February 25, 2009 12:39 PM
Adam Cohen on his book "Nothing to Fear - FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America"
Mark_Wolf(Q) Welcome to Adam Cohen, the author of "Nothing to Fear - FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America." Thanks for joining us today
Adam_Cohen(A) Great to be here, Mark.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Americans weren't just in an economic funk when Franklin Roosevelt took office. They were mad. How mad were they - and why?
Adam_Cohen(A) Very mad -- and kind of hopeless. Unemployment was 25 percent, all of the banks were closed -- and some had failed, costing people their life savings -- the stock market was down 85 percent. People had lost faith that the country could save itself.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Faced with what your book portrays as an increasing radicalism even among "God-fearing parts of the farm belt," why was Herbert Hoover so steadfast in his refusal to spur the government to action?
Adam_Cohen(A) Well, it was mainly his ideology. He believed strongly in free-market capitalism -- and in "rugged individualism." He thought the system should be allowed to play out, and that people for the most part should save themselves. It was not a policy that was working very well.
Mark_Wolf(Q) What kind of parallels is it fair to draw between what FDR faced and what Barack Obama faces?
Adam_Cohen(A) The situations are in many ways quite similar. Both are coming into office with huge economic crises, started by failures of the banks. Both have to deal with mass unemployment (though Obama to a far lesser extent). And both have the whole nation looking to them to come up with the answer.
Mark_Wolf(Q) I believe many readers will find Frances Perkins the most compelling character in your book. Who was she and what was her role in the first 100 days? And what role did she play in fire escapes?
Adam_Cohen(A) Perkins was a remarkable person. FDR's Secretary of Labor, from his first day as President to his last (Harold Ickes was the only other Cabinet member that went the distance.) Also, the first woman Cabinet member. Perkins was the great progressive voice during the Hundred Days pushing for federal relief for the unemployed and public works programs. In her earlier life in New York, she was the nation's leading advocate for workplace safety. She had personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which more than 100 immigrant women were killed, and afterward became a leading advocate for fire safety. She was a driving force behind fire escapes, fire drills, and fire sprinklers, which were all put in place in the uproar after the Triangle fire.
Steve_in_Denver(Q) I heard that FDR didn't quite have a filibuster proof majority his first term (similar to Barack Obama now) was that true...
Adam_Cohen(A) FDR had a much more compliant Congress than Obama. He had solid Democratic majorities, plus a fair number of the Republicans were progressives, who usually sided with FDR. Beyond that, at the start, even mainstream Republicans generally backed Roosevelt, because things were so bad, everyone largely agreed FDR should be allowed to lead the country in the direction he wanted. Obama has it much tougher right now, when the Republicans are on TV all the time criticizing his plans for attacking the economic crisis.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Your book portrays Roosevelt as a classic manager more than an ideologue. How important was that ability to what his administration was able to accomplish in those first 100 days?
Adam_Cohen(A) Very important. FDR was a pragmatist, open to any good idea that he thought would work. That flexibility served him well. It isn't well known today -- and wasn't even back in 1933 -- but the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, the first New Deal bill, which saved the banking system, had largely been drafted by Hoover holdovers. FDR didn't mind -- the ideas were good, and he took them. His pragmatism left him open to all sorts of ideas, on subjects like agricultural relief and job-creation, that ended up doing a lot of good.
Mark_Wolf(Q) How significant was the infighting among Roosevelt's circle of advisers?
Adam_Cohen(A) There was quite a bit. The big fault line during the Hundred Days was between Lewis Douglas, FDR's very conservative budget director, and the progressives -- Frances Perkins, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, and Harry Hopkins, the relief administrator. Douglas argued that the budget had to be cut, and that there was no money for ambitious social programs. The progressives disagreed strongly. FDR actually sided with Douglas at the beginning -- he got a bill passed cutting the federal budget by 25 percent. But by the end of the Hundred Days, he was firmly in the Perkins-Wallace-Hopkins camp.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Among Roosevelt's first acts were to cut spending, including veterans' benefits. How did that come about?
Adam_Cohen(A) Lewis Douglas, the budget director, was a strong supporter of slashing spending. FDR asked him, before the inauguration, to draft a bill called the Economy Act, which cut the budget drastically. One of the main focuses was veterans' pensions. There is a good case that some of the pensions were excessive, but Douglas cut them far too much. Veterans who had been badly wounded in WW I were left destitute. Before the Hundred Days had ended, FDR and Douglas had to admit their error and restore some of the cuts.
Mark_Wolf(C) Adam Cohen is the author of "Nothing to Fear - FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America."
Mark_Wolf(P) Adam Cohen is assistant editorial page editor of The New York Times and has been a member of the editorial board since 2002. Before entering journalism he was an education-reform lawyer. He has a law degree from Harvard.
