The Hundred Days War: Histories of the New Deal
At the dawn of the Age of Obama, the heroic, liberal Roosevelt is back in fashion. The front tables at bookstores groan under the weight of massive biographies of the thirty-second president, among them jailed financier Conrad Black's surprisingly favorable Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Jean Edward Smith's widely praised and magnificently written FDR. A new addition to the pile is another sprawling account, Traitor to His Class, by the prolific University of Texas historian H.W. Brands.
The prospect of plowing through another full-scale biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is daunting, especially when it offers few revealing or novel insights into FDR's life, his pre-presidential career, the New Deal and World War II. Predictable, yes, but Traitor to His Class is reliable and compulsively readable. Brands writes in the vein of FDR's earlier, liberal chroniclers: his is a mostly favorable account of Roosevelt's career, with an emphasis on the dramatic turning points in the Depression and war, and on the president's leadership style. But the Roosevelt who emerges from Brands's book is less a rebel against privilege than a humane and ultimately pragmatic politician, one whose bout with polio spurred him to greater sympathy with the downtrodden but who was scarcely a radical, despite his occasionally fiery antibusiness rhetoric. Like many elites, especially from his home state of New York (including many who enthusiastically joined the ranks of New Dealers), FDR combined a sense of noblesse oblige with a faith in the application of expertise to solve pressing social and economic problems.
Roosevelt may have dramatically expanded the size of the government and its public spending, but his programs were seldom as large in scale or as revolutionary as they first appeared to be. The New Deal did not centralize governmental power as its critics had feared it would; it left the administration of the most important relief efforts--unemployment insurance, old age assistance, aid to dependent children and job-creation programs (the Public Works Administration excepted)--in the hands of state and local officials who used federal funds as a form of local patronage and who often shunted aside politically marginal groups like African-Americans. Roosevelt's populist rhetoric was belied by his administration's close collaboration with big business. His Social Security Act was a two-tiered program that provided generous benefits for the elderly but was penurious toward unmarried mothers and their children. His housing programs excluded minorities and disadvantaged central cities. And his most long-lived work programs lasted less than a decade. As historian Alan Brinkley recently argued, "the New Deal has often seemed as significant for its failures and omissions as for the things it achieved." Brands's biography would have been more powerful had it paid more attention to FDR's failures and omissions.
Like Brands, Adam Cohen echoes the first generation of liberal scholarship on the New Deal in Nothing to Fear, the newest of three books on FDR's first hundred days to appear in the past three years. In Cohen's view, FDR's first hundred days were nothing less than "the third great revolution" in American history. Cohen, a member of the New York Times editorial board and co-author of an excellent book on mid-twentieth- century Chicago boss Richard Daley, focuses on the president's inner circle--a professor, a social worker, a labor reformer, a crusading agricultural journalist and a cantankerous fiscal conservative. In Cohen's account, FDR is the nation's improviser in chief, someone with few strong convictions and shockingly little expertise on economic issues. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins considered the president to be economically "illiterate." But FDR turned his weakness into a strength. "Roosevelt does not have the extreme pride of personal opinion that has characterized some of our more bull-headed presidents," wrote Henry Wallace, shortly before FDR appointed him as agriculture secretary. "He knows that he doesn't know it all, and tries to find out all he can from people who are supposed to be authorities."
Roosevelt's lack of convictions (other than a sense of urgency to address the Depression) was remedied by his ability to delegate policy-making to what he called a "factocracy," a talented and unorthodox group of advisers, many of whom had little experience in Washington. Through artfully drawn vignettes of budget director Lewis Douglas (the one Washington insider), confidant Raymond Moley (a Columbia economics professor), Wallace (who edited his family's farm newsweekly), Perkins (a longtime advocate for working women) and public works administrator Harry Hopkins (a social worker), Cohen compellingly conveys the extraordinary sense of possibility in Roosevelt's administration, even in one of the bleakest moments in American history.
Roosevelt's first hundred days were unprecedented in their scope and ambition. Barely settled in the White House, his administration stabilized the nation's collapsed financial system. He repealed Prohibition--in an act that enhanced his popularity and stimulated at least one vital sector of the economy. Altogether he signed fifteen major pieces of legislation in just a little more than three months. Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive public works project meant to modernize the region's economy. The newly minted Agricultural Adjustment Administration provided crop subsidies to farmers, regulating output and stabilizing prices in the deeply depressed agricultural sector (although privileging large farmers and seldom benefiting tenant farmers or farm laborers). His job-creation programs--the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Public Works Administration--dramatically reduced the ranks of the unemployed and stimulated the economy by building roads, libraries, post offices, hospitals and schools. And through the National Industrial Recovery Act--the most controversial and least effective of these first programs--the Roosevelt administration instituted central economic planning, promoting a novel collaboration between business and government.
For good reason, Cohen is most sympathetic to Roosevelt's job creation and public works programs and their advocates--Perkins and Hopkins. His most sensitive portrait is of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Through a detailed account of her career, Cohen captures the humanitarian and reformist impulses that coursed through the New Deal. A witness to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, a crusader for minimum-wage and hours laws, an idealist but also an astute political operative, Perkins used her cabinet post to lay the groundwork for the New Deal's staunchly prolabor policies. For the first time, the government allied itself with organized labor and working people--an alliance that Southern Democrats and probusiness Republicans would assail in the 1940s but that was arguably the New Deal's greatest contribution to mid-twentieth-century American prosperity.
Cohen's argument that Roosevelt's programs were revolutionary, however, overstates the case. Most of FDR's programs were inspired by similar local and state innovations in the early twentieth century, the expansion of regulatory powers under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and the interventionist economic policies of World War I. FDR also expanded Herbert Hoover's policy innovations. Cohen resuscitates the hoariest clichés about the Hoover administration as the last bastion of laissez-faire capitalism. To buttress his argument, he relies on the authority of one of Roosevelt's most partisan biographers, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. It was politically expedient for Schlesinger to draw a bright line between Hoover and Roosevelt. And it was made easier by Hoover's three-decade-long post-presidency--in which the bitter Republican spent most of his time railing against the New Deal. But Cohen discounts a whole generation of scholarship on Hoover that offers a far more nuanced portrait of his politics. Hoover was no libertarian. As secretary of commerce in the Harding administration and then as president, Hoover reorganized and dramatically expanded the federal bureaucracy. He stepped up antitrust enforcement--in contrast to FDR, who jettisoned antimonopoly politics while gesturing to it in his occasional denunciations of greedy business leaders. Hoover also created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and signed the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, which restructured mortgage markets in an effort (that FDR would expand) to promote homeownership and spur the construction industry. The Tennessee Valley Authority grew out of Hoover-era public works projects, most notably the massive Boulder (later Hoover) Dam project. None of these programs were as ambitious as their New Deal counterparts, but they grew from the same Progressive roots that nourished Roosevelt's initiatives.