Saving a Nation

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

My maternal grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression—the period between 1929 and the eve of WWII, 1939. During those lean years she worked on the family farm in Danville, Virginia. The struggles and hardships of that decade were always in some way part of her life story. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard people explain the thriftiness of their grandparents by saying “they grew up during the Depression.” Well, my grandmother was thrifty, hardworking, religious, modest in manner, stoic, had a low tolerance for nonsense, and seemed always grounded in basic realities.

I spend a lot of time with my grandmother (“Nanny”) during my adolescent years, and I don’t recall Nanny talking much about politics. She was a southern baptist, conservative in most ways, and a Democrat. I recall my father, a businessman and a Republican, sometimes making mildly sarcastic comments about Nanny’s support—“no matter what”—for the Democratic party. But of course dad was just as devoted—no matter what—to the Republican Party. “Once you touch the biographies of human beings,” Walter Lippman said, “the notion that political beliefs are logically determined collapses like a pricked balloon.” And so it was with both of them…and the rest of us.

Nanny’s politics was grounded in a very basic reality: who, or what party, really cared. As a kid, I do recall her and I sitting in her small living room in her Norfolk, VA, home and talking about her early years in Danville. Somehow we got on the topic of Presidents. “We would have starved to death had it not been for Franklin Roosevelt!” my grandmother said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Hoover almost destroyed this country” she added. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a progressive era style Democrat and Herbert Hoover a Laissezfaire Republican. Nanny never forgot, nor would she forgive, the cruelty of Hoover and his policies.*

So you understand, when the Great Depression hit, millions of Americans were out of work (about 25% of the working population), banks were closing all over, farmers were losing their farms everywhere, and millions were on the verge of starving. President Hoover, being a good Laissez-faire conservative, and echoing the views of Big Businessmen, felt it would damage the moral fiber of Americans to allow the federal government to expand and provide direct assistance. Charity, in his decided view, was a local thing. Of course state and local governments were in pretty bad shape themselves from the collapse of the economy. So things were really bad and getting worse by the day. And this was the case largely because Laissez-faire economics had failed in a big way. Something Hoover couldn’t bring himself to admit…and so he couldn’t act.

Not too surprising, in the 1932 election, FDR defeated Hoover in a massive landslide.

I thought of Nanny when I recently completed reading Nothing to Fear (2009) by Adam Cohen. The book is about FDR’s first 100 days in office and his inner circle of staff and cabinet members who helped draft the 13 or so major laws that comprised the core of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which started the slow climb out of the Great Depression. From a historical perspective, Nanny was right, FDR and his administration did save this country from a terrible situation. FDR’s various New Deal government programs started the recovery, and the massive government spending to defeat the axis powers in WWII, completed the recovery. From FDR forward we began growing the biggest middle-class in world history. There is no doubt this successful broadening of wealth wouldn’t have been possible to the extend it was without FDR’s progressive economic policies and programs. As one historian said, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the framework for the success of our modern day world.

Cohen’s book is mostly about FDR’s own “team of rivals” that helped him launch the New Deal. A team of people who knew the problems facing the nation couldn’t be resolved by waiting and hoping things just got better—just letting “the market” deal with it. The most interesting character in Cohen’s story is Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration. She was the first woman to serve in any Presidential cabinet. She is the one who pushed the massive infrastructure spending that would ultimately put millions of Americans back to work. As she argued, this spending would “prime the pump” of economic growth. She was largely right. She’s important because at first FDR was reticent about the infrastructure spending (FDR was a fiscal conservative at heart), but she persuaded him to go with it and the rest is history.

FDR’s governing philosophy for the Great Depression, and in general, was pragmatic. Something had to be done and he, unlike Hoover, was willing to experiment, to try something, anything, to see if it would work. There was going to be no risk free success in FDR’s view. Doing nothing was not an option. FDR’s view, unlike Hoover’s, was that government had a responsibility to reduce suffering and address major social problems. A government IS the people acting through their Representatives. If, in FDR’s view, a policy or program didn’t work then he’d try something else. The important thing was to act, to do something, to use government to solve problems, not just sit on your hands and wait while things got worse. That’s not leadership, that’s surrender.

Business interests were not going to solve this big problem. In fact, a lot of Big Business interests resented FDR. Being a wealthy man himself, FDR was labeled a “traitor to his class.” But FDR was unmoved and took pride in the wealthy class’s distain of his loyalty to working families. FDR and his progressive allies in Congress put the government to work serving the people, not “organized money.” In thinking about how the rich business class viewed him, during one of his reelection campaigns, FDR wrote:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. 

Thus the New Deal was a social experiment—an attempt to solve a large socio-economic problem via government intervention. And for the most part it worked. In a flurry of legislative activity FDR put into effect over a dozen major laws during his first 100 days. The major departments and programs he established brought aid to millions and provided millions more with jobs…and dignity.

