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FDR – The Man, the Leader, the Legacy, Part 8


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In January 1932, Franklin Roosevelt announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. He began at once to reap the benefit of years of carefully nurtured contacts with party leaders, great and small, all across the country. As more and more of them pledged their support, Jim Farley, FDR’s campaign manager, tried to get an unstoppable bandwagon going for his boss. But while Roosevelt was clearly the front-runner, he still faced serious opposition.

The gravest threat was from Franklin’s for-mer patron, Al Smith. Smith, still smarting from his humiliating defeat in 1928 at the hands of Herbert Hoover, felt that his last, golden opportunity had come. With the Depression under way, even an Irish-Catholic Prohibition-flouter could win the White House against the increasingly despised Hoover. But where was the suave, popular, and ever-amiable Roosevelt vulnerable to attack? Smith soon had his chance.

Since he seemed destined to become the next president, Roosevelt came under growing pressure to stake out a distinctive philosophical position for himself. This he attempted to do in April, in a 10-minute radio speech. The talk was written for him by Raymond Moley, the Columbia professor who had gathered together FDR’s first “brain trust” and had acted as its unofficial chairman. Moley chose as his theme “the Forgotten Man.”

The choice of that term, “the Forgotten Man,” concealed a great irony. For Moley borrowed it from the free-market social scientist William Graham Sumner, who had made it famous. Sumner (who died in 1910) was the first professor of sociology in the United States (at Yale), a brilliant thinker, and in his time the great champion of laissez faire at home and nonintervention abroad. His defiant address on “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” in 1898, when the euphoria of America’s great victory over Spain was at its height, remains a classic of anti-imperialist thought.

Sumner’s essay on the Forgotten Man is a distillation of his political thought. The Forgotten Man is the person the do-gooders and social engineers never think of, as they busily concoct their plans to raise up this or that “underprivileged” group.

“He works, he votes, generally he prays – but he always pays – yes, above all, he pays. He does not want a political office. He is the one who keeps production going. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He gives no trouble. He is not in any way a problem (unlike tramps and outcasts); or notorious (unlike criminals); or an object of sentiment (unlike the poor and the weak); or a burden (unlike paupers and loafers). Therefore, he is forgotten. All the burdens fall on him – or on her, for it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman.”

Moley’s – and Roosevelt’s – Forgotten Man was a very different being from Sumner’s. Instead of the man, or woman, of the middle classes, who keeps production going and who is victimized by taxes and bureaucrats, the new silent hero was the one “at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” For far too long, Roosevelt argued, those at the top had enjoyed all the benefits of economic progress. Now it was time for the government to come to the aid of society’s disadvantaged, those who form “the infantry of our economic army.”

Many commentators were aghast at FDR’s stirring up of class prejudices in the volatile atmosphere of the Depression. Al Smith, happy that his adversary had slipped, stated that he was ready “to fight to the end against any candidate who persists in any demagogic appeal to the masses of working people of this country to destroy themselves by setting class against class and rich against poor.”

The unexpectedly harsh reaction to his “Forgotten Man” speech from many quarters must have given Roosevelt second thoughts, for he soon reverted to his customary vagueness and ambiguity. This sometimes exasperated academic advisors like Moley, who marveled at Franklin’s ability to assert categorically several contradictory things at the same time. But Roosevelt’s well-honed skill at being all things to all men served him well throughout his career, and particularly in the nomination campaign that was now heating up.

Franklin won most of the early primaries, showing strength everywhere except in his own Northeast. But John Nance Garner, of Texas, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives, won his own state, and, to Roosevelt’s chagrin, California as well. There the deciding factor was the influence of the Hearst newspapers. William Randolph Hearst still did not trust Roosevelt, recalling FDR’s early enthusiasm for the League of Nations. To Hearst, Garner was the only candidate whose policy was “America first” (a phrase the powerful publisher seems to have coined). Al Smith carried the big cities of the Northeast, which had always been his strongholds. He won the primaries in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and was assured of the bulk of the huge New York delegation as well. In addition, a number of states put forward favorite son candidates.

When the assembled Democrats cast the first ballot at their convention in Chicago, Roosevelt had 666 1/2 votes, Smith more than 200, and Garner 90, with the rest locked up by the favorite sons. The party was still bound by the two-thirds rule, however, and FDR had fallen some 100 votes short of victory. On the second and third ballots, his total inched up, but not enough. Farley was frantic. Would the convention start looking around for a compromise candidate?

It was at this point that a young Boston businessman and Roosevelt supporter, Joseph Kennedy, went to Hearst to arrange a deal. In return for bringing the Garner delegates into the Roosevelt camp, Garner could have the vice-presidential nomination. This was acceptable to Hearst and the Texans, though Garner himself would have preferred to remain Speaker.

