Roosevelt Myth - John T. Flynn

The Ride of the Wild Rabbit

It was 1936 and the verdict on Mr. Roosevelt was now up to the people. As the year rolled along, an uninformed observer might well suppose that the Roosevelt New Deal was in a state of considerable disarray. One after another of Mr. Roosevelt's great adventures in social architecture had been outlawed by the Supreme Court or had fallen apart of their own weakness or both.

The NRA had vanished and everyone was glad to be rid of it. The AAA had been held unconstitutional and was subject to bitter criticisms. The Warren gold plan had more or less evaporated as an effective policy. The Guffey Coal Act was declared unconstitutional.

The President was being pilloried because of his enormous expenditures, his unbalanced budgets, his tremendous deficits after all his merciless attacks on Hoover in 1932. By 1935 the expenditures of the Hoover administration had been more than doubled by Roosevelt and the debt had increased by 16 billion dollars. Mr. Roosevelt's strident, staccato attacks upon Hoover as the world's greatest spendthrift were being shot back at him.

The grotesque spectacle of Harry Hopkins* shovel army, Wallace's pig killing and crop destruction and the merry dance of the crackpot spenders kicking their heels in the Roosevelt electoral parade all excited the mirth and scorn of the jokesters and the commentators.

Harry Byrd was digging into New Deal extravagances and announced that the bureaucracy had proliferated at such an amazing rate that space was rented in 107 private buildings by the government to house the bureaucrats. Senator Carter Glass leveled his harshest attacks at the administration. "The New Deal." he said, "is not only a mistake. It is a disgrace to the nation. I would rather die than live to see the disgrace of this era." Senator Bailey of North Carolina, Senator Ashurst of Arizona, Senator Copeland of New York were up in arms. Lewis Douglas, Roosevelt's first director of the Budget, James Warburg, one of his earliest champions, George Peek, Hugh Johnson, Governor Ely of Massachusetts and, above all, Al Smith were unsparing in their criticism. Al Smith declared that if Roosevelt were renominated on an endorsement of the New Deal he "would take a walk." Smith, one columnist observed, was presenting Roosevelt with the sidewalks of New York one brick at a time.

The charge that Roosevelt had been playing a game of irresponsible experimentation with the American people as the guinea pigs was pressed with such effect that Roosevelt felt called upon, in a letter to Roy Howard, head of the Scripps Howard Newspapers, to assure him that the experimental stage of the New Deal was near an end. Amid all his other difficulties, the President was presented with the soldiers' bonus bill. He vetoed that but had an arrangement with the Democratic leadership that they would pass it over his head. Thus the President could get credit for trying to kill it while the Democrats would get credit for actually passing it.

The country had been torn by strikes—over 2,000 of them. The drive of the CIO for membership in their new unions was proceeding with ostentatious energy. There was no discounting the apparent seriousness of the differences that had developed among the Democratic leaders. The Southern senators—men like Walter George and Pat Harrison and Millard Tydings and others, including Vice-President Garner—were in deep dejection at the direction in which they saw the party going. Even stalwart Democratic leaders and newspapers, along with men whose opinions could not be dismissed, were disgusted with the orgy of the relief rolls under Hopkins. The President felt it necessary to say something about that. He said that to dole out relief in this way "is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit . . . I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of doles, of market baskets, by a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks." He declared for useful public works—roads, highways, reforestation.

Tempers were frayed. Representative Blanton of Texas offered to fight all the physicians in Washington at one time. John O'Connor of New York said he would kick Father Coughlin from the Capitol to the White House. Father Coughlin, who had extolled Roosevelt at first as a great leader, now denounced him as a liar. Vito Marcantonio said he would like to meet Police Commissioner Valentine of New York in a gymnasium. The New York Sun suggested that the House restaurant had better take raw meat off the menu.

The Townsendites got into a fight among themselves. Townsend accused Representative McGroarty, who introduced the Townsend bill, of trying to deliver the Townsendites to the Democrats. William Randolph Hearst, who supported Roosevelt in 1932 and without whose support he could not have got his first nomination, attacked Roosevelt for accepting the support of organizations alien to the American form of government, and Steve Early said Hearst was "a notorious newspaper owner" who had made a planned attempt to ruin Roosevelt. Others branded Roosevelt a Communist and Reverend John O'Brien fulminated with blazing vehemence that this was "an ugly, cowardly and flagrant calumny."

