjoyment from the festive inaugural parade, “squads and squadrons of marching clubs, fraternal drill teams, silk-hatted and frock-coated Tammany braves, military detachments and uniformed bands,” all in such contrast to “the morning’s solemnity.” Perhaps FDR’s decision to proceed with the celebration despite the hard times was the right move after all.

Perkins, who had finally reached her spot on the platform by elbowing her way through the crowds behind Wallace in shoes soaking wet from tramping across the sodden Capitol lawn, could not help being moved by “the terror-stricken look on the faces of the people,” many of whom were hearing for the first time the bleak rumors that the last of the banks had closed that morning. “An enormous crowd had come for the inauguration, but they looked frightened, worried, depressed. It was not the kind of gay Democrats that you saw later on. They were just worried to death.”

Roosevelt made his way from the White House to the Capitol seated next to Herbert Hoover in an open car. Along the teeming processional route he tried to make conversation with the grim visage to his right, but could elicit no more than the occasional grunt. As he related the tale later to his secretary Grace Tully, he finally decided that the cheering of the throng warranted a more suitable acknowledgment than Hoover’s dour scowl. “So I began to wave my own response with my top hat and I kept waving it until I got to the inauguration stand and was sworn in.”

After taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Roosevelt prepared to deliver his inaugural speech. Hoover did not wait to hear it; at the completion of the oath-taking, the ex-president ceremoniously shook his successor’s hand, left the platform, and, trailed by two or three of his cabinet members, continued walking until he reached his car and settled in, at which point it promptly drove off.

“President Hoover, Mr. Chief Justice, my friends,” the new president began, then uttered a phrase he had scribbled at the top of his draft just before coming out from the Capitol building to the inaugural stand: “This is a day of national consecration.” The addition was so belated that the phrase did not make it into the official text of the speech.

He continued: “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.”

Roosevelt’s flawless delivery, his pausing for dramatic effect before the words “fear itself,” invested the phrase with his own confidence and assurance. His critics would later assert that in doing so, Roosevelt was himself taking Hoover’s approach to the Depression, reassuring the people that the worst would be over in due course. Yet that is to ignore the context. Hoover’s repeated reassurances served a policy of complacency and limited federal action, even inaction; Roosevelt’s words heralded “action, and action now,” a pledge of direct government employment of the jobless and the construction of projects to exploit national resources, of “definite efforts” to raise the value of farm products, of the prevention of home and farm foreclosures, of the broadening and coordination of relief.

The rest of the speech was a model of concise presidential oratory, not quite 1,900 words requiring not quite twenty minutes to deliver. The text outlined the principles of the coming administration and some of its legislative goals, albeit shrouding them in inspirational flourishes and, here and there, veiled censuring of the departing leadership.

In the most assertive (and to many listeners unnerving) moment of the speech, the new president vowed, if “the national emergency is still critical,” to not shrink from asking Congress “for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis . . . broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Roosevelt’s admirers and detractors alike would long debate whether those words were a promise or a threat, and in either case whether or when he might deliver on them.

Those rhetorical bookends, the release from fear at the speech’s opening and the promise of unstinting effort in its peroration, often obscure other elements of the inaugural address that proclaimed a new era in American politics and policy.

One was the recognition that the economic crisis was the creation of men—“the unscrupulous money changers”—not an artifact of nature. “The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods,” Roosevelt stated, “have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failures and abdicated. . . . The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

This insight underpinned Roosevelt’s conception of government power as a force to be utilized aggressively. The new administration would not wait passively for recovery, as had the tribunes of “false leadership, [who] have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored conditions.” The New Deal would act, not plead.

Among the other concepts introduced in the inaugural address were two that would animate the social elements of the New Deal: shared responsibility and the nobility of work. More than any other details of the speech, these reflected the influence of Adolf Berle, who was the most penetrating critic within the Brain Trust of Hoover’s infatuation with “individualism” and resistance to regulation, which Hoover had said would lead to industrial “regimentation.”

To Berle, Hoover’s outlook merely rationalized exploitation of the many by the few, with the tacit acquiescence of government. “Whatever the economic system does permit,” he had written Roosevelt during the campaign, “it is not individualism.” Warming to the theme he and Means had developed in The Modern Corporation and Private Property, he added:

When nearly seventy per cent of American industry is concentrated in the hands of six hundred corporations; when more than half of the population of the industrial east live or starve, depending on what this group does . . . the individual man or woman has, in cold statistics, less than no chance at all. The President’s stricture on “regimentation” . . . is merely ironic; there is regimentation in work, in savings, and even in unemployment and starvation. . . . What Mr. Hoover means by individualism is letting economic units do about what they please.

Berle proposed substituting a “far truer individualism” in which the government acts as a “regulating and unifying agency,” so that “individual men and women could survive, have homes, educate their children, and so forth.” These points were transformed in the inaugural address into an affirmation of “social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”

“The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits,” Roosevelt continued. “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 our fellow men.”

There could be no more direct break with the “individualism” of Herbert Hoover than through these words.

Roosevelt did nod toward traditional conservative values—for example, in his admonition to state and local officials that they must “act forthwith” on the public’s demand for drastic reductions in government costs. He repeated his campaign promise to maintain “an adequate but sound currency,” words that might have comforted anti-inflationary conservatives, had not Roosevelt always steadfastly “refused to be drawn into any precise definition of what this meant.”

A persistent myth is that Roosevelt wrote the inaugural address in a burst of inspiration over a single evening. Blame for this fabrication belongs to the President himself. A note he signed and attached to a longhand draft now residing at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, ...

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Michael Hiltzik
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