The New Deal: A Modern History

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Overview

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal began as a program of short-term emergency relief measures and evolved into a truly transformative concept of the federal government’s role in Americans’ lives. More than an economic recovery plan, it was a reordering of the political system that continues to define America to this day.

With The New Deal: A Modern History, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Michael Hiltzik offers fresh insights into this inflection point in the American experience. Here is an intimate look at the alchemy that allowed FDR to mold his multifaceted and contentious inner circle into a formidable political team. The New Deal: A Modern History shows how Roosevelt, through the force of his personality, commanded the loyalty of the rock-ribbed fiscal conservative Lewis Douglas and the radical agrarian Rexford Tugwell alike; of Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins, one a curmudgeonly miser, the other a spendthrift idealist; of Henry Morgenthau, gentleman farmer of upstate New York; and of Frances Perkins, a prim social activist with her roots in Brahmin New England. Yet the same character traits that made him so supple and self-confident a leader would sow the seeds of the New Deal’s end, with a shocking surge of Rooseveltian misjudgments.

Understanding the New Deal may be more important today than at any time in the last eight decades. Conceived in response to a devastating financial crisis very similar to America’s most recent downturn—born of excessive speculation, indifferent regulation of banks and investment houses, and disproportionate corporate influence over the White House and Congress—the New Deal remade the country’s economic and political environment in six years of intensive experimentation. FDR had no effective model for fighting the worst economic downturn in his generation’s experience; but the New Deal has provided a model for subsequent presidents who faced challenging economic conditions, right up to the present. Hiltzik tells the story of how the New Deal was made, demonstrating that its precepts did not spring fully conceived from the mind of FDR—before or after he took office. From first to last the New Deal was a work in progress, a patchwork of often contradictory ideas. Far from reflecting solely progressive principles, the New Deal also accommodated such conservative goals as a balanced budget and the suspension of antitrust enforcement. Some programs that became part of the New Deal were borrowed from the Republican administration of Herbert Hoover; indeed, some of its most successful elements were enacted over FDR’s opposition.

In this bold reevaluation of a decisive moment in American history, Michael Hiltzik dispels decades of accumulated myths and misconceptions about the New Deal to capture with clarity and immediacy its origins, its legacy, and its genius.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hiltzik tells the dam's tale well, with majestic sweep and a degree of detail; every iota of material fits snugly into the narrative, which, unlike the river, flows freely.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Detailed and vividly written – destined to be the standard history for decades to come.”
Washington Post

“[A] superb new history of the dam's conception, construction and legacy… And in Hiltzik's hands, it makes very good history, indeed.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The parade of grim particulars might make Colossus a depressing read were it not for the vigor of Hiltzik's prose and the lively gallery of individual portraits and anecdotes that convey a wonderfully textured sense of what it was like to work on Hoover Dam.”
Los Angeles Times

“In the grand tradition of David McCullough, Mr. Hiltzik clearly explains the technological and physical difficulties posed by the dam project, but he also fixes the endeavor in its time and captures the personalities of the people involved. May inspire in readers a longing for something . . . that will summon up once again America’s famous self-confidence and daring. A national monument to the American can-do spirit.” —John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal

Kirkus Reviews

A sweeping, lively survey of the Roosevelt administration's efforts to restart the American economy nearly 80 years ago.

With panache and skill, Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times journalist Hiltzik (Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, 2010, etc.) chronicles the rise and decline of the New Deal, from the desperate improvisation of the Hundred Days through the more carefully considered passage of such landmark legislation as the Securities Exchange Act and the Social Security Act. The author concludes with judicial and legislative reaction against some elements of the program. In addition to the obvious high points, he makes room for coverage of "Federal One," the relief program for workers in the arts, and of the deplorable condition of black urban and agricultural workers. The New Deal was a huge enterprise driven by a large cast of characters who held widely differing views on how to cure the nation's ills, including the thundering Gen. Hugh Johnson at the National Recovery Administration, the prickly Harold Ickes at the Interior Department and the long-suffering Frances Perkins at the Labor Department. These and many of the other colorful personalities this history; while FDR was "the glue holding these disparate pieces together," he does not appear here as the heroic figure of political legend. Hiltzik presents him instead in more humanized form, sympathetically but with many faults clearly on display, including indecisiveness, aversion to conflict and a measure of hubris that brought him into an ill-fated collision with the Supreme Court in the "court-packing" fiasco of 1937. The author suggests that it was FDR's ebullient confidence more than his economic competence that sustained the nation through this devastating period. Though he disagrees with the revisionist school of historians who argue that the New Deal prolonged the Depression, Hiltzik writes with no obvious agenda in mind.