When the Republicans met they nominated Alfred Landon of Kansas for President and Frank Knox of Chicago for Vice-President. Landon as governor of Kansas had made a notable record as a budget balancer and chief executive. The Republicans adopted a platform which did not differ much from the Democratic platform of 1932. When accused of stealing the Democratic platform of 1932, the Republicans replied "Why not? The Democrats have no more use for it. Moreover it is in perfectly good condition—it was never even used."

Their chief reliance was upon the charge that the President had usurped the powers of Congress, attacked the integrity of the courts, invaded the constitutional prerogatives of the states, attempted to substitute regulated monopoly for free enterprise, forced through Congress unconstitutional laws, filled a vast array of bureaus with swarms of bureaucrats to harass the people and breed fear in commerce and industry, discouraged new enterprises and thus prolonged the depression, had used relief to corrupt and intimidate the voters and made appeals to class prejudice to inflame the masses and create dangerous divisions.

Bertrand Snell, permanent chairman of the Republican convention, said "the people should thank God for the Constitution, the Supreme Court and a courageous press." Whether one agrees with this or not, most men, I am sure, will now agree in the light of events that had there been no constitutional prohibitions and no Supreme Court, Roosevelt would certainly have gone to terrifying lengths in his course. And as an example of what Time does to slogans and anthems, the band in the GOP convention greeted the arrival of the New York delegation by playing alternately "The Sidewalks of New York" and "California Here I Come" in honor of the two bitter antagonists of the 1928 battle—Smith and Hoover.

At the Democratic convention the theme song was still "Happy Days Are Here Again." Delirious enthusiasm was lathered up by every device known to show business for making whoop-de-dee. From the moment the gavel fell to open that wild conclave to the knock of the adjourning gavel everything that was said and done or that seemed to just happen was in accordance with a carefully arranged and managed scenario. The delegates were mere puppets and answered to their cues precisely like the extras in a movie mob scene.

The only spontaneous thing in the convention was an unarranged demonstration for Jim Farley, the stage manager of the great hippodrome. It was really a Farley show. A Texan rode a donkey around the hall. The screaming delegates named a queen of the convention; they roared and paraded; they abolished the two-thirds rule and, after it was all over, on Saturday night at Franklin Field before a crowd of 100,000, Roosevelt and Garner stood surrounded by Mrs. Roosevelt, Sr. and Jr., James, John, Franklin Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. John Boettiger, while Lily Pons sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the exhausted Democrats sang, cheered and wept.

As the campaign got under way the betting was eight to five on Roosevelt. Nevertheless the Republicans thought they had a golden chance to win. John Hamilton of Kansas was made National Chairman and he challenged Jim Farley to name six states Roosevelt was sure to carry. The Republican forecasters—and many others—were completely deceived by the group of elements and issues hostile to Roosevelt which we have enumerated—the opposition of Al Smith and the anti-New Deal Democrats, the scandals in the relief rolls, Roosevelt's complete betrayal of all his 1932 promises, the rise in taxes and prices and debt, the boisterous, angry caterwauling of the leaders of those hungry millions who wanted old-age pensions and more government handouts. Shortly after the Democratic convention, Father Coughlin, Representative Lemke and some remnants of the Share-the-Wealthers led by Gerald L. K. Smith met to form a third party. They called it the Union Party. It resolved for Social Justice, Revolving Pensions and Every Man a King. Then it nominated Lemke for President and Gerald L. K. Smith told the world it would poll 20 million ballots in November.

These amateur politicians did not know that Farley had already gathered in the Huey Long crowd and the Townsendites and that only the shells of these movements were at the Union Party convention. As for those anti-New Deal Democrats, the dopesters refused to understand the fact that the bulk of them were from the South and they just did not understand what makes a Southern Democrat tick. Carter Glass had flung a whole string of sulphurous adjectives at the New Deal. But Heywood Broun appraised that factor rightly when he said: "Carter Glass would never forsake the party if the fiend himself were nominated. He might assail Lucifer verbally, perhaps refuse to go to his house to dinner, but if the Devil were a Democrat he would never cut him on the ballot."

