Monday, December 29, 2008

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself

In Desperate Times, the Rise to Take the Reins and Take On Fear Itself

HYDE PARK, N.Y. — As winds howl through the empty rooms of failed financial institutions and foreclosed homes, as unemployment statistics spike and stocks plunge, as an era of high hopes stutters with fear, and seeming shelters shake on fraudulent foundations, who would not hope that new leadership might stave off further catastrophe?

And a new leader, coming to power with his “brain trust” of advisers and his “new deal” for the nation, has but a short time to make his case before inertia and fear become dominant once again.

Does the analogy need to be spelled out? In his campaign, as the financial world was convulsing a few months ago, Barack Obama invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and cited his most famous line from the First Inaugural — “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — words delivered in 1933 during the worst days of the Depression. Four thousand banks had collapsed in two months, and one of every four workers was unemployed. Nearly half the country’s $20 billion in home mortgages were in default.

Since Mr. Obama’s election, references to Roosevelt have become even more plentiful. Caricatures of the president-elect with a cigarette holder and an insouciant Roosevelt grin have appeared in major publications. Mr. Obama has implicitly invoked Roosevelt’s approach to what was the worst financial crisis of the 20th century, saying he would enact the largest public-works program since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s. And he has made clear (conceptually echoing Roosevelt) that his attention to the welfare of the citizenry would be inseparable from his attention to the health of the economy.

So it is fortunate that the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum here, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the start of the New Deal, mounted an exhibition, “Action and Action Now: FDR’s First 100 Days,” referring to the brief period that Roosevelt treated as a self-imposed challenge to begin having an effect. During that time he oversaw the passage of 15 major pieces of legislation that transformed the country’s view of itself and redefined the character of American government.

After Mr. Obama was elected, the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan borrowed rare items and documents from the Roosevelt library to present a miniature version of the exhibition — really an expanded display case and a capsule view of those tumultuous days — called “A New President Takes Command.” There are political cartoons, drafts of speeches and a few objects like a set of braces Roosevelt had worn on his paralyzed legs. A timeline provides, in compressed space, some sense of the urgency and haste with which problems were addressed.

In facing the crisis, Roosevelt had argued that he would need the equivalent of emergency wartime powers. Many were prepared to go further. On the day of his inauguration, March 4, 1933, The New York Herald-Tribune said it was “for dictatorship if necessary.” But a dictator could not have done more. Within five days of Roosevelt’s taking office, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, establishing procedures for reopening sound banks; that was just the beginning.

The Public Works Administration was created to provide jobs building highways, dams and public structures. The powers of the Federal Trade Commission were increased to regulate stock trading. The gold standard was abandoned. A Civilian Conservation Corps was established, putting a quarter-million young men to work in park development and outdoor projects. Farm and home mortgages were refinanced by the government to prevent foreclosures. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created to protect bank deposits. And the National Recovery Administration was established to regulate the practices of American business.

Nearly everything we now take for granted about the federal government’s role in dealing with unemployment, poverty and economic protection can be traced to programs started during this period. “In three months,” the show notes, “F.D.R. created the basic toolbox of modern American liberalism.”

But ultimately, the Manhattan display, while informatively sounding every crucial theme, only whets the appetite for deeper understanding. The Hyde Park exhibition is far more thorough and absorbing.

It begins in a darkened gallery in which film clips and photographs of the Depression are projected onto a mock tree stump and clapboard house, showing images of poverty on a wide scale. This material makes clear just how dire the circumstances were, and why there was so much clamor for action beyond Herbert Hoover’s hesitant and constrained approach. An attempted assassination of the president-elect in February 1933 nearly dashed all hopes.

But the inauguration brought promises of relief. The psychological effect was as important as any policy — which, in any case, Roosevelt never outlined in advance. We can also hear the newly elected leader here in excerpts from the first of his many radio broadcasts: for the first time, ordinary citizens could hear a president’s voice in an intimate setting.