A timely, well-executed overview of the program that laid the foundation for the modern progressive state.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439154489
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 974,052
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.44 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Hiltzik

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 as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Russia. He currently serves as the Times business columnist. His other books include The Plot Against Social Security (2005), Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (1999), and A Death in Kenya (1995). Mr. Hiltzik 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, Mr. Hiltzik 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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Read an Excerpt

1

“ACTION NOW”

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, New York, designates that draft as the “original manuscript . . . as written at Hyde Park on Monday, February 27th, 1933. I started in about 9.00 P.M. and ended at 1.30 A.M.”

In truth, by the reckoning of its principal author, Raymond Moley, the speech’s gestation dated as far back as September 22, 1932. That was the tail end of a western campaign trip so triumphant that the candidate allowed himself for the first time the luxury of looking ahead to his administration. For three hours late that night, Roosevelt and Moley laid out the blueprint of an inaugural speech to be delivered the following March: a “mixture of warning and assurance,” an “impression of firmness and . . . a strong show of executive leadership” to overrule Congress’s inclination to bicker and delay.

Moley worked on his draft on and off for the next five months, searching for the right balance of confidence and humility, of explanation and exhortation, of realism and spirituality. He sampled metaphors for the crisis out of which Roosevelt would be anointed to lead the nation—sickness? failure?—and for the scale of the effort required to prevail. Would mere action do, or even dictatorship? The latter term was by no means as unnerving to American ears in this time of ineffectual leadership as it would become a few years hence. How much should the new president enlist the people in his program of renewal and recovery? How much should he ask for their faith?

Over time Moley moved away from the tropes of sickness and failure, so Hooveresque in their pessimism and self-pity, and toward resolution, rebirth, and restoration. Although he had worked with Roosevelt as closely as any aide for more than a year, what continued to elude him well into February was a way to project the new president’s vibrant personality from the podium on the Capitol lawn. Then came February 15. Moley had been ordered south to Miami by Louis Howe, Roosevelt’s political majordomo, to bring the President-elect the latest updates on cabinet recruitments. So he was crammed into an overstuffed touring car directly behind Roosevelt’s open convertible when one Giuseppe Zangara took aim at the President-elect and, thwarted by the rickety chair he was perched on and the swipe of a bystander’s arm, instead wounded Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago and four other persons.

As his car started to speed off, Roosevelt coolly commanded his driver to stop. He ordered the slumping Cermak bundled into the car and then directed the driver to make for the nearest hospital. (Cermak would die of his wounds nineteen days later.) Moley, like the rest of the official party, was astonished at his boss’s unshakable self-possession. “There was nothing—not so much as the twitching of a muscle, the mopping of a brow, or even the hint of a false gaiety—to indicate that it wasn’t any other evening in any other place,” he observed later. “Roosevelt was simply himself—easy, confident, poised, to all appearances unmoved.”

The experience instilled new energy into Moley’s draftsmanship. There would be no more toying with images of sickness and despair. “Failure,” to the extent it would be evoked at all, would be laid on the shoulders of the stubborn and incompetent leaders of the past, now abdicated and gone. The prevailing images in Moley’s newly muscular prose were of action, truth, frankness, and courage.

Roosevelt did not see the draft until February 27, when Moley brought it to Hyde Park in his briefcase. After dinner that evening, Roosevelt began the process of turning Moley’s draft into his own by copying it out by hand, working on a folding bridge table before a roaring fire. The two men recrafted the text sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. Moley had omitted a peroration, a closing appeal to the deity; Roosevelt scribbled out the words, “In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He guide me in the days to come.” Finally Moley got to his feet, took his own copy from the table, and tossed it into the fireplace. He told the President-elect, “It’s your speech now.”