It’s important to note that Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate with large majorities during FDR’s first 100 days. Something critical to remember. If a President doesn’t have their party in control of Congress then that President may not get the support for the major changes needed to address major problems. In other words, major New Deal programs, like Social Security, may not have been a reality today had FDR not had majorities in both the House and the Senate. Programs like Social Security (and later Medicare) for example, were not supported by conservatives in Congress at that time. They were attacked as a form of sovietism. Consider the example of Ronald Reagan. After having moved to the political right in the 1950s, he actually attacked the idea of Medicare as surrendering to “socialism.” But Reagan, of course, would eventually himself surrender to the overwhelming popularity of Medicare and convert to being a supporter of this socialist style program.

I was interested in Cohen’s book because I wanted to understand how and by what means FDR and his team tackled the Great Depression. The truth is we can’t say another Great Depression isn’t in our future, and so studying the 1930s, both economically and, given the times, politically, provides some important lessons and insights about issues we face today and may face tomorrow. Of course my hope is we’ve vanquished any chance of a 1930s style Great Depression for good. Certainly because of FDR and many subsequent policies since that time we’re not as likely to crash as hard as they did in those less regulated times…though we’re on a binge of deregulating Wall Street currently and that should cause deep concern for all Americans. The 2008 crash was largely the result of reckless behavior by deregulated Wall Street Bankers.

If you’re interested in FDR and his first 100 days or the New Deal in general, this is a good book to start with. Because how a leader and his team go about saving a nation is always a good story.


*Not all Republicans at that time adhered to Laissez-faire like a religion. From the start the Progressive Movement cut across party lines. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was a champion of the Progressive Movement, and actually founded the Progressive Party. There were Progressive Republicans in both the House and Senate throughout most of the early and mid 20th century. Most of the progressive Republicans in Congress supported FDR and his New Deal legislative agenda.

James Madison and the Indispensable Provision

James Madison

Since the U.S. House of Representatives voted to formalize an Impeachment Inquiry today, I thought it a good time to reflect on first principles.

In July of 1787 the Founding Fathers were still in Philadelphia drafting our Constitution. James Madison, known in our history as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, played a major part in organizing the convention and constructing the final draft of the Constitution and then getting it ratified by the states.

Below is a segment from a transcript taken on July 20th during the constitutional convention, as the debate turned to a provision for removing a President from office. Here is Madison discussing why this provision was so important:

Mr. MADISON thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate. The limitation of the period of his service, was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. The case of the Executive Magistracy was very distinguishable, from that of the Legislature or of any other public body, holding offices of limited duration. It could not be presumed that all or even a majority of the members of an Assembly would either lose their capacity for discharging, or be bribed to betray, their trust. Besides the restraints of their personal integrity & honor, the difficulty of acting in concert for purposes of corruption was a security to the public. And if one or a few members only should be seduced, the soundness of the remaining members, would maintain the integrity and fidelity of the body. In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic. (Bolding added)

The evidence before us brings Madison’s concerns front and center. For most of us, at least, there is no denying what stands in front of us. The only real question now is whether Americans will act to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…”.*

In overcoming this historic challenge we should draw inspiration from the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

The growing gap between the educated and uneducated is a serious threat to our way of life

“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that. 

— David McCullough

From the Annals of Book Collecting — La Crosse, VA

(Photo by Jeff Wills)

We headed south last weekend to attend a big family and friends get-together being held down in La Crosse, Virginia.

One of the grand gentleman of the event, knowing I was a book collecting type of guy, invited me to his nearby home to scan his shelves for any books I might want. At 80, he insinuated, he didn’t see a good reason for holding on to all these books when there were others who might actually enjoy reading them.

The above picture are the ones I picked from the shelves and decided to add to my own library….whether I get around to reading all of them before I’m 80 is a fair question.

I picked out a total of 6 books for my collection:

1. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was assigned—as so many kids were over the past decades—to read Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby in High School…though I seem to recall avoiding that assignment and, like more than a few other high schoolers at the time, hunting down the Cliff Notes instead. A taste for fine literature is something acquired, not assigned, and I would eventually acquire this taste myself in college and beyond.

Since high school—roughly 30 plus years now—I’ve read Gatsby twice…maybe three times. And none of those times had anything to do with college either. I’ve returned to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby because, for me, it was about experiencing the power of words and storytelling. It was about art. I wanted to see what so many others had seen and felt from reading this great literary masterwork. Each time I read it I got something different out of it. That, my readers, is what makes great art so great…it lives on and on in each reading.

But I will say this about literature and books like The Great Gatsby and being a high school student. I think there is a small number of teenagers—especially teenage boys—who can truly appreciate books like Gatsby at that stage in life. Sure, we should expose our teenagers to great literature, but it’s unlikely at that young age they’ll truly appreciate art of that quality. To really appreciate books like Gatsby requires some experience with the tragedies of life, and for the most part high school kids are just too young and self-absorbed to appreciate how novels like Gatsby deepen the mystery.

