Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox,
James MacGregor Burns, 1956
Jean Edward Smith, 2007
Traitor to His Class
H.W. Brands, 2008
Ready? Away we go—
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that Franklin Roosevelt had a second‐class intellect but a first‐class temperament. Or so I’d always been told. Apparently that quote is apocryphal. But even Holmes might have been hard pressed to come up with a more accurate summation of what Roosevelt brought to the presidency, at least if these three books are to be believed. It’s true that Roosevelt was not a deep thinker. But second‐class is not tenth‐class, and Roosevelt was no dummy: on top of his Harvard education, he could effortlessly absorb the details of any information presented to him. (At a congressional hearing during his tenure as assistant secretary of the navy, he wowed the press by seeming to have memorized every departmental report, rattling off statistics about fleets from Britain’s to Haiti’s and demonstrating familiarity with every particular of naval operations.) If he lacked the sheer brainpower of a Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or John Quincy Adams, he was also free from the neuroses that kept those men—and every other president—from being as effective as they otherwise might have been. Even the most highly regarded presidents in our history have been driven by their psychological hangups: George Washington was obsessed with his place in history, Abraham Lincoln could be infuriatingly fatalistic, and Roosevelt’s cousin Theodore was forever overcompensating for his sickliness as a child. But in reading these books about Franklin Roosevelt, I found that the portrait that emerged was of a man so sanguine and secure that it was kind of unnerving. There have been other presidents with oratorical gifts, and other presidents with formidable skills as retail politicians, but none who seemed so bizarrely well‐adjusted.
So that raises the question, how did he turn out that way? I assume that some of it is genetic, but since I can’t dissect his brain and examine his amygdala, I’ll start by focusing on his early life.
Franklin Roosevelt was the grandson of Warren Delano, a drug kingpin who made a fortune smuggling narcotics into Canton, China. The Delanos were bluebloods who traced their lineage back to the Mayflower, and Warren was determined that his favorite daughter Sara marry a fellow aristocrat. But Sara had some strikes against her. Having spent her childhood in Hong Kong and, later, in Dresden, she had little in common with the sons of gentleman farmers in the Hudson Valley, where Warren had settled. She was also uncommonly tall. Even her name might have worked against her: not only was her father linked to the opium trade, but their kinsman Columbus Delano, Ulysses Grant’s second interior secretary, had recently resigned in disgrace after being charged with accepting bribes and handing out sinecures. She did have a number of suitors, but they tended to be ambitious young men who worked for a living, and Warren Delano feared that they aimed to make their fortunes by marrying into his money. He put the kibosh on these incipient relationships, and Sara, who was very much daddy’s girl, happily acceded to his wishes, even as each successive year brought her closer to spinsterhood. At age 25 she was still unmarried, and her prospects had more or less dried up; years later she would tell her son that at this point she had braced herself to spend the rest of “a rather sad life” as “old Miss Delano”. But as luck would have it, she happened to attend a graduation party where she met a 51‐year‐old widower who was instantly taken with her. He was James Roosevelt, a distant cousin of the party’s honoree Theodore, and as an independently wealthy railroad tycoon and horse breeder from a high‐society family, he met Warren Delano’s standards for a son‐in‐law. The fact that Sara would be younger than her stepson could be overlooked.
|Franklin Roosevelt in 1884|
At fourteen Franklin Roosevelt left for boarding school at Groton. Raised in the closest thing America had to a palace, he found himself living in what was basically a barracks, with cloth partitions separating the beds and cold showers every morning. How did he adjust? “I am getting on finely both mentally and physically,” he cheerfully reported. He was not particularly distinguished in either realm: while he was gung‐ho about sports he wasn’t brawny enough to be much of an athlete, and in the classroom he was a B student—a little better at algebra, a little worse at Greek. But this is burying the lede a bit. How did Franklin Roosevelt, the home‐schooled only child, get along with other boys? By all reports, swimmingly. Boarding schools were brutal places, where the in‐crowd hazed the outcasts with impunity, and that hazing crossed the line into torture: at Groton, one particularly popular punishment was what the students called “pumping” and what today we call waterboarding. Roosevelt was never on the receiving end. While his teachers reported that he was a model citizen, he seems to have strategically gotten into just enough trouble for his classmates to consider him one of the gang. And from his letters home cheerfully gossiping about which boys had been “pumped” that week, it seems not to have occurred to him that there might be something wrong with a system that meted out such harsh penalties to those who didn’t play the social game as well as he did.
|Roosevelt at Groton, 1900|
As a coda to his education, Roosevelt went to Columbia for law school, but dropped out immediately upon passing the bar. He signed on with a Wall Street law firm, where he impressed the partners with his unfailing friendliness and his willingness to do whatever legal scutwork was required of him. They knew he didn’t have to be there: his father had died of old age while Franklin was at Harvard and his inheritance paid him what would today amount to a quarter of a million dollars a year. And his mother—a widow in her mid‐40s—had millions more at her disposal, and she was always happy to spend it on Franklin. One summer she bought him a 34‐room vacation house off the coast of New Brunswick. So even though Franklin now had a large family to support—he’d married his cousin Eleanor right out of college, and they soon had six children, five of whom survived infancy—he could have followed his mother’s wishes and spent his life as a country gentleman. He enjoyed boating and had joined the New York Yacht club in 1904, so perhaps for something to do he could try to win America’s Cup. But Franklin was very open about his plans. He intended to follow in the footsteps of his cousin in the White House, skipping a few steps along the way but otherwise following the exact path Teddy had taken. To get some experience in Washington, he’d secure an appointment as assistant secretary of the navy, and when his term was up, he’d get some experience as a chief executive by returning to New York and becoming governor. He would then be in prime position to put a second Roosevelt in that West Wing that Teddy’s wife Edith had just had built. But before any of that could happen, he had to establish himself in politics at an entry‐level position, which meant running for the state legislature. He just had to wait for a good opportunity to arise.