The next day Roosevelt’s handwritten draft went to Howe, the ultimate arbiter of momentous occasions. In his own hand, Howe added three or four opening lines, including perhaps the most resounding phrase of Rooseveltian oratory: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The source of this phrase is lost to history. Samuel Rosenman, FDR’s close friend and editor of his papers, believed it must have come from a volume of Henry David Thoreau he had spotted in the presidential suite during the final stages of drafting. The book contained the words, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” Moley dismissed that theory, recalling instead that the phrase had appeared in a newspaper advertisement earlier in February, although he was unable later to track down the elusive ad.

Whatever the origin of its most famous expression, the sentiment was scarcely novel or exceptionable. Literary bloodhounds have found precursors as recent as a 1931 speech by U.S. Chamber of Commerce chairman Julius Barnes (“In a condition of this kind, the thing to be feared most is fear itself”) and as remote as the aphorisms of the seventeenth-century English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (“Nothing is terrible but fear itself”).

Yet the greater impression the speech made was of determination to effect change, expressed through plain, potent words such as vigor, firmness, courage, and attack. “People cried,” Perkins would recall. “Tears streamed down the faces of strong men in the audience as they listened to it. It was a revival of faith. He said, ‘Come on now, do you believe?’ They said, ‘Yes, we do.’ It made them cry to think that they hadn’t believed and that they’d been so near to the brink of the terrible sin of despair.”

Roosevelt’s speech delighted those who had become frustrated with the inertia of Herbert Hoover’s White House. Walter Lippmann, who had expressed his doubts about Roosevelt’s character so acerbically a year earlier, had since clambered aboard the bandwagon—even moving somewhat ahead of it, by openly urging the new chief executive to assume “dictatorial” authority. (“The word should frighten no one,” he assured his readers on the day of the Detroit collapse. “The man . . . has just received a mandate from the voters.”) Following the inauguration he praised Roosevelt as “a man who is fresh in mind and bold in spirit, who has instantly captured the confidence of the people, whose power to act in the emergency will not be questioned.” He concluded: “The American people have at last had a lucky break.” Disaffection would set in soon enough.

For others, doubts were already surfacing. Rex Tugwell, who expected Roosevelt to seize the opportunity presented by the banking collapse to undertake a radical restructuring of the financial sector, heard his hopes get dashed in the inaugural address. “The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” Roosevelt had said. “We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.” Tugwell asked himself, “What ‘ancient truths’ were there to be restored to the high seats in the business temple?” Hearing Roosevelt refer to the “sacred trust” violated by selfish banking and business leaders, he thought: “Were banking and business sacred trusts? . . . They were rather occupations intended to make profits . . . by any means within overly permissive rules.” The crestfallen Brain Truster steeled himself to witness a new round of political accommodation to entrenched power, as though the Depression had changed nothing.

Some in the audience were immune to the new president’s soaring words. The political essayist Edmund Wilson listened in a funereal mood. “Everything is gray today,” he wrote. “The people seem dreary, apathetic. . . . The prosperity of America has vanished.” The speech itself he condemned as warmed-over Woodrow Wilson: “The old unctuousness, the old pulpit vagueness. . . . The old Wilsonian professions of plain-speaking followed by the old abstractions.”

His mood was shared by a thirty-two-year-old government lawyer from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, listening in the crowd. Thomas G. Corcoran had been one of Felix Frankfurter’s star students at Harvard Law School. He had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, then, after a brief taste of corporate lawyering in New York, joined the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as legal counsel.

The job had given him a front-row seat at the banking crisis, and a decidedly underwhelming impression of the President-elect. Roosevelt’s refusal to join Hoover in a banking rescue left him “angry and dismayed,” he recorded later. Convinced that Roosevelt had deliberately let the banks sink to gain political advantage upon his own accession, he judged him “a villainous fool . . . the worst sort of political cad.” Standing on the National Mall, stamping his feet to keep warm, and predisposed to disdain the new president, Corcoran heard in Roosevelt’s ringing delivery only “an empty collection of platitudes . . . vague, unspecific to a fault.” He found it easy to abstain from the crowd’s cheers.

Corcoran’s own education in the complexities of politics and the intricacies of Franklin Roosevelt’s political mind—indeed, Corcoran’s intellectual seduction by the man he initially thought a fool and a cad—would begin in only a few weeks. For the moment, he felt deeply discouraged and impatient to share his disappointment with others in his circle. A few days after the inauguration, he joined a small party of family and friends at Holmes’s Washington house to celebrate the revered justice’s ninety-second birthday. He arrived to find the place vibrating with excitement: the new president had just departed after paying his respects to the old man—a canny maneuver to associate himself with the patriarch of Washington’s liberal elite.

