I hadn’t been to Razor Sharp Fitness Center is almost a week, so I needed to make up for lost time today and then some – but fortunately, I had an especially good book to read. . . . and an hour and forty minutes and over five miles went by before I even thought about stopping. (At this rate, I’ll be entering my first marathon in – let’s see – the day after never.)
The book is called “Nothing To Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America” by Adam Cohen. That title just about says it all – it covers the beginning of FDR’s first term in office, as the country collectively groaned in the grip of the Great Depression. The country was, in the words of one journalist of the day, “a sea of misery.” Cohen writes: “The nation was in the grip of a depression of unprecedented magnitude. Since the crash of October 1929, stock prices had plunged 85 percent. Manufacturing had all but ground to a halt. The automobile industry was operating at 20 percent of capacity, and the steel industry at just 12 percent. Between one-quarter and one-third of the workforce was jobless. . . America had never before faced such despair.”
But this book is not so much about that as it is about the dramatic steps which the Roosevelt administration took to do something about it – and the book is not trying to defend what was done so much as it seeks to explain how it was done. . . and especially the work of the remarkable circle of advisors around FDR who really crafted what came to be known as the New Deal. As Cohen explains, “Roosevelt arrived in Washington with no firm commitments, apart from his promise to ‘try something.’ Roosevelt was such a compelling leader that history has generally laid credit for all of the accomplishments of the Hundred Days at his feet, and they are often thought of as his carefully planned response to the crisis. The truth is more complicated and more chaotic.” And in the words of another journalist of the day, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not invent the New Deal; he does not own it. He is its master of ceremonies.” The true creators of it were five important advisors; Raymond Moley, Lewis Douglas, Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, and Francis Perkins- – -one of them the first woman to hold a cabinet position in American history and another of them a lifelong Republican. And I am very proud to say (as a former Iowan) that two of the five people were from Iowa. Together they crafted the groundbreaking reforms that came to be known as the New Deal, and which Cohen describes as the third great revolution in American history (after the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.) This third revolution “created modern America.”
Which is not to say that FDR didn’t play an incredibly crucial role, especially in calming the population and rallying them to support these dramatic reforms. Cohen quotes the great Will Rogers as saying about FDR’s charisma and confidence, “if he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say ‘well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.’ ” In other words, the vast majority of Americans had complete trust in FDR to lead them out of the terrifying vortex into which the country was plunging. He accomplished that in many ways, but especially with those extraordinary fireside chats over the radio. “I tried to picture a mason at work on a new building, a girl behind a counter, or a farmer in his field,” FDR said. And boy, he had a gift for connecting with the ordinary citizen and reassuring them about their deepest fears. And whatever you think about Barack Obama and his political philosophy, I think he has a comparable gift for calming fears. . . and I fervently hope that I’m right about that. Because Fear is something we should fear; it has the potential to make this already terrible situation still worse.
Towards that end, I would encourage anybody reading this blog to go to another website – www.czerniec.com – and read the latest blog entry by one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, Mark Czerniec, a former colleague of mine at WGTD. His January 9th entry is superb – and by the time you’re done reading it, you may very well think about our current crisis a little bit differently – – – and may especially rethink what your response to it should be. And by the way, don’t be put off by the title, which makes mention of Grease. By the time you’re done reading it, you might very well find yourself thinking about ordinary Grease in an entirely different light. And you may find yourself reaching for your wallet a little more fearlessly. I know that I am.