On the fourth ballot, California broke for Roosevelt, stampeding the convention. Franklin was nominated by acclamation, though Al Smith’s supporters refused to make it unanimous. In the years to come, Joseph Kennedy enjoyed the benefits of one government favor after another, founding the immense fortune that permitted his sons and grandsons to devote themselves to politics, where they contributed so selflessly to the freedom and well-being of their fellow Americans.

In Albany, Roosevelt and his entourage were delighted at the culmination of so many years of planning. He decided, contrary to precedent, to address the convention in person. (The plane had to stop in Buffalo and Cleveland to refuel, and the flight took nine hours.) Roosevelt stressed the symbolism of his personal appearance before the delegates: “Let it be from now on the task of our Party to break foolish traditions.” His brief address to the convention ended with the words: “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” At the time, the phrase sparked no particular interest, although it was to become even more closely identified with FDR than “the Forgotten Man.” Party bigwigs rallied around the nominee, as they looked forward to taking over the Washington power and money machine – then barely in its childhood – after a hiatus of 12 years. Bernard Baruch contributed $50,000 to the campaign – in Depression-era dollars.

Hoover had been renominated by the Republicans with no opposition, likewise in Chicago. But with 12 million unemployed and conditions worsening daily, his prospects were bleak. FDR’s main ghostwriter, Charlie Michelson, ground out venomous speeches, portraying the president as a virtual monster, ice-cold to the people’s sufferings and haughtily unconcerned with the disaster his own policies (allegedly) had produced, a heartless millionaire-reactionary and last-ditch defender of horrid laissez faire. This was a tissue of much worse than your average political lies, but it became the model for FDR’s treatment of his opponents for the rest of his life. Michelson’s caricature helped determine the picture of Hoover harbored by many millions during the campaign, and even to the present day.

As for a concrete program of his own, Roosevelt was characteristically vague. He spoke of the excesses of speculation on Wall Street and the excesses of production on the country’s farms, but with no suggestion of what he would do about them. For the last weeks of the campaign, he hewed to an oddly conservative line. He attacked Hoover for his wild spending and budget deficits, promising to balance the federal budget and cut the bureaucracy. Roosevelt vowed that though he would bring stability to industrial, financial, and agricultural markets, government interference would be “kept at a minimum.”

The outcome of the election was practically predetermined. It was a Roosevelt landslide. He won by close to 23 million votes to Hoover’s 15.5 million. Outside of four small New England states, Hoover carried only Pennsylvania and Delaware. The new Congress, too, was overwhelmingly Democratic.

A week before he was to be inaugurated, Franklin was in Miami, returning from a refreshing sea voyage aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht. The city was swarming with Democratic politicians hungry for federal patronage. Among the most prominent was Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago, who had opposed Roosevelt for the nomination, but had now come, hat in hand, to plead for reconciliation. When Roosevelt, seated in an open touring car, addressed a crowd of thousands, Cermak found himself next to the president-elect. A 33-year old Italian immigrant named Joseph Zangara fired a cheap pistol at Roosevelt, who was saved by a woman who struck the assassin’s arm. As Zangara emptied the gun’s five chambers, a number of onlookers were hit, including Cermak, who died of his wounds. To the amazement even of his friends, Franklin displayed perfect composure throughout the incident, and afterwards. His nonchalant courage thrilled the country.

The lame-duck Congress had already voted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing Prohibition, and repeal was making its speedy way through the state legislatures. In those days everyone understood that a federal law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages required a constitutional amendment.

Today, after the Roosevelt revolution in constitutional law, everyone believes that the federal government possesses such authority, and, indeed, practically any authority it wants. In any case, back in 1932, it was not any love of individual liberty that motivated the repealing politicians. As John T. Flynn wrote, “A more powerful appetite was aroused. The country, the states, the towns needed money – something to tax. And liquor was the richest target.” Great changes were in the air – and not only in America: on January 30, 1933, in Berlin, the aged President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of the Reich.

On March 4, the intense anticipation of the entire nation focused on the scene in Washington, where Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes administered the oath of office before Frankin’s family, the assembled dignitaries, and a great crowd of well-wishers. When Hughes asked Roosevelt whether he swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the firm reply was: “I do.” Thus FDR began his long reign as he would rule for the next 12 years: in carefree deception. Then he proceeded to his inaugural address.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Table of Contents

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    Ralph Raico is originally from New York City. He received his B.A. from the City College of New York and his Ph. D. from the University of Chicago. He attended the Ludwig von Mises's Seminar at NYU and translated Mises's Liberalism. He is the Editor of the New Individualist Review and a Senior Editor of Inquiry Magazine. Among Ralph Raico’s recent publications are the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of John T. Flynn’s "The Roosevelt Myth" and the essay on World War I in the second, paperback edition of "The Costs of War", edited by John V. Denson, both available from Laissez Faire Books. He is also a contributor to "The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars", published by The Future of Freedom Foundation. Professor Raico is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.