In Holmes’s presence, Corcoran ventured a few careful criticisms of Roosevelt’s vacuous inaugural bromides. The justice fixed him with his stern eye and proceeded to measure the new Roosevelt against the old one. “Theodore was no legal scholar, but he could turn a vivid phrase and vigorously command the people’s respect,” Holmes said, then unburdened himself of what would become a classic assessment. “This new Roosevelt is just like his cousin: A second class intellect but a first class temperament. And what this country seems to need in a president—right now particularly—is exactly that.”

A few hours after leaving the justice, Roosevelt presided over an unusual ceremony in the Oval Room of the White House (not yet sanctified as the “Oval Office”). The occasion was a joint swearing-in of the cabinet, the members of which normally would have been sworn the next day at their individual departments. But Roosevelt had judged it best not to defer the formality by even a single day, Harold Ickes would recall, in recognition of “the veritable slough of despond . . . through which the American people were struggling.”

While waiting his turn in the stiffly formal atmosphere (in order of departmental preference, he was seventh in line), Ickes took the measure of his new colleagues. He could recall having met only two before: Secretary of Agriculture Wallace, with whom he had served on a Midwest campaign committee for the Roosevelt ticket, and Perkins, whom he had met at the Sixty-Fifth Street town house on the day Roosevelt offered him his post. “I want the Secretary of Labor to meet the new Secretary of the Interior,” Roosevelt had said upon leading Ickes into the library of his home, indicating a prim woman in a print dress. As it happened, these two new acquaintances—one an associate of long standing of the President-elect, the other so new to his circle that Roosevelt had not met him before that day and even mispronounced his name (as “Ikes,” not “Ick-iss”)—would be the only two cabinet members to serve FDR through his entire twelve-year tenure in office.

The process of recruiting the cabinet had begun months earlier. On January 11, Roosevelt had summoned Moley to Albany to give him the first names, and instructed him to secure their assents. For secretary of state, Roosevelt passed over eminent veterans of the Wilson administration such as former secretary of war Newton D. Baker and Owen D. Young, now chairman of General Electric Company, in favor of Tennessee’s humble, lisping, but dignified and high-minded Senator Cordell Hull. Many were skeptical of the choice. To Moley, the appointment of a man unlikely to assert himself in the Cabinet Room—especially the contrast he made with the self-confident and independent Owen Young—signaled that Roosevelt intended to follow Woodrow Wilson’s example of acting as “his own foreign minister.”

For Treasury, the obvious choice was Carter Glass, Wilson’s Treasury secretary and the Senate’s undisputed mandarin of banking and financial policy. For attorney general, it was Montana’s Senator Thomas J. Walsh, whose judicious chairmanship of the 1932 convention had planed away many obstacles to Roosevelt’s nomination.

Agriculture was to go to the Iowan agricultural economist Henry A. Wallace, whose father, Henry C. Wallace, had served Harding and Coolidge in the same post, and whose prescriptions for ending the farm depression tracked Roosevelt’s own. For Commerce, FDR vacillated between two Democratic supporters from the business world, William H. Woodin, who ran his family’s railcar manufacturing business, and Jesse I. Straus, heir to the Macy’s retailing empire. Following tradition, the position of postmaster general was to go to the chairman of Roosevelt’s campaign, James A. Farley. For Interior, Roosevelt favored the progressive Republican Hiram Johnson of California—an appointment designed to reward Roosevelt’s supporters from that bloc while giving his cabinet a bipartisan flavor.

Nature and the vagaries of human character soon exerted their subversive force. Glass proved to be at once insistent and indecisive. He demanded assurances from Roosevelt that he would not be pursuing an inflationary policy, as well as the authority to appoint Russell Leffingwell, a J. P. Morgan partner, as his undersecretary. Roosevelt rejected both conditions. “We simply cannot go along with Twenty-three,” he told Moley, referring to Morgan & Company’s address at 23 Wall Street. Glass’s anti-inflation condition got no more consideration than it would two weeks later when the same idea reached FDR via Herbert Hoover’s letter. “You can say that we are not going to throw ideas out the window simply because they are labeled inflation,” Roosevelt told Moley.