|Roosevelt in 1910|
Today the immediate question would be whether the prospective candidate’s politics aligned with those of the party. But as those who have read previous articles in this series well know, in this period American political parties were not ideologically unified. Both the Republicans and the Democrats had progressive and conservative wings, and one’s choice of political party tended to be geographic or demographic rather than philosophical. And in Roosevelt’s case it was opportunistic. The Democrats were the ones with an opening, and though even in a wave year this would be a tough district for a Democrat to win, Roosevelt was eager to roll the dice. Team D it would be. Roosevelt’s campaign strategy was threefold:
- Run as a post‐partisan candidate and denounce corruption in both
parties: calls for “clean government” played extremely well in
the district and he thought it made for an ideal signature issue
- Do as much retail politicking as possible, getting face time with
people all over the sprawling senate district in a manner that until very
recently would have been impossible, and for a poorer candidate still
would be: racing from town to town at the breakneck speed of
25 miles per hour in a flashy red automobile
- Draw attention to his relationship with that other Roosevelt by making self‐deprecating jokes about not being Teddy, and not being too quick to correct people who said things like, “I voted for your dad!”
Roosevelt won a narrow victory as Democrats swept the state: they went from -38 in the assembly to +24, from -19 in the senate to +9, and from holding zero of the six executive offices to holding all six. That meant that, as a member of the majority party, Roosevelt would have some input as—for the last time, since the 17th Amendment was only two years away—the legislature selected a U.S. senator. Most of the Democrats owed fealty to Tammany, but not all, and enough refused to back Tammany’s candidate to keep him from getting confirmed. Roosevelt, having run against Tammany, joined this insurgency, and though he was new to Albany and still not yet thirty, he soon became the face of the movement, in large part because he had the nicest house and so the insurgent Democrats held their meetings there. Though in the end the insurgents accomplished little more than to get Tammany to switch to a different candidate of its choosing, Franklin Roosevelt was now a political player in his own right.
The problem was that he didn’t actually know what to do with the political capital he had won. He was still as shallow as he’d been in college, and the New York state senate was not currently considering any bills requiring more enthusiasm from crowds at sporting events. And thus his voting patterns lurched around as he found his political footing. Roosevelt began his legislative career as an old‐fashioned “Bourbon Democrat” in the Grover Cleveland mold, with a strong belief in good government but not in government that did good. For instance, he was initially a reliable vote against workers’ rights: “I was an awfully mean cuss when I first went into politics,” he would later explain, as the pro‐labor lobbyists he brusquely rebuffed, such as Frances Perkins, could attest. But even before his first term was up, Roosevelt was voting for those lobbyists’ packages, and was considered a member of his party’s progressive wing, particularly on environmental issues. Part of the change was just a function of the fact that he’d spent his entire life in a bubble of extreme wealth, going from Springwood to Groton to the Gold Coast to Wall Street, and only with the impetus of impending votes was he getting around to reading about what working conditions in the U.S. were actually like. He was also, for the first time, working with people from outside that bubble. Take “Big Tim” Sullivan, pretty much a living caricature of a Tammany politician. He was rich now, thanks to all the kickbacks he took, as well as his income from the gambling and prostitution rings he operated. But he’d grown up fatherless in the notorious Five Points slum, working as a shoeshine boy to make a few pennies, and he never forgot where he came from. Not only did he use his position as a Tammany lieutenant to make sure that the poor of his district were provided with food, heat, clothing, and even entertainment, but in Albany he was a champion of workers’ protections and of women’s rights. There was a lesson here: though progressives across the country were pushing reforms to defang the corrupt political machines, they wouldn’t actually be making things better unless they helped the people who relied on those machines as much as or more than the machines had.
And the man who best understood this, it seemed to Roosevelt, was the new governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. Particularly impressive to Roosevelt was the way that Wilson had positioned himself to be handpicked for the Democratic nomination by former senator James Smith, boss of New Jersey’s counterpart to Tammany—only to block Smith’s return to the Senate, since he’d lost the non‐binding primary. Wilson had then proceeded to cripple the machine by shepherding a raft of electoral reform bills through the legislature, along with a corrupt practices act. But along with this, he’d passed a ton of stuff that would directly help people, from workmen’s comp and mandatory biweekly pay to the establishment of free dental clinics and special education programs. In 1911, which in those days was considered well in advance of the election, Roosevelt made a pilgrimage to Trenton to pledge his sword to Wilson’s campaign. That sword was more of a toothpick—Tammany backed Wilson’s rival and odds‐on favorite Champ Clark, and Roosevelt couldn’t do much more than give speeches that wouldn’t shift any convention votes—but it put Roosevelt on record as having backed Wilson from the start in a state where that took courage, and that was a valuable credential to have after Wilson pulled the upset at the convention and then won the election. Incoming treasury secretary William McAdoo offered Franklin a choice of plum jobs, but another member of Wilson’s cabinet, Josephus Daniels, had been a fan of Roosevelt’s since his days leading the anti‐Tammany insurgency, and wanted to bring him aboard as his deputy. And Daniels was the secretary of the navy. Things were unfolding precisely as Roosevelt had planned.