Froward69(Q) Why is it republicans insist upon rewriting history regarding FDR?
Adam_Cohen(A) They seem to have a current agenda in mind. There is a big Republican talking point these days that the New Deal failed, that it took WW II to end the Depression. WW II did end the Depression, but the New Deal program had a huge impact -- reducing employment and increasing GDP, which both rose steadily after 1933. Republicans today don't like to admit that increased government spending, especially on relief and government jobs, worked in the 1930's, because they don't want the Obama administration to try these things now. If they can persuade people that the New Deal failed, they seem to think, we'll get less of these sorts of programs today -- and more tax cuts.
Mark_Wolf(Q) How hard did Harry Hopkins have to work to convince Roosevelt of the need for a $500 million federal relief program?
Adam_Cohen(A) FDR was fine with the idea of a federal relief program, but he was hesitant on a few points. First, he believed most of the relief should come from the states, so it took some work to persuade FDR that the new program should have a strong federal focus -- and include $500 million in federal funding. Second, FDR and southerners in Congress were wary of making it a strongly federal program, with tough requirements from Washington on how the money would be spent. Hopkins got his way on both points, though. He could be very persuasive.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Was there a single thing that most surprised you as you researched the book?
Adam_Cohen(A) Like most people, I learned in school that the Hundred Days was FDR's moment -- when he began to make his New Deal vision a reality. So, I was surprised by just how much of what happened was the work of the inner circle he had around him -- how influential people like Perkins, Wallace, and Hopkins were. I did not know much about Perkins, other than that she was the first woman Cabinet member, and what I knew about Wallace and Hopkins was mainly about their later lives. So, it was a revelation how influential they were at the time.
Mark_Wolf(Q) You assert that, "The Roosevelt revolution created modern America." That's a pretty broad brush. Briefly, what brought you to that conclusion?
Adam_Cohen(A) Well, the nation was just so different before 1933 and after. Before FDR took office, the federal government was small in scope and ambition. It mainly defended the nation and delivered mail. After FDR took office, we got the modern welfare state -- the social programs, like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and welfare -- that propped people up, and agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission that ensured (or were supposed to ensure) that market capitalism worked correctly.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Watching last night's address by President Obama after reading your book I was struck by how both men teed off on the nation's bankers.
Adam_Cohen(A) Yes. Both inherited financial crises that began with the failures of the bankers, and both made jabs in their directions. FDR's were a lot tougher, though. It's one thing to say, as Obama did, that bankers shouldn't have fancy private jets. FDR said: "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths." That's powerful stuff.
Mark_Wolf(Q) FDR had always been a fiscal conservative. He campaigned against Hoover's "big spending"? What turned him?
Adam_Cohen(A) Yes, he campaigned against it, and in the beginning of the Hundred Days, he slashed the budget. I think it's mainly that he saw how much people were suffering, and that they needed relief. To provide that relief, he had to spend more. When faced with the choice between fiscal conservativism and helping people desperately in need, FDR sided with the people in need.
Mark_Wolf(Q) How important was FDR's inaugural address - and how widely did it reach across the country?
Adam_Cohen(A) It was critical. Many millions of people were listening in on radios, the technology of the day, and were deeply moved by it. The nation was overcome with hopelessness by the time FDR took office, and the speech provided them with hope. It drew strong reviews from across the political spectrum because it did precisely what was needed.
Mark_Wolf(Q) How do you think Roosevelt's polio changed his vision about politics and government?
Adam_Cohen(A) By many people's account, it changed FDR deeply. That was Frances Perkins' opinion, which strikes me as credible. She knew him socially in New York, and then as a young legislator, before he had polio, and thought he was something of an aristocratic prig. She then got to know him after he had been stricken by polio, and she said the change was remarkable. It gave him a new respect for people, and a new empathy. I think it gave him the sort of compassion that was necessary to support the sort of large-scale social and jobs-creating programs that he did.
Mark_Wolf(Q) The economy wasn't much better in 1936 than it was in 1932 but Roosevelt stormed to a big re-election. Why?
Adam_Cohen(A) Clearly, the American people did not blame FDR for the hard times. They knew that he inherited them. And they did not blame him for not doing enough. Hoover really had held back in fighting the Depresison. FDR threw everything he had against it. People could see, in 1936, that in enacting programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration -- two major public works program -- the Federal Emergency Relief Act, and the like, that he was doing his best. The 1936 election was a vote of confidence in this New Deal approach.
Mark_Wolf(Q) Thanks very much to Adam Cohen, the author of "Nothing to Fear - FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America."
Adam_Cohen(A) My pleasure.