Roosevelt and Glass volleyed back and forth over the conditions of his nomination, but both soon wearied of the game. Roosevelt concluded that Glass would be more useful in the Senate, where he could push the administration’s banking bills, and where he could articulate his doctrinaire fiscal principles without seeming to speak for the White House. Finally, on February 7, the aged Glass refused the cabinet post, sending Roosevelt a note from his physician expressing the opinion that the cabinet appointment might well prove fatal.

The quest for a Treasury secretary then shifted to Woodin, the sixty-four-year-old head of his family’s freight car manufacturing business. Nominally a Republican, Woodin had been an early and generous contributor to the Roosevelt campaign and possessed many other sterling qualities besides. Short, slender, with amused eyes twinkling over a snow-white toothbrush mustache, Woodin had a shy demeanor but a solid grip on business and finance, as well as sturdy common sense and resolute fair-mindedness. His duty to the family business had forced him to abandon his true love, the study of music, but he often retreated to the piano to relax. Even before Glass’s final refusal, Moley had enlisted Louis Howe to press Woodin’s name on FDR: in mid-January, while Roosevelt was vacationing at sea on his friend Vincent Astor’s yacht, they had jointly sent him a coded message reading, PREFER A WOODEN ROOF TO A GLASS ROOF OVER SWIMMING POOL. LUHOWRAY.

“Call Will Woodin and bring him here tonight,” FDR instructed Moley upon receiving Glass’s letter. Though frail of health, Woodin promptly accepted and upon receiving the appointment plunged directly into talks with Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Ogden Mills. Woodin would remain a steadying and sage influence during the frenetic weeks to come. No one paid him a deeper compliment than the ever-censorious Harold Ickes, who would say years later that Woodin was a man he came to “regret not having met earlier.”

Harold Ickes was the beneficiary of one of Roosevelt’s impulses. Hiram Johnson turned down his offer of the Interior Department, not with Glass’s Hamlet-like indecision but with characteristic finality; he feared that his uncompromising personality would fit poorly in Roosevelt’s cabinet. Notwithstanding his admiration for the President-elect, he told his son Archibald: “First, I wouldn’t give a tinker’s dam [sic] to be in his Cabinet . . . and secondly, I would not give an infinitesimal fraction of a tinker’s dam to be Secretary of the Interior. I prize my independence more highly than anything.”

Roosevelt turned to Republican Senator Bronson Cutting, a New York socialite who had moved west for his health and established his business and political career in New Mexico. But Cutting turned down the post barely a week before the inauguration.

As it happened, Ickes was then hovering around the Roosevelt inner circle as a potential appointee to an upcoming conference on international debts. He had conceived a desire for the Interior post and prevailed on Johnson and other progressive Republicans to put up his name. His credentials as a progressive Republican were as solid as Hiram Johnson’s: he had bolted the party in 1912 to support the Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket of Theodore Roosevelt, on which Johnson had been the vice presidential candidate, and at the 1932 GOP convention had organized a “dump Hoover” movement, which failed for want of a willing candidate. Ushered into Roosevelt’s presence at the Sixty-Fifth Street house for the very first time on the morning of February 22 ostensibly to discuss the debt situation, Ickes was offered the Interior Department job out of the blue. “I liked his jib,” Roosevelt explained to Moley. Even Johnson, who was one of Ickes’s strongest promoters, was amazed at the mysterious workings of chance. He told his sons:

If we had not made Ickes part of a little inner group on debts; if he had not gone to New York exactly when he did; if he had not unexpectedly been taken by Moley . . . to the gathering at Roosevelt’s house; and if contemporaneously Cutting’s refusal had not just been received . . . he would still be waiting disconsolately around hoping for some sort of recognition. . . . I really look to see him make as good a secretary of the Interior as we have ever had.

By many reckonings, Ickes would live up to his expectations.

The very last appointment was that of attorney general, its timing dictated by mischance. Roosevelt had named the seventy-three-year-old Thomas Walsh to the post. On the eve of the inauguration, however, Walsh died of a heart attack on the train carrying him back to Washington from a Cuban honeymoon with his bride of five days. Scurrying for a replacement, Roosevelt settled on Homer Cummings, a Connecticut Democratic leader who had already accepted appointment as governor-general of the Philippines and who agreed to serve in the cabinet on a temporary basis. He would remain there for six years.