They overlooked the fact that the South had both arms up to its shoulder blades in Roosevelt's relief and public works barrel. National politics was now paying off in the South in terms of billions. When Alf Landon talked about Roosevelt's invasions of the Constitution, the man on relief and the farmer fingering his subsidy check replied "You can't eat the Constitution." Not only that, but the small store owner had customers now by the millions whose WPA and PWA and CCC and AAA spendings in his store made the difference between black and red on his books.

Roosevelt over the radio said the whole question was after all a simple one—just ask yourself one question. Are you worse off now or better off than when we took office? He repeated the employment figures on the day of his inauguration and during this campaign. As to the public debt he said we borrowed eight billions but we have increased the national income by 22 billions. Would you borrow $800 a year if thereby you could increase your income by $2200, he asked. That is what we have done, he answered, with the air of a man who has easily resolved a tough conundrum. And though the figures were false and the reasoning even more so it was practically impossible for a Republican orator to reason with voters against these seemingly obvious and plausible figures.

Oddly, throughout the campaign, one issue seemed to obtrude itself at intervals like a distant and indefinable odor. The smell of war got into the air off in the background. The Socialist Party held its convention at Cleveland and nominated Norman Thomas for President. But a bitter struggle arose over a resolution calling for a mass resistance to war by a general strike. The resolution was passed but Louis Waldman, Algernon Lee, James O'Neal and Thomas Kreuger walked out of the convention and formed what they called the Social Democratic Federation of the United States. Thus the war issue split the Socialist Party though it was only 1936.

Somehow people seemed jittery on this subject. If there was one resolution firmly imbedded in their minds it was that they would not be drawn into another war. The Spanish revolution was in full blast and Germany and Italy and Russia were dipping their fingers in it, to the great irritation of diverse groups here. Someone wrote that this was just a dress rehearsal for that greater conflict between Russia and Germany which was inevitable. Roosevelt, exploiting every vote-getting device and perceiving this stern resistance to our participation in any possible war, chose it as the theme of his first formal address in the campaign. He told his audience that he "was more concerned and less cheerful about international world conditions than about our immediate domestic prospects." This was saying plainly that he saw ahead a possible war situation rather than any domestic crisis. He said: "We shun political commitments which might entangle us in future wars; we avoid connection with the political activities of the League of Nations." He told the audience:

"We are not isolationist except insofar as we attempt to isolate ourselves completely from war." Then he warned that "so long as war exists on earth there will be some danger that even a nation which ardently desires peace may be drawn into that war."

He continued with emphasis: "I hate war. I have passed unnumbered hours, I shall pass unnumbered hours thinking and planning how war may be kept from this nation." The Congress, he explained, had given him certain authority to provide safeguards of American neutrality in case of war. The President had been given "new weapons to maintain our neutrality." Thus he was approving the existence of those weapons in the Neutrality Act. But this was not enough. Whether we went in or stayed out of war would depend on who was President at the time. "Nevertheless," he said with staccato emphasis on every word, "and I speak from long experience—the effective maintenance of American neutrality depends today as in the past on the wisdom and determination of whoever at the moment occupies the office of President of the United States and Secretary of State."

Nothing could be clearer. At the moment three leading nations were flirting with war. That war might break. It might spread over Europe as the First World War did, which started in Serbia and then engulfed the world. Roosevelt was saying as plainly as words could say it that if the President, when the chance came, wanted to take us into the war, the Neutrality Act would not avail, but if the President wanted to keep us out, this would be an effective weapon in his hands. And, of course, the final implication was that the great chance of the American people to avoid this grave possibility was to name him President.

Then he touched a sensitive note: "It is clear that our present policy . . . would in the event of war on some other continent, reduce war profits which would otherwise accrue to American citizens. Industrial and agricultural products having a war market may give immense fortunes to a few men. For a nation as a whole it produces disaster," Who, then, had we to fear as the war-mongers?

