Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

BOOK I: Trial and Error

New Dealer Takes the Deck

Saturday Morning, March 4, 1933. As the sun struggled lazily into position through gray clouds hurrying before the chill March winds, Washington was like a beleaguered city. All over the place high officials were up early packing their bags, ready to be off as the legions of the Grand Old Party that had occupied the city for so many years prepared to evacuate. All through the night from every region, by automobile, bus, train and plane, the happy hosts of the conquering Democrats poured into the city, hastening to take over after so many hungry years in the wilderness.

In the White House, President Hoover, a weary and worn man, spent with the vigil of long sleepless nights as he struggled to hold back the tide of the onrushing crisis, was at his desk early for the last dreary duties before laying down his intolerable burden and surrendering the capital into the hands of his gay and laughing successor, already astir a mile away in the Mayflower Hotel.

In mid-morning, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his wife, his mother and numerous other Roosevelts—children, aunts and uncles and cousins to the fourth degree of consanguinity, repaired from their suite in the Mayflower to St. John's Episcopal Church where Dr. Endicott Peabody, Roosevelt's old headmaster at Groton School, would invoke the blessing of the Lord upon "Thy servant Franklin" All of the new cabinet members were there also, to thank the Lord who had answered their own prayers so pleasantly.

The service over, Mr. Roosevelt, his wife and mother and his oldest son, James, in a presidential car, went quickly to the White House. The wet streets were filling with people, marching clubs, detachments of regulars and national guard troops. The great function of the inauguration—the vast powers of government falling out of one pair of hands into another without turmoil or resistance was moving into its traditional ritual. At the White House the family got out of the car and entered the mansion for their long tenure. Roosevelt remained in the car and President Hoover got in. The automobile, with its silk-hatted occupants, moved through the gates of the White House and, heavily guarded by Secret Service men and mounted troops, moved on to the Capitol.

The streets were blackening, despite the occasional drizzle, with crowds, some huddled against the cables that lined the sidewalks for a front view of the parade later, others hurrying on to the Capitol grounds to see the inaugural ceremony. Half a million were in the streets, a hundred thousand of them crowded around the reviewing stand in front of the Capitol. This was the biggest throng that had ever assembled for an inauguration.

Throughout the country the masses were in a state of bewilderment and, in some places, despair, as the great economic crisis rolled on to its thunderous climax. The tones and colors of drama were everywhere. There was an authentic hero. There was a villain —a whole drove of villains, the bankers and big business men. The incidents of drama were all about too. Only a week before an assassin's bullet had barely missed Roosevelt. It struck Anton Cermak, the Bohemian mayor and boss of Chicago, who with Al Smith had opposed Roosevelt's nomination. It was the hand of God, said some. Cermak had gone to Miami to meet Roosevelt as he arrived from a sea trip aboard Vincent Astor's yacht the Nourmahal a week before the inauguration.

Miami was crowded with Democratic office seekers and Cermak was there to make his peace with Roosevelt. Instead he got the bullet intended for Roosevelt and died a few days later. Had he been for Roosevelt in the first place, said the pious Democrats who believe that Providence plays Democratic politics, he would not have had to go to Miami and he would be alive now. Later, as Roosevelt's train sped from New York to Washington carrying himself and his family, word came to him that aboard another train carrying the 65-year-old Senator Thomas J. Walsh and his bride of two days, the aged groom dropped dead in his Pullman drawing room. He was speeding to the capital to be sworn in as Attorney-General.

Every hour brought news of new bank closings—from Texas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin—bringing to 24 the number of states which had closed their banks. During the preceding night word had come that the banks of New York and Chicago could not stand the strain another day. Governor Lehman, in the early morning hours, had issued an order closing the New York banks. In cities all over the country crowds stood outside closed banks looking woefully through their grated windows.

Farmers were in revolt. They had been intimidating judges, dumping wheat out of overturned trucks into ditches. The fires were out in many factory furnaces. Millions of men were idle. All over the land millions of people turned their faces toward Washington to see what the handsome, smiling new President would do to stem the tide of the disaster.