|Roosevelt in Washington, 1913|
The job of the secretary of the navy was to work with the president to set naval policy. Wilson had chosen Daniels, a rumpled newspaper publisher, precisely because he had no naval background: his role in this progressive administration would be to act as a check on the admirals, who were used to acting with autonomy, and on the coal and steel industries, who were used to treating the navy as a giant floating piggy bank. For instance, in 1913, when relations with Japan deteriorated over a law barring Japanese citizens from owning land in California, Admiral George Dewey ordered the Pacific fleet to prepare for war—and a furious Daniels countermanded the order. That same year, when U.S. steel companies colluded to offer identical bids for the contract to supply armor plate for the U.S.S. Arizona, Daniels didn’t wink and nod like his predecessors but instead got a lower bid from a British outfit. Roosevelt’s job as assistant secretary was to handle the day‐to‐day business of the naval department, which again expanded the range of people with whom he interacted. Naturally, Roosevelt became a fixture of Washington high society the moment he arrived, not least because one of the capital’s leading socialites was his cousin Alice. And in Albany he’d grown comfortable dealing with legislators, though in his new role he was not one of them; rather, he was a guy they went to for favors. “There’s a boy from my district, son of a big donor, who wants an early discharge—any chance you can swing that, Frank?” (Roosevelt soon found that one or two of these little favors could nudge a congressman onto the administration’s side more than any amount of arguing the issues on the merits—throw in a drink and a few minutes of listening to the fellow grumble about his problems, and the result was a steadfast ally.) But new to him were the union leaders he hashed out contracts with—naval yards were among the leading employers of organized civilian labor—and they were surprised to find him markedly more union‐friendly than the government bureaucrats they were accustomed to dealing with. He couldn’t always get them the pay scale they wanted, given the department’s budget constraints, but it quickly became known that Frank was a good guy whose door was always open. On the flip side, Roosevelt had never had much occasion to deal with military officers, but they soon discovered that if they needed something, the man to see was not Daniels, the d— f— who’d taken their shipboard liquor away, but Frank. Military men still revered the Roosevelt name, and the way this Roosevelt smoothly piloted a 700‐ton destroyer through some dangerous channels near his vacation home in New Brunswick proved to the top brass that he knew his way around a ship.
It helped that Roosevelt and the admirals saw eye‐to‐eye on what was then called “preparedness”; when World War I broke out, Roosevelt was one of the most hawkish members of Wilson’s team. “We’ve got to get into this war,” he told Daniels, and he pressed for more military training, more mobilization, and above all, more ships. In 1915 he got his ships, 176 of them, and in 1916 Wilson shared the spotlight with him while campaigning for re‐election. Though Wilson’s opponent was Charles Evans Hughes, it was Theodore Roosevelt who most loudly condemned Wilson, calling him a “shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete” supported by the “every soft creature, every coward and weakling”, and charging that “the murder of the thousand men, women, and children on the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness”. Wilson hoped to inoculate himself against these attacks by appearing with another Roosevelt at his side, one who vouched for Wilson’s belief in preparedness. (Franklin looked at what had happened to his one‐time idol Theodore and mused, “I hope to God I don’t grow reactionary with advancing years.”) Once Wilson had been re‐elected and the U.S. had finally entered the war, Roosevelt, still only 35, wanted to enlist, but the higher‐ups wouldn’t hear of it. Major General Leonard Wood, Theodore’s commander in the Spanish‐American War, declared that it would be “a public calamity” for Franklin to leave his post as Theodore had left his. Unlike Theodore, Franklin listened. This, the authors of these biographies insightfully contend, illustrates how very different the two men were. Theodore, as I noted above, was compelled to demonstrate his masculinity at every opportunity; he’d spent his whole life dying to get into a war, and when the Spanish‐American War erupted, no one was going to make him miss his chance. Even being lauded as the hero of San Juan Hill wasn’t enough: in his late 50s and morbidly obese, Theodore kept pestering the government for a WWI battlefield commission. Franklin wanted to fight out of a sense of patriotic duty, the desire for some adventure, and, yes, the calculation that it would aid him in a future run for the presidency… but not because felt he had to prove that he was a real man. He felt very secure on that count, as on every other. And whereas Theodore didn’t care where the rest of the McKinley administration thought he would be most useful, Franklin was a team player. When Wilson and Daniels said they needed his expertise, he set aside his personal goals.
