Adam Cohen, assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times. His latest book is Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.
The current economic crisis has often been cited as the worst the country has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his oath of office in March 1933, over 10,000 banks had collapsed, following the stock market crash of 1929. One-quarter of American workers were unemployed, and people were fighting over scraps of food. We speak with Adam Cohen, author of Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In a major address on the economy, President-elect Barack Obama warned yesterday that the nation is sliding into a deep economic crisis and called on Congress to pass a stimulus package quickly.
PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I urge Congress to move as quickly as possible on behalf of the American people. For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs, more families will lose their savings, more dreams will be deferred and denied, and our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that at some point we may not be able to reverse.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The current economic crisis has often been cited as the worst the country has seen since the Depression of the 1930s. At the time, over 10,000 banks had collapsed, one-quarter of American workers were unemployed, and people were fighting over scraps of food. At the height of the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his oath of office, pledging to reverse the crisis. On March 4th, 1933, Roosevelt delivered his inaugural address that contained one of the most famous quotes ever made by an American president.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. […]
We face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. […] The withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side. Farmers find no markets for their produce. And the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
And yet, […] we are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered [...], we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty, and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep. [...] Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. […]
Yes, 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. […]
This nation is asking for action, and action now. […]
There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
These, my friends, are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress in special session detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the forty-eight states.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of FDR’s first speech, as he took over the reins of the White House and laid out his plan for change in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. We’re joined now by Adam Cohen. He’s an assistant editorial page editor for the New York Times and author of a new book called Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. This is his first interview since the book’s publication.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ADAM COHEN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, you say in this book it’s not just FDR himself.
ADAM COHEN: That’s right. The story of the Hundred Days is often told as an FDR story. And he did do amazing things. That speech we saw was beautiful, mobilized the nation. He did fireside chats. He was very effective in working with Congress. But there was a second level of people underneath him, his inner circle, that really developed the policies that came out of the Hundred Days, and these are critical policies: the first federal welfare program we ever had, the first major public works program, things like that. And it’s other people — Frances Perkins, who we saw perched in the background behind FDR in the photo there, when he was signing the Social Security Act; Henry Wallace, his Agriculture secretary; Harry Hopkins, the first federal relief administrator — these were crucial people who have been lost a little bit to history.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in terms of how — their particular individual contributions, how did that work out, given the power of the presidency? Obviously, he had to give them the free rein to act, but how specifically did they leave their imprint on the various aspects of legislation?
ADAM COHEN: Sure. The thing about FDR is he was a great leader, but he didn’t come into office with very definite views about these problems. He actually was a very pragmatic person. He said he believed if something worked, you should do it; if it doesn’t work, try something new. So he was always on the lookout for good ideas, wherever they came from, including from the Hoover administration. It was holdovers from the Hoover administration that developed the Banking Act that they passed in the first week. So he was looking everywhere.
And that left the opening for people like Frances Perkins, who had very strong views. She came into office saying, “We need public works. There are millions of people unemployed. They don’t have a way to feed themselves. We need that.” Harry Hopkins came down to Washington, D.C. with a plan for a federal welfare program and said, you know, “We need to do this.” And —-
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the scene.
ADAM COHEN: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: When Harry Hopkins came to Washington, it was under a stairwell that he met Frances Perkins?
ADAM COHEN: Yeah. We think now of these things as being so well planned out, but they weren’t at all. Harry Hopkins, who had run the New York state welfare program, comes down to Washington eager to meet with FDR in the White House, cannot get an appointment. He calls Frances Perkins, who he knew from New York, and she says, “I can meet with you, but I’ve got a dinner. Come by my club where I’m living.” And they meet under a stairwell, because they can’t get a table. All the tables are taken. He hands her this program, and she says, “This is great. I’m going to take it to the President and get him to adopt it.” It was a very bold welfare program -— a lot of federal money, a lot of federal rules, centralization. She does take it to FDR, and he does adopt it. It becomes the law. But it was literally under the stairwell that our first welfare program was developed.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Wallace, his role? How he was chosen, and then his role within the administration?
ADAM COHEN: Henry Wallace was an amazing man, a scientist, a farm journalist. And he came to Washington saying he was going to save the Farm Belt, or he would just go back home to Iowa. And the Farm Belt had actually been in depression much longer than the rest of the country. They had had a terrible 1920s. So he comes to Washington, and he goes to FDR in the first week and says, “We need an agriculture plan.” And FDR says, “Go talk to the farmers. See what they want.” Wallace quickly holds a meeting of all the farm leaders. They agree to this subsidy program, which was critical then to saving the farms. And within a month or two, we had this incredibly revolutionary agriculture program that did save the farmers, save the Farm Belt. Another amazing fellow.