Economic paralysis lay all about. The arch-villain in this catastrophe was discernible to most people. There he sat in the automobile beside the man who was hurrying to the Capitol to supplant him. He had been hissed at railroad stations. Scurrilous books had been written about his life. Curses had been heaped upon his head.

And now he was on his way out to the accompaniment of the glee of his enemies and detractors. Most of his aides and subalterns were gone or waiting to surrender to their successors. In their place came the procession of the righteous captains of the New Deal—Frankfurter and Hull and Henry Wallace and Henry Morgenthau, Moley and Tugwell and Sam Rosenman and Berle and Harry Hopkins and Eleanor Roosevelt and scores of others whose names would soon fill the ears of the nation.

Salvation was in the air. Repeal, also, was in the air. Two weeks before the lame-duck Congress had turned a somersault and voted the amendment to the Constitution ending Prohibition. The wets were making merry with applejack, bathtub gin and prohibition hooch. "Beer by Easter," they cried. Forty-one legislatures were in session waiting eagerly for the chance to approve the wet amendment and to slap taxes on beer and liquor to save their empty treasuries. The old drys were around looking dour but still full of fight. "No surrender! No retreat! No repeal!" they muttered. But the sands were running against them. The United States was through with Prohibition. It would soon end "God's law." The barrooms would be back soon—and full of women and children. A more powerful appetite was aroused. The country, the states, the towns needed money—something to tax. And liquor was the richest target. "Revenue," said one commentator, "unlocked the gates for Gambrinus and his foaming steed."

Here and there in the vast crowds were solemn men who muttered the word "revolution." But this was no revolution. The multitude of visitors in Washington did not want revolution. What they wanted was in the hands of Jim Farley to give and he was already there wrinkling his bland brow over the problem. The Democratic legions were rushing to Washington to save the nation with that sense of joyous dedication with which the old-fashioned volunteer firemen rushed to a saloon fire. But poor Jim faced the problem of fitting 1,250,000 loyal party men into 125,000 jobs. All had gotten letters from Jim signed with his already famous green ink signature. But it looked as if only one out of ten of the faithful would get jobs and the other nine just letters.

As Roosevelt rode to the Capitol beside President Hoover, his face was wreathed in smiles. One of his friendly biographers says he was the happiest man in all that immense throng. The family, too, was in the gayest spirits. And, as usual, everywhere the interest was keen in the President's relatives. His immediate family seemed to have cuddled up quickly in the affections of the people. Here was something they liked. Here was a fine old aristocratic family founded upon long tradition of patriotic service, reared in the finest standards of American home life—the beaming and heroic father who had overcome one of the most terrible of physical handicaps, the devoted and religious wife and mother and the fine, robust, upstanding brood of boys to bring grace and dignity to the home of the nation's Chief Executive.

At the Capitol, Hoover, who was still President, went immediately to the President's room off the Republican side of the Senate chamber to sign last-minute bills passed by the Congress that was in session. Roosevelt, still a private citizen, alighted under the archway of the steps of the main entrance to the Capitol, completely out of sight of the crowds. He had to be borne about in a wheel chair, but was never permitted to be seen thus by the public. Two ramps had been built to the entrance along which he was wheeled out of sight to the office of the sergeant-at-arms of the Senate. From there a temporary wooden passageway was built to a short distance from the platform outside the Capitol portico where he would speak.

About 35 feet from that point he got out of his chair, his braces were straightened and on the arm of his son James he walked these 35 feet to the spot where he took the oath. He waited, of course, until the ceremony in the Senate, where John N. Garner was being sworn in as Vice-President, was ended. Then with President Hoover, Vice-President Garner, his full cabinet and the members of the Senate he made his way to the appointed spot before the great multitude of a hundred thousand citizens.