By all accounts Roosevelt acquitted himself admirably, working long hours securing supplies, coordinating with France and Britain, and even developing a strategy to bottle up German U‐boats in the North Sea using a chain of remotely detonated mines. Once the war was over, he remained busy for some time transitioning the navy back to a peacetime footing, selling off foreign assets and decommissioning ships and the like. Meanwhile, the country lapsed into the chaos of 1919: strikes, bombings, race riots, and then the president suffering a stroke while on the road trying to overcome the massive opposition to his League of Nations. Democratic hopes in 1920 were close to non‐existent. The one ticket Democratic operatives thought might have a chance was food czar Herbert Hoover for president and Franklin Roosevelt for vice president—except that after being courted by the Democrats for several months, Hoover announced that he was a Republican. The nomination went to Ohio governor James Cox, who is such an interesting figure in American history that this is the fourth time I’ve covered the 1920 election and this is the first time I’ve mentioned him. Cox selected Roosevelt as his running mate. Balancing the ticket was considered essential in those days, and whereas Cox was not part of the Wilson administration, Roosevelt was; Cox was from the midwest, Roosevelt from the east; Cox was sedate, Roosevelt ebullient; and maybe the Roosevelt name might be worth a few votes. Roosevelt happily accepted the nomination. He figured that on the campaign trail he’d meet Democratic leaders across the country who could help him when he inevitably ran on the top of the ticket, and the prospect of getting shellacked in this race didn’t scare him. Good thing, too, because that’s what happened. Roosevelt suggested to Cox that as far as the public was concerned, 117,000 Americans had just been killed so that a political science professor could advance some arcane principles of international relations. “Every war brings after it a period of materialism and conservatism. People tire quickly of ideals.” As a consequence he doubted that the Democrats could expect to win much of anything until the Republicans crashed the economy. In the meantime, for the first time in a decade, Franklin Roosevelt was out of a job.
So you think ’21 is gonna be a good
For a lot of government officials, a return to the private sector (voluntary or otherwise) means an opportunity to cash in. For an administration’s headliners that might mean book deals and handsome speaking fees, but even middling officials like assistant secretaries can leverage their D.C. connections into lucrative jobs and consulting deals. Franklin Roosevelt landed a gig on Wall Street: though his title was vice president and his salary was very handsome, his job description was little more than to talk up the firm at society parties. It kept him from having to wonder where the boarding school tuition would come from, but it didn’t interest him or occupy his time the way his navy job had. He played the market a bit, but again, it wasn’t to make a fortune, as he already had one. He invested small sums in all sorts of outfits—in effect, it was penny‐ante gambling to stave off boredom. He also went boating a lot. Perhaps one time too often. One of the chief ways polio was transmitted was through water pollution, and then as now, Canada was notorious for dumping raw sewage into its waters. His first summer out of office, Franklin Roosevelt went to New Brunswick, took the yacht out for a sail, splashed around a bit in the Bay of Fundy, and felt oddly exhausted when he got home. The next day his legs were so weak he could hardly stand. The day after that he was paralyzed, blind, and raging with fever. Doctors were called—a lot of them vacationed in the area, and one eventually came up with the correct diagnosis. Roosevelt soon recovered his eyesight and the strength in his arms. But at age 39 he had taken his last unassisted walk.
All three of these biographers, Burns most explicitly, reject one particular account of polio’s role in Roosevelt’s life. That account goes like this: ~Franklin Roosevelt was a callow, arrogant scion of privilege who had never encountered a moment’s misfortune until he was struck down by polio. Learning that undeserved calamity could befall anyone at any time taught him compassion; spending hours crawling down the driveway trying to walk again taught him humility; slowly working his way back into public life taught him patience and perseverance. And these were the qualities that made him the foremost progressive leader in American history and allowed him to steer the U.S. to victory in our greatest international war.~ The main problem with this narrative is that not only was Roosevelt already patient, perseverant, and humble enough to happily serve as a second banana in the naval department for seven years, but he had also become a reliable progressive a full decade before he contracted polio. As staid historians rather than polemicists, these biographers don’t speculate as to the underpinnings of the fallacious story above, but I will. It seems to me that part of it is the influence of Christianity, with its predilection for redemption narratives: even a lot of people who aren’t particularly religious have an attraction to stories of less than admirable people who turn their lives around, and an antipathy to stories of people who start off admirable and stay that way. But, even more, it reflects one of the defining characteristics of conservatism: the inability to comprehend sympathy that isn’t ego‐driven. When Republicans take a position that isn’t entirely cruel, it’s a safe bet that it’s on an issue that affects them personally: Dick Cheney refrained from speaking out against same‐sex marriage because his daughter is gay, Sarah Palin paid lip service to protections for the disabled because her son has Down syndrome, John McCain refused to back torture because he’d been tortured, that sort of thing. Even those few who aren’t personally affected tend to care only when they project themselves into the situation: you know, “There but for the grace of God go I”. So what Smith calls the “riddle” of what, if not polio, made Roosevelt care about those less fortunate than himself doesn’t seem like it has a particularly complicated answer. Franklin Roosevelt was far from a saint, but he had avoided the emotional damage that would have twisted him into an egocentric asshat and instead retained some basic human decency. So when he entered politics and learned about the problems his constituents were facing, he wanted to help them, not because he could personally relate to their experience or imagine himself encountering similar hardship, but just because, you know, concern for the welfare of others is part of not being a broken person. Why wouldn’t he do what he could to alleviate their distress?