Roosevelt’s cabinet choices confounded most Washington pundits, devoid as it was of such pillars of establishment Democratic politics as Young, Baker, and Bernard Baruch. Tugwell pronounced it “a quiet, serious group, without prima-donnas”—like most other Democrats, he was yet a stranger to Harold Ickes’s prickly moods—“but with a distinct progressive cast.”

Walter Lippmann concealed his surprise at the cabinet choices behind a mask of knowing cynicism. Listing the ten most prominent—and unchosen—members of the Democratic Party, he wrote: “No President ever selects such a cabinet.” Still voicing enthusiasm for the new administration, he said of the cabinet that “for my own part I am prepared to believe that on the whole Mr. Roosevelt has chosen well. . . . There are men in it who will give the more nervous conservatives the cold shivers. But the Cabinet as a whole should be reassuring to the discontented and disillusioned who are now the great majority.” Lippmann identified Ickes, Perkins, and Walsh (still making his way homeward) as the advance guard of the struggle to constrain predatory wealth and “to impose social control and social standards upon corporate property,” and their appointments proof of the New Deal’s intention to revive the progressive movement after its long eclipse under three Republican presidents. In this he was correct, although the path would be rockier than he or anyone else then predicted.

© 2011 Michael Hiltzik

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Long Winter 1

Part 1 The Hundred Days

1 "Action Now" 25

2 A Good Crisis 38

3 A River Out of Eden 55

4 Wall Street in the Dock 79

5 Agony on the Land 95

Part 2 The New Deal Rising

6 The General 115

7 The Gold Standard on the Booze 134

8 Harry and Harold 155

9 So Many Sinners 173

10 The Little Red House 192

11 Pied Pipers 213

12 The Cornerstone 237

13 Black Monday 261

14 Federal One 285

15 The Most Forgotten Man 308

Part 3 Return to Earth

16 Backlash 329

17 Nine Old Men 348

18 Roosevelt's Recession 376

19 Purgatory 393

Epilogue: Defining the New Deal 421

Notes 433

Bibliography 465

Acknowledgments 473

Index 475

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2011

    Outstanding History and Writing! The Modern Benchmark Study of the New Deal

    This book was a good read -- very informative and enjoyable. I thought the author was very fair and balanced, thoroughy researched the material, and was a great storyteller. The book centers on the Great Depression and the leaders in FDR's administration and throughout the nation to deal with trauma of the New Deal. They enacted reforms for long-term financial stability and an economic safety net. The book details the successes and failures. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business writer, and the book seems slightly negative at times but is overall very balanced. Social Security is the most famous New Deal safety net program, and the SEC is the most famous New Deal regulatory agency. The Fair Labor Standards Act is another New Deal reform that still affects all of us. The book mentions the thousands of New Deal infratructure projects (dams, airports, schools, roads, tunnels, aqueducts, canals, parks, etc) the New Deal built to build the economy, thousands of which are still with us today. I learned much about how the New Deal came about, the various programs, the successes, the failures, and America during the Great Depression. The book seems very scholarly and yet was easy to read. The New Deal reforms seemed to keep the economy stable and prosperous for many decades until some of the New Deal regulations were repealed in the decade before the economic collapse of 2007-2008. Also read the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War" by David Kennedy, "Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal" by William Leuchtenburg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lords of Finance" by Liaquat Ahamed, and "Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941" by Michael Parish.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The New Deal

    You may think of Franklin Roosevelt as a sepia-toned hero who smoothly guided the United States out of the Depression. As this captivating history makes clear, that is partly true – but not entirely. Roosevelt was a hero in some ways, but his path was decidedly messy. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik guides readers through the fits and starts of “New Deal” policies. It turns out that New Deal program ideas could spring from anywhere, whether Roosevelt’s avid imagination or the writings of an obscure economist. A few New Deal programs were miserable failures. And while FDR’s landslide victories paint a distant, historic picture of an overwhelmingly popular president, Hiltzik points out that Roosevelt had to overcome plenty of opposition to enact his policies. getAbstract recommends this revealing history to readers seeking a fresh look at a seminal chapter – and a seminal man – in American politics and economics.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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