AMY GOODMAN: Adam Cohen, the subtitle of Nothing to Fear is FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. Talk about the laws that were pushed through in this critical period.
ADAM COHEN: Sure. You know, the thing about this moment in time is that up until then, it was Herbert Hoover and it was free market capitalism. The federal government did very little. The entire federal budget was under $5 billion. They ran the Post Office. They had the military. That was about it.
FDR comes in and says we need essentially to create a social welfare state. So that’s why we get things like the Federal Emergency Relief Act, $500 million for a welfare program. We get the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the first time the government really intervenes in the agriculture markets in that way. We get the National Industrial Recovery Act, which had some ham-handed attempts to get government and business to work together, but it had that $3.3 billion in public works, money which then became the WPA and other famous public works programs. These fifteen bills were all passed incredibly quickly by a Congress that was willing to give FDR virtually anything he wanted, because the country was in such dire straits.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to one of these crowning achievements of FDR’s presidency, the passage of the Social Security Act. This is some of what President Roosevelt told the nation after he signed it into law. Behind him is Frances Perkins. It’s August 14th, 1935.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: This social security measure gives at least some protection to fifty millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.
We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-stricken old age.
It seems to me that if the Senate and the House of Representatives, in this long and arduous session, have done nothing more than pass this security bill, Social Security Act, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Roosevelt in August of 1933 —-
ADAM COHEN: Five.
AMY GOODMAN: ’35, two years after he came into office. Frances Perkins is standing behind him. She chaired the committee that pushed through Social Security. She’s the first female cabinet member ever. Talk about her influence, how she came into the inner circle of FDR.
ADAM COHEN: She was a completely remarkable person and a woman far ahead of her time. She came to New York after starting as a social worker, personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, saw the 146 girls jumping to their death, and became the leading factory reformer. She ends up joining Al Smith’s -—
AMY GOODMAN: She’s the reason we have fire escapes today?
ADAM COHEN: Fire escapes and fire drills and all that, those were her suggestions, very, very critical stuff. So she joins Al Smith’s administration. When FDR becomes governor, he keeps her on as industrial commissioner. And during his time as governor, she is a voice in his ear constantly. “We need things like Social Security,” you know, at that point at a state level. “We need welfare programs. We need public works.” She’s this liberal voice constantly in his ear.
And then she comes down to Washington with him, becomes Labor secretary. And she really was the conscience of the New Deal in many ways. And yes, she chaired the Social Security committee. And she wanted it to go further. She actually wanted it to include national health insurance, but the AMA, even back then, was very strong and opposed it. And she and a couple other progressives on the committee said, you know, “We better just settle for what we can get.” They didn’t want to lose the whole Social Security program. But to the end of her life, when she died in 1965 as a professor at Cornell, she was still hoping that health insurance could be part of the welfare state.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the lessons of all of this now, as we’re facing — as a new president about to take office and a similar, though not as profound, crisis as the Depression, but there’s another side to this, which is that increasingly in the United States — American capitalism, as well as in Europe — more and more power is being centralized in the state. And already, obviously, as a result of the Roosevelt reforms, you’ve had enormous, greater centralization of power in the state. Right now, President Obama has enormous powers already. What would he have to do to be able to deal with this new crisis of, again, a laissez-faire rampant era in American capitalism?
ADAM COHEN: I think that’s exactly right. FDR has given him the power, by making the state as strong as it is. He now needs to use it for the right purposes. And that may not be bank bailouts. It may be things like putting millions of people to work in good jobs restoring our infrastructure.
One thing that’s really encouraging is it took FDR a while during the Hundred Days to come around to that answer. It was the National Industrial Recovery Act, the last bill of the Hundred Days that had that public works funding. And FDR, at the beginning of the Hundred Days, wasn’t sure he supported public works. What’s very encouraging is that Obama, even before he takes office, is talking about public works. He’s talking about stimulus. He’s talking about creating millions of jobs. So I think he gets it. And I think a lot of the reason is, he is a student of history. He’s been reading not only his Abraham Lincoln, but his FDR. And I think he’s learning from the past and understanding we shouldn’t wait ’til the end of the Hundred Days, let’s start talking about these things right now.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But you’re already getting some people who are saying that his economic stimulus plan is actually not sufficient for the task. I think Paul Krugman today in the Times says it’s way below what is actually needed to jumpstart an economy this big.