|Roosevelt at Warm Springs, 1929|
New York again
Roosevelt gave that speech to nominate New York governor Al Smith for president. Smith and Roosevelt were unlikely allies: Smith was a Catholic from the Bowery who owed his career to Tammany Hall; Roosevelt was a Protestant from tony Hyde Park who’d begun his career as an anti‐Tammany insurgent. But for that very reason, Smith’s strategists thought that Roosevelt could “take some of the curse off” their candidate. Roosevelt was happy to be back in the game, but he found the reason the Smith camp was calling him into service to be emblematic of a serious flaw in the American political landscape. I said above that both major political parties had conservative and progressive wings, and this was true, but the Democrats were riven by an even deeper split: half their vote came from non‐Anglo, heavily Catholic immigrants and their descendants in the big cities of the North, while the other half came from anti‐immigrant, anti‐Catholic Southerners. If either constituency got its favorite candidate the nomination, that candidate would be poison to half the Democratic base—hence the Democrats’ frequent recourse to uninspiring compromise candidates. In 1924, Smith the Irish‐Catholic machine pol battled it out with William McAdoo, who ran with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan, for a hundred and two ballots before the convention finally settled on an obscurity named John Davis. Meanwhile, just as it had twelve years earlier, the left wing of the GOP had bolted the party entirely, running “Fighting Bob” La Follette under the Progressive Party banner. Roosevelt had spent enough time as a political player to know that the American system couldn’t sustain three major parties—the Progressives would either be reabsorbed into the Republican Party (as happened after the 1912 split) or jump ship to the Democrats. Roosevelt obviously preferred the latter option. “The Democratic Party, by tradition and by the continuing logic of history, past and present, is the bearer of liberalism and of progress,” he contended. “The Democratic Party is the ‘progressive party’ of the country.” This was a dubious claim: it had only been true for about fifteen years, and even then only on some issues. And making it a true claim would very likely alienate Democratic conservatives, perhaps even to the point of pushing them out of the party. But Roosevelt was fine with that. “I warn those nominal Democrats who squint at the future with their faces turned to the past, and who feel no responsibility to the demands of the new time, that they are out of step with their party.”
|Roosevelt with Al Smith, 1930|
“Personal candidacies so rarely develop into anything tangible,” Roosevelt had once told the New York Herald, and when he arrived in Albany, it was not at the head of a Democratic wave. The legislature was still Republican, and he had little chance of getting anything passed. Like Barack Obama, he promised the Republicans that in his dealings with them he would be “fair and reasonable and friendly”; unlike Barack Obama, he had no illusions that the Republicans had the slightest intention of replying in kind. Roosevelt also recognized that the newspapers were owned by arch‐conservatives and would report everything he said and did in the worst possible light. But it wasn’t 1910 anymore, and as governor, Roosevelt had a way to bypass the newspapers and take his case directly to the voters, particularly the ones upstate where no Democratic organization existed: radio. There were already three networks up and running—CBS, NBC Red, and NBC Blue—and on 1929.0403 Roosevelt took to the airwaves of NBC Red to deliver the first of what would come to be called his “fireside chats”, as he laid out his policy program. He pointed out that the St. Lawrence River was an immense source of hydroelectric power, as yet untapped, and called for the state to be the entity to develop it. Even if the entirety of New York did not end up receiving cheap state‐supplied electricity, this public option would serve to keep private utilities honest. He observed that the booming economy of the 1920s had not reached farmers, who had been struggling since the end of the Great War, and proposed relief measures to bring farmers’ income in line with that of city dwellers. And for those even worse off than the farmers, he laid out a proposal that up to this point had been popular in university economics departments, and was now being tried in Britain and Germany, but not the U.S.: unemployment insurance. Trim a little bit off each worker’s paycheck and stash that money away to keep the paychecks coming should that worker someday wind up out of a job. And if you like the sound of these initiatives, Roosevelt told his listeners, call your representatives and urge them to get on board!
You can probably guess what happened. The voters did call, and the Republicans didn’t listen, and the voters re‐elected the Republicans anyway. But they re‐elected Roosevelt as well—and this time his winning margin was not 0.6% but 23.1%. They may not have liked Democrats, but they liked that Democrat—the one they actually heard from in their living rooms instead of reading about in the Republican papers, the one who’d laid out for them a handful of specific, appealing policies that he planned to fight for. Roosevelt’s star rose even higher as the Great Depression deepened and he became the one governor to take serious action in the face of Hoover’s inaction, successfully pushing a $50 million state‐run jobs program through the Republican legislature. Democratic leaders across the country noticed. In 1928 Al Smith had lost half the Democrats; in Roosevelt, it looked like they might have a candidate for 1932 with the ability to win half the Republicans. “I’m damned tired of backing losers,” said one western Democratic committeeman. “In my opinion Roosevelt can sweep the country, and I’m going to support him.” Delegate selection for the 1932 Democratic convention began on January 23 with the territory of Alaska, and Roosevelt officially declared himself a candidate just in time to win every delegate. When he won 100% of the delegates in the Washington state caucuses a week later, victory looked inevitable.