So when I saw this book of Fitzgerald’s letters on my friend’s book shelf I immediately reached for it. It was the first book I took. My thoughts were about the inner life of this literary artist, his thoughts and concerns, and the quality of his prose in personal letters. Tragically, Fitzgerald died young. He was only 44. American letters lost so much.

2. The American Language.

This is a study of the American (English in North America) Language by H. L. Mencken. Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mencken. He was one of those silver tongue journalists and critics who was famous for his caustic wit. I really haven’t read much of his work to be candid, but so many great writers, like William Manchester and Russell Baker and some others I can’t think of right now, have referred to him with affection and recommended his works.

So thus I picked this book off the shelf. I couldn’t let this well known book—at least to bookish people—slip past my hands. Such is a book collector’s life. A so we collect on!

3. Lee Lieutenants. (4 volume set)

I had just the abridged (single book) version of this multiple volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman until this day. The subtitle of the series is “A Study in Command.” The books, as I recall, were at one time standard reading for West Point Cadets. I’ve read most of the abridged version and it’s a very interesting history of Robert E. Lee’s subordinate commanders and how they performed during the American Civil War.

In addition to the books themselves, I was taken by the fact that this particular set of books came from the Palmetto Junior High School library in Miami, Florida, where my friend had been a principle and retired from in the early 1990s.

WWII began 80 years ago today

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 80th anniversary of beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s German army—the Wehrmacht—invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declare war on Germany. By the time WWII ended in September of 1945, between 70 and 85 million people had perished.*

Of course Hitler was the central villain of WWII (Europe), and so he’s the focus. There are a lot of books about the Nazis and Hitler’s rise to power. Just type in “Hitler” on Amazon’s search engine for books and you’ll get 20,000 “results.” Just casually scan the hundreds of cable TV channels at your fingertips, and the odds are fairly good you’ll find a program or documentary about the Nazis or Hitler. A friend of mine nicknamed the History Channel, the “Hitler Channel,” because he noticed throughout the year so many programs on the channel seemed to be about the Nazis or Hitler.

But while Hitler himself continues to attract the consternation of many, I believe we’d be far better served if we better understood the psychological dynamics or emotional forces moving Hitler’s followers. Would-be tyrants and demagogues are always present in any society. There’s always someone saying he—and “only” he—can make us great again. But why, especially in modern democratic societies, like, say, Germany in the 1930s, would so many people come to support and believe in such a man? I realize this is a complicated question. And before anyone says: “Well most Germans didn’t know before the war, before Hitler came to power, that he’d do so many horrendous and cruel things,” I’ll remind them that Hitler, long before he came to power, had published his extreme views in a book called Mein Kampf—which was a best selling book in Germany! Hitler views were well known.

Hitler’s hate for Jews, for example, was red hot. Not something that could stay hidden. In 1922, that’s 11 years before Hitler became German Chancellor, Jospeh Hell asked Hitler: “What do you want to do to the Jews once you have full discretionary powers?” Hitler didn’t mince any words:

Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.

No doubt Hitler’s views weren’t secret. And yet many Germans, fully aware of Hitler’s spoken intentions, at least in Mein Kampf and what they’d read in the newspapers, voluntarily attended his massive rallies and flocked to the streets to throw the Nazi salute as their fuhrer past. Many Germans willingly surrendered their democratic freedoms, their personal liberties, and without a doubt their conscience, to a fascist, authoritarian leader.

Besides Hitler’s hate of the Jews, Hitler’s plans to expand Germany—which any sentient person knew meant war—was also well known. And once Hitler’s mission to expand Germany began, Hitler held nothing back in how this expansion would effect, not just Jews, but all non-Germans, non-Ayrans. In an August 22nd speech to the group of German military commanders leading the invasion of Poland, Hitler said:

The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.

That a whole group of educated, and supposedly civilized, German officers could be informed of the coming systemic slaughter of innocent men, women, and children—just because they were Polish!—and not immediately reject Hitler, should remind us of just how fragile so called civilized people’s commitment to civilized values, basic humanity, can be. After the invasion and occupation of Poland, the Nazi SS carried out Hitler’s orders with cold-blooded efficiency. By the time the war ended 6 million Poles had been killed.

So I think the bigger, more important, challenge for us is to understand the social factors, the social pathologies, that caused so many German people to accept and support Hitler and his dark Nazi ideology. Again, there are always authoritarian types in the crowd, but these types can only take power if a large number of people in democratic societies go along and buy into it. If anything, Nazi Germany serves as a reminder that the real danger to peace and civilized values isn’t so much the sociopaths and authoritarian personalities, but the social environment where authoritarianism is welcomed, accepted, and saluted as it passes by.