ADAM COHEN: Right. And that’s going to be the debate. It was the debate during FDR’s time, too. The progressives wanted billions more, and the conservatives said there’s no money at all. We’re going to get that again. The Senate, McConnell, people like that are going to say there’s not enough money. I agree with Krugman, FDR — Obama really needs to push for high levels of funding. The more that we can inject into the economy, the more jobs, the better we’ll be right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I was just speaking with someone who was at a Montclair fundraising party for Barack Obama a year and a half ago. And he quoted this famous quote from A. Philip Randolph, when he went to FDR to demand something, and FDR turned to him and said, “Make me do it.” Let’s talk beyond the circle that you emphasize that surrounded FDR, really pushing him for some of these changes, te greater circle around them, people in this country. Talk about the role of activism in the changes we saw seventy-five years ago and where you see parallels today.
ADAM COHEN: Sure. I mean, one of the other things FDR created, in addition to the welfare state, was the New Deal coalition. And the New Deal coalition incorporated lots of different groups that all voted Democratic, got the Republicans out, and FDR felt they were his constituency and he needed to keep them happy. So, that included union leaders who were very important, and that’s why we got the right to organize. It was in the National Industrial Recovery Act, because the union leaders demanded that. Farmers were very important and had been fairly Republican. To keep them voting Democratic, FDR gives them, you know, a big relief program. Urban workers, the heart of the Democratic electorate, FDR gives them things like the first welfare program. So he’s constantly managing all these groups. And yes, when the union people spoke out, they got more things, they pushed back. So he was very responsive to pressure of this kind, and he wanted to keep everyone in the coalition happy. So it’s definitely an argument today that people who elected Obama need to tell him now what they want. You know, if they want stronger union rights, they need to tell him that and remind him how he got in office.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, that New Deal coalition also included the Southern Democrats, and as a result, for many years Roosevelt sort of delayed any action on civil rights and attempting to deal with Jim Crow. It wasn’t until the 1940s, right, with the threat of the march on Washington by African Americans that he finally agreed to an executive order to attempt to begin desegregation in the US government.
ADAM COHEN: That’s right. FDR did so much, but there were definitely some blind spots. One was race. Eleanor Roosevelt was out there all the time pushing for these people. Franklin was not. Another group was the sharecroppers. People criticized the Agricultural Adjustment Act for giving a lot of money to the big farmers, but the poor sharecroppers who were being thrown off the land were ignored for several years, and Wallace eventually began to try to take care of them. But yes, not everyone, you know, was taken care of right away.
AMY GOODMAN: If we see change happening because of power blocs, you look at the Obama circle, the inner circle, the cabinet he has proposed, and the organized body that has the most effect on Obama today is clearly labor, because the most progressive position within the department — within his proposed cabinet is Hilda Solis, Department of Labor, same position that Frances Perkins occupied seventy-five years ago.
ADAM COHEN: Absolutely true. And, you know, a lot of people were waiting for that appointment. It was the last one that Obama made. And even in Frances Perkins’s time, labor was a backwater. It was the last department created. She was the last person sworn in, because it was the lowliest department. But she turned it into something very powerful. And she was a huge voice at these cabinet meetings for public works and for caring for poor people. A lot people right now are looking to Hilda Solis, who also cares very much obviously about the immigrant community, to be that voice in the Obama administration. It will be very interesting to see if she can be sort of the Perkins of our time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And already, the corporate America is preparing its campaign against the major number one issue, obviously, of organized labor, which will be the Employee Free Choice Act. And there’s already a huge multimillion-dollar campaign being organized to stop that legislation, isn’t there?
ADAM COHEN: Absolutely, but you can almost hear Obama thinking like FDR did, you know, “Make me.” So, this is the time really for the labor unions to come forward on that.
AMY GOODMAN: The importance of speed, Adam Cohen, on the issue of these changes, pushing through these changes?
ADAM COHEN: Incredibly important. And that’s something the Hundred Days was all about. Right now Obama will be coming into office with incredibly high popularity, a honeymoon, people looking to him to act. This is his moment. And I think he sees that. That’s why he’s already talking about the stimulus package, because with day one, that will be the height of his power. Get a lot of important things through very quickly, before the grumbling and the dissent kicks in. This is his moment. And I think he’s going to seize it.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Adam Cohen, for being with us. His new book just out this week, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.
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