Or, rather, victory looked inevitable to those not familiar with Democratic Party rules. The Democrats were above all else the Southern party, and had a longstanding rule that the party’s nominee had to win two‐thirds of delegates to secure the nomination—effectively giving the South the ability to veto candidates that were not to the section’s liking. Roosevelt was popular in the South, but the existence of the rule meant that any anti‐Roosevelt coalition that sprang up would only need to attracte a third of the delegates to torpedo Roosevelt’s candidacy. Roosevelt and the opposing coalition’s candidate would deadlock for dozens of ballots, a compromise candidate would eventually be found, and that would be that. The question was whether a candidate with enough support to deny Roosevelt a first‐ballot nomination would take the field. And one did: Roosevelt’s one‐time ally, Al Smith.
Smith’s run was motivated by many factors, the most tautological of which was that he really, really wanted to be president. This was his fourth consecutive run for the White House. He felt that it wasn’t fair that he’d been nominated in what had obviously been a Republican year, only to see someone else claim the prize in what was just as obviously a Democratic year—it was still his turn! And for that “someone else” to be Franklin Roosevelt… why, Smith had revived Roosevelt’s career! Smith had been the one to give a cripple a plum speaking spot at the ’24 convention! Smith had been the one to draft him for governor in ’28! Roosevelt owed him! And then there were actual politics to take into account. When pressed, Smith grudgingly admitted that as governor Roosevelt had been very kind to him personally, often inviting him over for dinner, but politically? “He has never consulted me about a damned thing since he has been governor!” Smith raged at a reporter, banging his fist on his desk. “He has taken bad advice and from sources not friendly to me. He has ignored me!” Ultimately, the fact was that Roosevelt was a progressive and Smith was not. The political issue that made some think of Smith as a liberal was that he was the nation’s leading “wet” on Prohibition, calling for the 18th Amendment to be overturned and the sale of alcohol to be made legal once again. (This position made him very popular among Northeastern immigrant communities, but poisonous to Southern Baptists and Midwestern Methodists, much as his Catholicism itself did.) On economics, though, Smith stood with Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress, and thought that Roosevelt’s proposals as governor portended a dangerously radical presidency. Between the conservatives who agreed with him and his urban Catholic base—much of which considered Roosevelt anti‐Catholic due to his anti‐Tammany history and the way he focused on upstate New York rather than the city—Smith was in fact able to deny Roosevelt a win on the first ballot. A winning total would have been 770 delegates; Roosevelt’s total was 666¼.
Smith’s total was 201¾. He wasn’t the real danger. The danger was that if Roosevelt started to slip, delegates might stampede to one of the dark horses—a buzz began to circulate that a few states might break for Newton Baker, Woodrow Wilson’s second war secretary. Roosevelt’s people needed to make a deal, and fast. In third place was House speaker John Nance Garner, a Texan who had won both his home state and California. The Texas delegation agreed to back Roosevelt if Garner were named his running mate. But that wasn’t enough. Roosevelt needed California too, and had little left to offer. But he was in luck. The head of the California delegation was William McAdoo—the same William McAdoo he had served with in the Wilson administration, and the same William McAdoo whom Smith had denied the nomination in 1924. McAdoo had wanted Garner to stay in and win as a dark horse, but if it really was down to Roosevelt and Smith, well, he didn’t need any extra incentives to vote against Smith. Texas switched, California switched, and at that point the dam broke: the delegates for every candidate apart from Smith switched to Roosevelt, and all that remained was the customary formality of notifying the nominee. But Franklin Roosevelt wanted to serve notice that this was a new era. There were telephones now, and radio stations—he knew he’d won, and didn’t need to wait for a letter like people did in 1832. There were also airplanes now. They were extremely dangerous—if the rate of fatal crashes had remained steady as air traffic grew to its present volume, we would experience roughly twenty fatal plane crashes per day—but Roosevelt wasn’t afraid: he hopped on a plane from Albany to Chicago and eight hours later delivered his acceptance address to the convention in person. “My friends, may this be the symbol of my intention to be honest and to avoid all hypocrisy or sham, to avoid all silly shutting of the eyes to the truth in this campaign,” he said. “Let it also be symbolic that in so doing I broke traditions. Let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions.”
|clips from the 1932 Democratic convention|
The rest was anticlimax. Hoover was so widely despised that his name became a byword for crushing poverty, with homeless encampments called “Hoovervilles” and newspapers used for warmth called “Hoover blankets”. Whatever small chance of re‐election he may have had disappeared with the 1932.0728 attack on the “Bonus Army”, a group of ten thousand WWI veterans and their families who had come to Washington to demand that their bonus pay, due to be disbursed in 1945, instead be handed out immediately. Tanks rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue; arsenic‐based tear gas was deployed; over a thousand were injured, an infant and a fetus were killed, and the Bonus Army’s camp was burned to the ground. After that fiasco, the chief obstacle to Roosevelt was not the Republican ticket, but rather the possibility that the depression would get so bad that, before the election could be held, a violent revolution would install some new form of government: possibly communist, but more likely fascist. Roosevelt even thought that he’d identified the man most likely to rule over fascist America: General Douglas MacArthur, Army chief of staff, who had led the crackdown on the Bonus Army and expressed no regrets: “That mob down there was a bad‐looking mob. It was animated by the essence of revolution.” Roosevelt, meeting with his “brain trust” the next day, asked, “Did you ever see anyone more self‐satisfied? There’s a potential Mussolini for you. Right here at home.” For this reason, Roosevelt told conservatives, when Hoover justified his economic inaction by claiming to want to preserve American institutions, his words rang hollow; the only hope those institutions had left was that the 1932 election would see Democrats elected at every level of government:
The great social phenomenon of this depression, unlike others before it, is that it has produced but a few of the disorderly manifestations that too often attend upon such times. Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much. To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience. To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster. Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.
