In the midst of the Great Depression, the indefatigable Socialist leader, Norman Thomas, finds more Americans than ever listening to the party’s message. As Thomas would find out later, perhaps the person paying the most attention was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
He stands on the platform of Mecca Temple in New York on Armistice Day, and explains the price that we must pay for peace. Speaking with him is a distinguished quartette: Nicholas Murray Butler, Alanson B. Houghton, John W. Davis, Alfred E. Smith. At the beginning of the meeting the average reporter would have made a mental note that he was speaking with them; but not at the end. For that tremendous audience of the elite, the intelligentsia, the sophisticates of public affairs, has been swept off its feet–and by a Socialist whose very earnestness is moving, whose remarks will seem in cold print on the morrow as full of depth as when spoken, and whose eloquence is irresistible.
He stands in the center of a milling crowd on a Socialist picnic; the well-to-do are pretty generally absent, for these are hard-handed laboring people come to manifest their economic solidarity. Thomas gets the reception of an idolized comrade, one who has not only the knack of expressing vividly the hunger of their spirits, but of arousing passionate personal loyalty. He stands on a stump at Garfield, New Jersey, a suburb of Passaic, where freedom of assembly has just been denied to striking mill workers. He gets as far as a few words about historic American liberties, declares this to be his first stump speech made from a bone fide stump, and is manhandled by a sheriff and a group of zealous deputies, who proceed to lock him up overnight for want of $10,000 bail money in his pockets.
He stands behind the pulpit of a church, filling again the ministerial role which gave him the platform training he finds so great an asset now –though there is only the slightest trace of orthodox homiletics in his bearing. He takes his listeners from personal strivings up to a larger struggle on behalf of all mankind. Communists, when they tire of branding him as “yellow,” “traitor,” “fake,” or “reactionary,” hurl the ultimate epithet–“sky-pilot.”
He stands on the rostrum of a famous university making the Commencement address at the request of the graduating class. He speaks at once with dignity and fire, with practical realism and sensitive imagination. There is youth in him, and the students respond to it. He takes them into a world of problematic reward but of hearty adventure. He stands at the door of a room where a committee of the “best minds” has been fashioning the outlines of a fairer universe. He has perhaps maintained silence up to now; but before he rushes off to his sixth committee meeting for the day he will present a series of cogent ideas in rapid-fire manner, often enough of them to keep the session going for another two or three hours.
When he speaks it is his depth of conviction that counts, primarily. But he is the fortunate owner of a rich, resonant voice, and has the gift of speaking at high speed yet with clarity and freedom from oratorical bombast. Sometimes he speaks too often, and then occasionally he loses unity and tends to substitute a not unpleasing satire for ideas; but as a rule he can rise above heavy fatigue and nearly do his best. He must be tired, he is tired, a good deal of the time. When he gets warmed up he will pace back and forth, his long legs and flashing eyes emphasizing his vehement sincerity. He uses his arms but little, and never flails the air; once in a while he will crook one arm at an impossible angle, round his fingers out into a hollow ball, and draw the fingertips together tensely, as if he had something mighty important in his hand. He has the audience.