Roosevelt expertly modulated his delivery. During the Hoover administration, we are told, 5,000 pieces of mail came to the president in a week; during the Roosevelt administration, 50,000 arrived. The week after Roosevelt’s first address, so hungry were listeners for contact and reassurance, that nearly half a million came in. Copies of many of those letters wallpaper a gallery.

It becomes clear, too, that before 1933, the United States was a largely rural nation — half the populace lived outside urban areas, and one in five workers was on a farm. The transformation wrought by the New Deal, a devastating drought and the growth of industry didn’t just mean that a new form of federalism was being shaped, but that a new national culture was evolving, as if pieces were being fit together to create a new image. One display here notes that in 1933 10 million jigsaw puzzles were sold every week, some celebrating Roosevelt.

The New Deal legislation itself is dealt with in a kind of quick summary. Some achievements are clear, even in minor programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, ultimately hired three million young people for outdoor work and conservation, ultimately strengthening the national parks movement.

Others, conceived in an emergency, have a constricted character that might have caused as many problems as they solved. Did the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which tried to stabilize food prices by paying farmers not to produce crops, succeed in stopping the deflationary collapse of prices, or was the persistent drought responsible, amplified by other scarcities? This subsidy program even remains active today, though now it has the faint aura of a racket.

One reason there has been a conservative reaction against the New Deal in recent years is that so much writing about it has been so unabashedly celebratory, missing the movement’s shadows. The National Industrial Recovery Act, for example, outlawed child labor and helped in the formation of unions, but it also led to arbitrary price- and wage-fixing and was ultimately declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Some examples of its overreach, outlined in Amity Shlaes’s recent book, “The Forgotten Man,” are chilling.

Yet like Jonathan Alter’s biography of Roosevelt, “The Defining Moment,” the exhibition suggests that the New Deal’s main doctrine was experimentation. “Certainly the record of the First 100 Days is mixed,” the show concludes. “Some of Roosevelt’s initiatives succeeded. Others failed. Some programs were contradictory. Still, to suffering Americans, what mattered was that someone was taking bold action.”

In this way Herman R. Eberhardt, the show’s curator, avoids engaging in the knotty, passionate debates about New Deal policies and Keynesian economics that are hinted at in excerpts from recent writings about the period. He makes the case that even though the Depression was to drag on for years, Roosevelt quickly succeeded in establishing the foundations for a new kind of social consciousness. The W.P.A. and relief programs asserted that there really was a larger public worth thinking about, transcending individual need and desire. The democratic trick then, as now, was to avoid turning the public into an absolute master demanding deference — or vice versa.

There was a kind of moral psychology at work in the New Deal that should not be underestimated. The projection of ethical authority, genteelly applied, was one of Roosevelt’s great political gifts. And it could hide the New Deal’s flaws as well as display virtues. One of the show’s most fascinating panels is an array of political cartoons published during those first 100 days, showing Roosevelt walking a tightrope over a chasm, or taming a caged lion, or pulling an injured Uncle Sam up the edge of a cliff, or comforting a disabled veteran — all images of extraordinary physical courage and ability.

Of course Roosevelt was paralyzed from polio, and next to the cartoon display is a case with his leg braces, along with a rare photograph showing Roosevelt trying to walk in them — an image that the press, for reasons of tact, and the president, for reasons of strategy and pride, never drew attention to.

This kind of dissembling would never work today, but with it Roosevelt was able to project fully the kind of power and stance he wanted. That image was part of the economic policy.

Contemporary analogies are strained: our economy is not yet close to the one Roosevelt faced. But at least so far, Mr. Obama has shown a comparable skill with image; the substance is yet to come.

“Action and Action Now: FDR’s First 100 Days” continues at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y.; (845) 486-7770, “A New President Takes Command: FDR’s First Hundred Days” runs through May 3 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, at 77th Street; (212) 873-3400,

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