The elections assured that Roosevelt’s presidency would not be a rerun of his stint as governor. His popular vote margin was actually less than his margin in 1930—a mere 17.7%, which translated to an electoral vote win of 472 to 59—but accompanying him to Washington was a Senate with 60 Democratic and Farmer‐Labor seats to only 36 Republican ones, and a House with 318 Democratic and Farmer‐Labor seats to only 117 Republican ones. Roosevelt had pledged “a new deal for the American people”, and he had the votes to pass the legislation it would require. All that remained now was to wait out the four months until his inauguration.
One of the many signs that no one other than Hoover himself expected 1932 to be the Republicans’ year was that, in March, Congress passed the 20th Amendment, setting January 20 as the date of the president’s inauguration. Transportation was no longer so slow that it took until March 4 for government officials to reach the capital, but that had been true for decades. The reason changing the date became so urgent in 1932 was that, clearly, the longer Hoover was in office doing nothing, the deeper the Great Depression would get. Unfortunately, only seventeen of the necessary 36 states were able to ratify the amendment in time for it to take effect for the ’32 election. Hoover therefore remained in office from 1933.0120 to 1933.0304. Just an extra six weeks… but during those six weeks, the American banking system collapsed, and from Michigan to Maryland people had to make do with whatever cash they happened to have stashed away under their mattresses. Then the stock market shut down. So did the commodities exchange. As Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in, it looked like what had been a depression was about to turn into a bottomless pit.
|Giuseppe Zangara, 1933|
This is the sort of thing that made Burns speculate whether Roosevelt lacked the physiological response to stress that most of us have, but I don’t think we have to go trawling through his blood pressure measurements the way Burns does to find an explanation. When you walk around the house, how much do you fear that the ground is going to give way beneath you? Probably not much, right? But when our cat Bort was a kitten, my brother once set up what he called a “paper bridge” connecting the arm of the sofa to the end table: just a piece of paper balanced between the two. Bort was on the sofa; my brother coaxed him to walk over to the end table; Bort stepped onto the paper bridge, which immediately gave way; boom, Bort fell to the ground two feet below. And for the rest of the day, just walking across the living room carpet, after each step Bort carefully checked to make sure that the floor would hold his weight before taking another step. The next day he was back to tearing around the house as usual, but for most of us these early traumas—when we are deprived of our sense of safety, or material well‐being, or love—lead to an insecurity that lasts a lifetime. But Franklin Roosevelt never suffered any of these early traumas. He had a supremely happy and privileged childhood. By the time he did experience loss, he was far enough along in his development that it could no longer do him any fundamental damage. So, yes, his father died while Roosevelt was in college, but as close as the two of them had been, the elderly Roosevelt had been unwell for long enough that the loss was expected; Franklin mourned, and went on with his life. He lost a child in infancy—but so did everyone, and new parents were braced for it. The loss of his ability to walk came as a shock, but as late as 1933 he still considered that a temporary setback, and thought that before long he’d be able to get around with the help of nothing more than a cane. When people asked him what his life’s greatest disappointment had been, Roosevelt’s answer was being rejected by the Porcellian Club back at Harvard. He’d had his heart set on getting in, and having to settle for the Fly Club had been a real blow.
The possibility of loss, to Roosevelt, was therefore just one of many factors to take into account in his decision‐making process, and not an unbearable terror to be avoided at all costs. For most of us, loss aversion is much more powerful in shaping our behavior. For a trivial but clear example, I see it in playing go: once players put groups of stones on the board they tend to go to great lengths to save them, even when giving them up and attacking the enemy position would be more profitable. Or take the Tversky/Kahneman coin flip experiment, in which a correct call wins you $X but a wrong call means you pay $Y. X had to be more than double Y before people would take the bet. When the stakes are high, this makes a lot of sense: if a coin flip would either wipe out or double my net worth, I wouldn’t take that bet, because merely doubling my net worth doesn’t change my lifestyle very much but zeroing it out means disaster. Even Roosevelt wasn’t prone to gamble the one time his financial security was on the line: when Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with her secretary Lucy Mercer, she offered him a divorce, but his mother warned him that if he took it, not only would the scandal end his political career, but she would cut him off from the family fortune. Though by most accounts Lucy was the love of Franklin’s life, he stayed with Eleanor. But the Tversky/Kahneman research found that most people remained almost as loss‐averse even when the stakes were much lower. When a wrong call would lose them a mere $10, people still demanded that a correct call win them at least $25. Other economists have found that people will make dramatically different choices based on whether a given amount of money is framed as a bonus or a penalty. I certainly do: if I had to write a check for sixty bucks every time I hit the snooze button I would never do it, yet I regularly turn down $60 proctoring gigs because I don’t feel like getting up early. Loss aversion is also a dominant theme in public policy. For instance, single‐payer health insurance initiatives have failed to get off the ground in left‐leaning states such as Vermont, Colorado, and my own state of California, where our single‐payer bill SB 562 was just bottled up in the Assembly. I’ve been following the debate over SB 562 fairly closely, and a lot of it comes down to this: “Gyahh, my tax bill will go up five thousand dollars! Fuck that!” “But you’ll save six thousand dollars in premiums. And your deductibles will go away.” “Meh.” Time after time people cringe at the loss and shrug at the benefit. This, as many have observed, is why Obamacare soared in popularity at the moment it started to look like the Republicans were about to dismantle it. When it was implemented, people fixated on what they had lost—“Wait, you mean this much more comprehensive, much more affordable insurance only applies to a limited network of medical facilities and I can’t keep my old doctor? Oh noes!”—but now that things like premium subsidies and the ban on lifetime caps are on the chopping block, people value them much more than when they were mere benefits.