"Let us not blink the fact," he continued, "that we would find in this country thousands of Americans who, seeking immediate riches, fool's gold, would attempt to break down or evade our neutrality." They would tell you the unemployed would find work, that America would capture the trade of the world. "It would be hard for Americans," the President said, "to look beyond—to realize the inevitable penalties, the inevitable day of reckoning that comes from a false prosperity . . . But all the wisdom of America is not to be found in the White House or the Department of State; we need the meditation, the prayers and the support of the people of America who will go along with us in seeking peace."

He ended by saying that "peace will depend on their (the President and Secretary of State) day to day decisions . . . We can keep out of war if those who watch and desire have a sufficiently detailed understanding of international affairs to make certain that the small decisions of today do not lead toward war and if at the same time they possess the courage to say no to those who selfishly or unwisely would lead us to war."

Of course Roosevelt was talking not about some mythical or vague threat of war. He was talking about a war in Europe or Asia. Hitler had been in power for four years. He had denounced the Versailles Treaty and the Locarno Pact. He had marched into the Rhineland. He had announced his intention to rearm Germany to the teeth. He was breathing fire and brimstone against his neighbors. When, therefore, Roosevelt referred to a possible war, it was just such a war as broke out in Europe in 1939. And he was telling the people of America that if such a crisis came the one chance to stay out of it was to name him President to be certain that the Neutrality Act would be used to the fullest extent to keep us out.

Two months after this, Jim Farley reported to Roosevelt that Senator Hugo Black, who had just made a trip through many states, had told him the President's opposition to a possible war was the most effective issue he had, coupled with the fact that he was familiar with the international situation, and Black urged Farley to induce the President to make another speech on the subject.

To those who followed the election closely the result was a foregone conclusion. But few realized it would be so sweeping. Jim Farley had predicted that Landon would carry only two states. It must stand as an all-time record in the field of political prophecy. Roosevelt got 523 electoral votes, Landon only eight. In no state, save New Hampshire, was the voting even close. Roosevelt got 27,751,000 votes; Landon 16,681,000.

Curiously the election not only wrecked for the moment the Republican party; it almost destroyed the Socialist party. That party had once polled a million votes for Eugene V. Debs. It polled 884,000 votes for Thomas in 1932. In this election it got 187,000. Some 700,000 Socialist votes had been swept into the Democratic party.

After the election predictions were being freely made by various writers and political observers all over the country that the defeat of Landon marked the end of the Republican party.

The election had in it a profound lesson for those who have some familiarity with European history. What had achieved this amazing result? The President's golden voice? His oratorical power? His extraordinary personal charm? The astonishing success of his program? Obviously none of these. His program was almost all in collapse and those things which remained, such as the Social Security Act, the Stock Exchange Act, the Utility Holding Company Act, etc., had had no possible effect on the economic system yet. Men do not win elections with golden voices and personal charms. They do not win such resounding victories as these. Actually, the President was supported loyally by many men who, far from melting under his charm, hated him.

The President's victory was due to one thing and one thing only, to that one great rabbit—the spending rabbit—he had so reluctantly pulled out of his hat in 1933. This put into his hands a fund amounting to nearly 20 billion dollars with which he was able to gratify the appetites of vast groups of people in every county in America—not merely the poor and disconsolate victims of the depression, but the long deferred ambitions of every town, county, city and state for expensive and even grandiose projects otherwise hopelessly out of their reach. It enabled him to engage in that succession of grandiose and reckless adventures, which had the appearance of great daring and captivated the imagination of so many young men and women who understood little or nothing about the great laws of both nature and economics which he flouted.

The meager campaign funds spent on Presidential elections in the past were so much chicken-feed compared with that stupendous barrel of billions which the President had to dispense twelve months a year. Of all those fictitious rabbits the President pulled out of his hat this was the one and the only one which survived and was any good for the great job ahead. It became a snorting steed of incredible vigor. It had become a little wild. But it was this monstrous rabbit with Roosevelt on its back that carried him on that wild ride through the polling places of 46 states and shot him breathlessly back into the White House for another four years.