He stood before Chief Justice Hughes, who held out to him a Bible which had been brought to this country by a remote Roosevelt ancestor 300 years before. Roosevelt touched it, and as the Chief Justice asked solemnly if he would swear to support the Constitution of the United States, he answered in a clear voice: "I DO." This was his first solemn official pledge. Then facing the great throng, he delivered his inaugural address.

"This," he said, "is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shirk from facing honestly 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."

It was an extraordinary speech. It put Roosevelt at once in the first rank of American orators. The people wanted courage and hope. His first words gave them that. Then he painted a swift, dramatic picture of the crisis. Values have shrunken. Taxes have risen. "The means of exchange are frozen in the streams of trade."

The withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side. Fanners find no markets for their products. The savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. "Only foolish optimism." he conceded, "can deny the dark realities of the moment."

Then he lightened the picture. "Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts . . . Nature still offers her bounty . . . plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply."

Then he nailed down the blame. "Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence . . . They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish . . . The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore the temple to the ancient truths."

Then came a succession of promises which everyone wanted to hear. For the workers: "Our greatest primary task is to put people to work." For the farmers: They must "raise the value of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities." For the investors: They "must end speculation with other people's money." For the whole world: There must be a policy of the good neighbor in a world of neighbors.

Then he accepted his high office as one taking over the command of an army—an army organized for attack. He would recommend measures "that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require." But—ah, but!—if Congress should fail to go along with him—"I—shall—not—evade—the—clear—course—of—duty—that—will—confront—me." There was an ominous accent of the resolute captain on every word. He would ask for the one remaining instrument—a grant from Congress of "broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

Then he summoned the people to war—war on the depression. He asked them for discipline. He talked of "old moral values," of the "stern performance of duty by old and young alike."

Action! Action! Action! The restoration of the old moral values! Driving the money changers from the temple! It was war, war, war upon the great blight. War by a disciplined leader, who promised jobs to the jobless, higher prices to the farmers, the restoration of shrunken property values to business, and over all the tone of great moral principles and great commanding issues.

After the address, as the immense parade of the military and marching clubs of the loyal Democrats passed in review under the dark clouds through which the sun peeped only at intervals, one of those rare incidents occurred, surcharged with the spirit of goodwill and unity. As the New York delegation of marchers passed before the victorious Presidential candidate reviewing them from the stands the crowd suddenly saw that it was led by the man who had fought Roosevelt's nomination so bitterly.—Al Smith. The stands rose in a great ovation for the Happy Warrior.

After this, Mr. Hoover, now rid of his great burden, shook hands with the new President and left at once for Philadelphia and later for his home in California. Despite the bitter emotions churned up against him, he left without any Secret Service guard, his secretary's request for that having been graciously refused by the government he had headed but a few minutes before. The new President went to his new home, the White House, where a luncheon was served to 500 guests. The members of his cabinet were sworn in before their relatives and friends in the Oval Room by Justice Cardozo. This was the first time this had been done. Roosevelt told Jim Farley that he was breaking a precedent. "It is my intention to inaugurate precedents like this from time to time," he laughed. The streets outside were given over to the crowds which, whipped up by the marching bands, had become quite merry and milled around until late into the night. The inaugural ball was the gayest, the most crowded in many an inauguration as the guests danced and the crowds outside applauded the coming and going of their favorite heroes, while the newsboys were crying extra editions of the papers telling of the closing of more banks all over the country.

It can be truly said that the nation responded to the ringing utterance of the inaugural address. Congress was prepared to go along in an extraordinary effort. Partisanship sank to its smallest dimensions. Everywhere the new President was hailed with unprecedented applause. In spots the acclaim rose to almost hysterical strains. Rabbi Rosenblum said we see in him a God-like messenger, the darling of destiny, the Messiah of America's tomorrow. Next morning the New York Times carried only a single front-page story that had no connection with the inauguration. It had to do with another of those Messiahs of tomorrow. The headline read:


Repression of Opponents Makes
Election Triumph Inevitable.