February 24, 2009 12:51 PM
Nothing to Fear - author Adam Cohen online at 11 a.m. Wednesday on the birth of the New Deal
When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office, he inherited the leadership of a country mired in depression. Thousands of banks had failed, one in Americans was unemployed.
Adam Cohen, a journalist and lawyer, chronicles how Roosevelt's launched the New Deal during his first 100 days in office in his new book, Nothing to Fear.
The nation was crying out for the government to respond, but President Herbert Hoover refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis. "I am convinced," he said in the spring of 1930, "we have passed the worst." As the Great Depression held on for year after brutal year, Hoover began to concede that the crisis was real, but he still refused to provide the sort of relief that was needed. His free-market ideology taught him that private enterprise should be the source of all solutions, and his near-religious commitment to "rugged individualism" convinced him that giving aid to the Depression's victims would morally damage them. Hoover's callousness earned him the enmity of the nation's millions of unemployed, who got their revenge by turning his name into an epithet. They dubbed the bleak encampments they erected in parks and under bridges "Hoovervilles" and they called the old newspapers they covered themselves with at night "Hoover blankets." When Hoover ran for reelection, mobs of jobless men and women showed up at his campaign rallies and pelted his car with rotten eggs. His opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promised a new approach. Roosevelt's vision of what government should do was so different that Hoover declared the 1932 election to be a choice not between two men, but between two philosophies. Hoover's philosophy lost in a landslide in which he managed to carry just six states.
When Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, he charted a new course. That course was determined during the first one hundred days of his presidency. The Hundred Days, as the press would later name the period, began with a remarkable inaugural address. After assuring a despairing nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Roosevelt promised "action, and action now." More than his words and his confident manner, it was the flurry of activity he ushered in that raised the nation's spirits. During the Hundred Days, Roosevelt offered up what the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., called "a presidential barrage of ideas and programs unlike anything known to American history." Roosevelt shepherded fifteen major laws through Congress, prodded along by two fireside chats and thirty press conferences. He created an alphabet soup of new agencies-- the AAA, the CCC, the FERA, the NRA-- to administer the laws and bring relief to farmers, industry, and the unemployed. In an editorial entitled "Laws for Everything," The NewYork Times declared Roosevelt's dizzying pace of accomplishments to be "little short of a marvel."