Predicting a President's Success
Jude Wanniski
April 6, 2000


To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: FDR in 1932

President Al Gore? President George Bush? President Pat Buchanan? Is this the best we can do? For all the time and money and sound and fury that goes into picking a President of the United States, how come we have such meager talent from which to choose? A recent poll indicates 80% of the electorate is unhappy with the choice of candidates. Who knows, though? Maybe this year's pick will turn out to be one of the finest of all time, ranking up there with Lincoln, Washington and Reagan! Reagan? Hey, he was a darned fine President even though the smart guys in 1980 thought he was a joke. What about Franklin D. Roosevelt? In 1932, as a matter of fact, the smart guys thought he would not amount to much. Here is William Manchester writing in volume one of his two-part narrative history of the United States from 1932-1972, The Glory and the Dream, published in 1973, pp.57-60.

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Roosevelt flew to Chicago in a trimotor Ford. Writing his acceptance speech on the two-stop, turbulent, nine-hour flight from Albany. No one had ever accepted a presidential nomination with such alacrity, but this nominee believed that the Depression called for all sorts of unprecedented action; standing before the convention, his leg braces locked in place, he said he hoped the Democratic party would make it its business to break "absurd traditions." He cried, I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a New Deal for the American people." Some delegates thought the phrase a brilliant combination of Theodore Roosevelt's Square Deal and Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. Reporters, however, were discovering that FDR was a great borrower. "The forgotten man" had come from a speech delivered by William Graham Sumner in 1883, and Stuart Chase had just published a book entitled A New Deal. Roosevelt didn't much care about the genesis of a word, an idea, or program. His statecraft was summed up in a speech at Oglethorpe University, when he said, "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation....Above all, try something." He had already begun recruiting college professors to generate suggestions. James Kieran of The New York Times called them "the brains trust"; then everyone else, Roosevelt included, borrowed that and shortened it to "brain trust."

If one definition of genius is an infinite capacity to make use of everyone and everything, the Democratic nominee certainly qualified. He reminded John Gunther of "a kind of universal joint, or rather a switchboard, a transformer," through which the energy and intelligence of other people flowed. Within a year he would become obscured by the mists of legend, but as a candidate he was still seen as mortal -- a big, broad-shouldered man of fifty whose paralyzed legs were partially offset by his long arms and huge, hairy, freckled hands. His hair was gray and thin, and he had a small paunch, deep blue eyes set close together over permanent brown shadows, and two long wrinkles that formed parenthetical curves around his mouth.

Undoubtedly his breeding as a country gentleman, guided by the old-fashioned morality of Croton headmaster Endicott Peabody, contributed immeasurably to his inner strength; he was perhaps the only politician in the country who thought of economics as a moral problem. Rooseveltian confidence was striking -- someone said "he must have been psychoanalyzed by God" -- and so was his memory. He remembered Italian streets and buildings he hadn't seen since his youth. Once in wartime a ship sank off Scotland; either it had been torpedoed or it had struck a rock. FDR said it was probably the rock, and then proceeded to reel off the height of the tide at that season on that coast and the extent to which that particular rock would be submerged. One of his favorite performances (and he was always a showman) was to ask a visitor to draw a line in any direction across an outline map of the United States; he would then name, in order, every county the line crossed. He was an apostle of progress; as soon as he saw the Sahara he wanted to irrigate it. Now in a world bereft of progressive action he was already a world figure. In Brussels, Demain was investigating his horoscope. Among other things, the astrologers found excessive idealism, zeal for too rapid reformation, and "great good judgment." After 1941 he would be in danger of accidents.

He was telling the country that "to accomplish anything worthwhile...there must be a compromise between the ideal and the practical." That wasn't at all what the ideologues wanted to hear. Roosevelt, Harold Laski sneered, was "a pill to cure an earthquake." Lippmann called him too soft, too eager to please and be all things to all men. The country yearned for a Messiah, Ernest K. Lindley reported, and Mr. Roosevelt did not "look or sound like a Messiah." John Dewey felt the argument that Governor Roosevelt was the lesser of two evils was "suicidal." Organized labor, such as it was, refused to endorse any candidate.

Disenchantment with the two major parties ran high. Will Rogers concluded, "The way most people feel, they would like to vote against all of them if it was possible." In Kansas, Republican gubernatorial candidate Alfred M. Landon was threatened by a third-party adventurer named Dr. John "Goat Glands" Brinkley; in California, District Attorney Earl Warren of Alameda County, running for re-election, was threatened by a half-dozen crank candidates. In FDR's own party he had the dubious honor of receiving support from Huey Long, the pasha of Louisiana, who packed a gun and who, in Roosevelt's private opinion, was one of the two most dangerous men in the country. (The other was General MacArthur.)

Lippmann saw "no issue of fundamental principle" between Roosevelt and Hoover, and defections on the left were particularly heavy, "If I vote at all," said Lewis Mumford, "it will be for the Communists. It is Communism which desires to save civilization." Professor Paul H. Douglas of the University of Chicago, later to become a brilliant ornament of the Democratic party, declared then that its destruction would be "one of the best things that could happen in our political life" John Chamberlain wrote in September that progressivism "must mean either Norman Thomas or William Z. Foster, ineffectual though one or both may be." Thomas supporters included Stephen Vincent Benet, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stuart Chase, Elmer Davis, Morris Ernst, and the editors of both the New Republic and the Nation. Villard continued his litany of the left; of Roosevelt he wrote: "He has spoken of the 'forgotten man,' but nowhere is there a real, passionate, ringing exposition of just what it is that the forgotten man has been deprived of or what should be done for him...we can see in him no leader, and no evidence anywhere that he can rise to the needs of this extraordinary hour ."

This was overstated, but when TRB wrote in The New Republic of "the pussyfooting policy of Roosevelt's campaign," and Time said the governor "emerged from the campaign fog as a vigorous well-intentioned gentleman of good birth and breeding" who "lacked crusading convictions," they were reading the record correctly. The candidate delivered only one really radical speech, to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on September 23. It was not repeated. His own convictions at this time were largely conservative; he believed in the gold standard, a balanced budget, and unregulated business competition.