And that’s just one example. When people react to “this could make things worse” with terror and to “this could make things better” with apathy, the result is stagnation. This is always suboptimal, but in the middle of a crisis like the Great Depression, it’s a threat to the nation. Such a crisis is also one of the few things that can temporarily overcome the natural conservatism of a loss‐averse society: the threat that “this could make things worse” is defused when things can’t get much worse. So when Roosevelt said that “the country needs […] bold, persistent experimentation”, well, that’s nearly always true; when he said that “the country demands bold, persistent experimentation”, that’s a sign that the speech in question was delivered in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it,” Roosevelt continued. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” This is how I feel about most public policy. Yes, have the wonks weigh in—I do believe in the value of expertise—but when they already have and the debate remains unresolved, just try things out and see what happens! States are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy, and just in the past few years we’ve seen what happens when we finally give things a go. For years the right warned that same‐sex marriage would unravel the fabric of society; Massachusetts legalized it; those warnings were demonstrated to have been ridiculous; within a few years same‐sex couples could get married across the country. Ditto for cannabis: Colorado and Washington legalized it, virtually nothing changed except for the fact that prisons were no longer being stuffed with pot smokers, and to date six other states plus D.C. have gone 420‐friendly, as they say in the classifieds. On the flip side, Kansas decided to go all‐in on tax cuts, anticipating a libertarian utopia, and instead cratered to the point that last month the Republican legislature not only hiked takes back up but overrode the governor’s veto of those increases. And I have to applaud the fact that they went ahead and tried it: it was a valuable service to give us such clear empirical evidence that Republican economic policy is a failure. Or it would have been, if the Republicans would admit it frankly and concede that it’s time to try something else. Instead they’re trying to repeat the Kansas experience on the federal level, because they’re not good‐faith experimenters but ideologues like Hoover. But, again, they keep getting elected because people generally don’t want good‐faith experimentation until things get as bad as Hoover’s governance made them.
But as much time as I spend gritting my teeth over how bad we are at electing the kinds of governments that will make headway on solving our problems, I have to admit that it’s kind of like complaining that babies aren’t very good at changing their own diapers. If we were temperamentally capable of consistently choosing progressive governance, we wouldn’t have so many problems to solve in the first place. No, not every problem can be solved by a collective act of will. We can’t just decide to cure cancer or invent teleportation—we have to figure out how to do those things, and that could take decades or centuries. On the other hand, many of the scourges that plague us—war, crime, racism, you name it—are entirely matters of human behavior, behavior that we could change. We don’t—we are neurotic monkeys driven by greed and fear and hate, and lack the temperament to create a better world. But in theory we could rid ourselves of these scourges, overnight, just like that. And nearly all economic issues fall into this category. A depression, for instance, is a vicious cycle characterized by an excess demand for money. People become worried that money will be hard to come by, and so they hang onto it—consumers don’t spend as much, so businesses bring in less revenue and feel the need to cut salaries, so they fire some workers, who definitely stop spending as much, so businesses bring in less revenue, and so we go around and around. Or take the bank collapses: a bank run is a self‐fulfilling prophecy in which people worry that a bank is about to go under, rush to withdraw their money before it’s lost forever, and all those withdrawals make the bank go under. At the beginning of Roosevelt’s political career these events were still called panics, and panic is an apt word for them, as it captures that the problem is not anything material, not a shortage of goods or of available labor—the problem is emotional. People are scared, and their collective fear brings about the very thing they’re scared of. Digging out of the depression would mean tackling that fear. One route would be indirect, through economic initiatives: deposit insurance to relieve people of the fear of losing their savings, employment programs and a social security system to give people hope that more money would be coming in. But just as important was the direct route, rebuilding confidence in the prospects of the American economy. It wouldn’t do to have someone like Gennady Yanayev at the helm, urging confidence in the new regime while his hands shook. So Franklin Roosevelt’s temperament was perfectly matched to this moment, because he was uncommonly fearless. And above all else, the country needed a leader who could say with obvious genuine internal conviction, and get people to believe along with him, that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself.