On this site over the past year and a half, a split has arisen between those more inclined to defend the president and those more inclined to criticize the president. Invariably during these skirmishes someone will refer to Franklin Roosevelt and how President Obama measures up.
The president's defenders often wonder whether Roosevelt faced such withering criticism from those presumably on his side, and the president's critics often criticize President Obama for not being more like FDR, who in their eyes is, understandably, the archetype and the standard to which Democratic presidents and politicians are held.
In my examination of the historical record, it is clear that Roosevelt endured vicious, unrelenting attacks from his left that often exceeded the level of vitriol directed at President Obama, and correspondingly, Roosevelt was not viewed by liberals of his day with the adulation and reverence liberals view him today.
In fact, it's pretty remarkable how closely the attacks Roosevelt experienced from his left echo the attacks that liberals make against Obama today. There was criticism of Roosevelt for being too close to Wall Street, criticism of the New Deal's pragmatism and non-ideological approach, criticism of the New Deal for not going nearly far enough, criticism of the New Deal and Roosevelt as preferring conservatism to liberalism, and so on.
What I found in my research not only painted a picture of the relationship between liberals, the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt that is far more complex and nuanced than the mythologized and often distorted version of that era you often find in the liberal blogosphere and elsewhere, it also has led me to view the current schism among liberals as less severe or unique than I previously thought.
First, let me provide some context. As I've mentioned, the relationship between Roosevelt and the liberals of his day was not as smooth or happy as many of you might have believed. The sort of adulation with which some liberals today treat Roosevelt has created the impression of him as a liberal superman. This could not be further from the truth, and this was especially the case beginning in late 1934.
Historian David Kennedy:
Disillusionment with Roosevelt ran deepest and most dangerously on the left, especially among jobless workers and busted farmers, among reformers and visionaries who had been led to giddy heights of expectation by Roosevelt's aggressive presidential beginning, and among radicals who saw in the Depression the clinching proof that American capitalism was defunct, beyond all hope of salvation or melioration. (Kennedy, 219)
To give you an idea of how serious this brewing revolt on Roosevelt's left was, in early 1935 Democratic National Committee chairman Jim Farley secretly commissioned a poll to see what the 1936 election would look like if Huey Long ran as a third party candidate against President Roosevelt.
"The results surprised and dismayed Farley. The poll indicated that Huey Long, running for the presidency on a third-party ticket, could attract as many as four million votes. 'It was easy to conceive a situation,' Farley concluded, 'whereby Long by polling more than 3 million votes might have the balance of power in the 1936 election.'" (Kennedy, 240-241)
Therefore it is fitting that we lead off in this examination of the barrage of liberal criticism faced by President Roosevelt with quotes from the most famous (or infamous) detractor to his left, and perhaps the biggest threat to his presidency, Senator and Governor Huey Pierce Long of Louisiana:
"Long retained deep suspicions of some of Roosevelt’s associates. A day or two before the inauguration, he came to (FDR advisor and braintruster Raymond) Moley’s room at the Mayflower, kicked the door open, chewed on an apple, and said pugnaciously, "I don’t like you and your goddamned banker friends!"...and in May denounced the administration on the ground that it was dominated by the same old clique of bankers who had controlled Hoover. "Parker Gilbert from Morgan & Company, Leffingwell, Ballantine, Eugene Meyer, every one of them are here – what’s the use of hemming and hawing? (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval 54-55)
About the New Deal in general, Long said:
"Not a single thin dime of concentrated, bloated, pompous wealth massed in the hands of a few people has been raked down to relieve the masses." (McElvaine, 244)
And Long taunted Roosevelt in the very sort of class-infused language Roosevelt himself employed to great effect against his conservative enemies:
"When I saw him spending all his time of ease and recreation with the big partners of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., with such men as the Astors and company, maybe I ought to have had better sense than to have believed he would ever break down their big fortunes to give enough to the masses to end poverty." (Kennedy, 239)
But Long was not the only demogogue taking shots at Roosevelt from the left. There was also the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who like Long was especially bitter about the way he perceived Roosevelt had let the bankers who caused the Depression off the hook:
The "Communist-infiltrated" New Deal was "a government of the bankers, by the bankers, and for the bankers," (McElvaine, 240)
In addition there was criticism of Roosevelt's policy towards Wall Street bankers from agrarian populists like North Dakota Congressman William Lemke (who would run as a third party candidate against Roosevelt in 1936), who had a generations-long distrust of Wall Street bankers. Lemke, remarking on the Emergency Banking Act, said sardonically:
"The President drove the money changers out of the Capitol on March 4th and they were all back on the 9th." (McElvaine, 140)
Some of the most scathing criticism of Roosevelt's approach to banks and Wall Street came from John Flynn, a financial reporter who later became a key aide to Ferdinand Pecora during his investigation of the financial improprieties which caused the Depression.
On the Securities Act, Flynn condemned the bill in terms many liberals today would recognize:
"A few purists like John T. Flynn convinced that the original measure had been sold out to Wall Street, denounced the President." (Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 467)
And Flynn was hardly less critical of the New Deal:
Appraising the New Deal in the fall of 1934, he concluded that it had been a failure in recovery and a failure in reform. "Mr. Roosevelt up to now," Flynn wrote," has been using the rich resources of his political talents to preserve the capitalist system intact and he has insisted in every possible way any attempt to make any breaches in the shaky walls of that system." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 160)
In an episode that bears similarities to the drama surrounding the current effort by liberals to have Elizabeth Warren nominated to head the Consumer Protection Board, liberals of Roosevelt's era were outraged when, following the passage of the Securities Act which had been significantly watered down by business interests (leading to Flynn's above-referenced remark that the measure had been sold out to Wall Street), Roosevelt added insult to injury by nominating the ultimate fox in the henhouse, Joseph Kennedy, to head the Securities and Exchange Commission instead of Ferdinand Pecora.
"In the summer of 1933, Kennedy participated in a pool in the stock of Libby-Owens-Ford Company – precisely the kind of speculative manipulation the SEC was designed to prevent. For this and other reasons, rumors of his appointment as SEC chairman provoked violent opposition. New Dealers, mostly favoring Landis or Pecora for the chairmanship, were incredulous. Roy Howard of Scripps-Howard protested personally to the President and had the Washington News say editorially that Roosevelt could not "with impunity administer such a slap in the face to his most loyal and effective supporters.'" (Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal, 468)
And while we're discussing liberal dissatisfaction with President Roosevelt's policies toward Wall Street, here is a quote that captures the level of invective directed at Roosevelt from his left, in terms many of us who have been watching events closely over the past year and half (particularly in some quarters and comments section in the liberal blogosphere) would recognize:
"Is not this trickery the hallmark of this Wall Street tool, this President who always stabs in the back while he embraces? How unctuous is his empty solicitude for the ragged, hungry children...with the ruthlessness of a devoted Wall Street lackey spending billions for war and profits and trampling on the faces of the poor." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 190)
These words could've been lifted from a Jane Hamsher post, but they belonged to Earl Browder, the Secretary of the Communist Party during the Depression.
Well, you might argue, all the people mentioned thus far were radicals like Flynn, demogogues like Coughlin and Long, wild-eyed agrarian populists like Lemke, and communists like Browder. In other words, people who were clearly to the far, far left of Roosevelt. What of the establishment or mainstream liberals of the era?
According to Reinhold Niebuhr, speaking in 1935, no one had "a more generally conceded right to speak in the name of liberalism than John Dewey." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 155) And what did Dewey think of the New Deal?
"Dewey himself concluded in 1934 that, while the Roosevelt effort showed a commendable bias toward a 'controlled and humanized capitalism' as against the brutality of laissez-faire, "the necessary conclusion seems to be that no such compromise with a decaying system is possible." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 155)
And since the New Deal sought to compromise with the decaying system known as capitalism, "Dewey rejected the whole philosophy of the New Deal." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 156)
There was The New Republic, in its critique of the pragmatism of the New Deal:
"In June 1935 The New Republic stated with magistral simplicity the argument of the radicals against the New Dealers, of New York against Washington, of the Marxists against the pragmatists: "Either the nation must put up with the confusions and miseries of an essentially unregulated capitalism, or it must prepare to supersede capitalism with socialist. There is no longer a middle course." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 176)
And there was the preeminent liberal historian of the age, Charles A. Beard, who said of the New Deal:
"Banks have not been nationalized, nor the railways taken over by the Government. Not a single instrumentality of economic power has been wrested" from the party of big business. (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 154)
There was this from Ernest Gruening, editor of The Nation, on Roosevelt's handling of the banks:
"Our information from Washington is of terrific confusion, with the money changers whom Mr. Roosevelt drove out of the temples in his inaugural congregating in the White House and telling him what to do." (McElvaine, 142)
Nor were these just scattered, isolated bits of criticism from a few disillusioned liberals. From late 1934 into 1935 and even into early 1936, it was clear that disenchantment on the left with FDR and the New Deal was widespread.
"Bruce Bliven, visiting Washington for the New Republic, found the liberals 'a sad lot, shivering in the wintry wind...They do believe that the President has let them down badly. I do not think that anything he might now do could restore their confidence in him...Francis Brown summed up the predominant impression for the New York Times. The New Dealers, he reported, "have little faith in either the President or his chief assistants." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 213)
And then there was this, which might very well have summed up the way many liberals feel about President Obama today:
In the fall of 1934 William Harlan Hale wrote a repentant article for Common Sense entitled, "The Opium Wears Off: A Liberal Awakens From The New Deal." "Many liberals are saying good-bye to hoping and praying," Hale concluded. "They are learning that in this time there is no middle ground." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 159-60)
And of course, FDR also had his detractors in Congress, such as the aforementioned Huey Long, who harangued him unmercifully as the "Knight of the Nourmahal (the name of FDR's yacht)".
Another such person came in the form of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, whose bitterness at and feelings of betrayal by FDR perhaps bears the strongest resemblance to that felt by liberals today. Wheeler, who was Robert La Follette's running mate on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924, "had been the first member of the Senate to call for the nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he had worked hard for Roosevelt at the Chicago convention."
Yet despite Wheeler's early support and efforts on behalf of Roosevelt, after Roosevelt was elected:
"Wheeler began to feel himself frozen out of the New Deal. If any Senator was entitled to a voice in inner administration councils, it was Wheeler. But Roosevelt rarely consulted him. Wheeler, who had conducted for years a lonely fight for progressivism in the Democratic party, now saw southern conservatives like Joe Robinson, Pat Harrison, and Jimmy Byrnes installed as White House favorites...The ingratitude seemed deliberate: when Wheeler was up for re-election in 1934, Roosevelt traversed the state without mentioning his name, and then went on to Wisconsin to pay tribute to La Follette as well as conservative Democrat Ryan Duffy. All this played upon the instinct for grievance which lay just under the surface of Wheeler’s breezy Montana geniality. He now both rationalized and aggravated his resentment by pouncing on every evidence of conservatism in the administration." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 139)
In February 1935, at a dinner at the home of braintruster Rex Tugwell, "Wheeler railed against Roosevelt and the administration. He said that the President, for all his fine talk, really preferred conservatives to progressives." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 141)
This notion that FDR was, despite his words, a conservative at heart was one that was echoed by other liberally-aligned critics as well. The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (yes, they were called the STFU for short), said of Roosevelt that "too often the progressive word has been the clothing for a conservative act. Too often he has talked like a cropper and acted like a planter." (McElvaine 262)
The aforementioned John Flynn "warned radicals to be especially wary when Roosevelt pretended to talk the language of radicalism: 'it is under cover of such talk that he always moves another step or two to the right.'" (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 160)
The left's disillusionment with Roosevelt further deepened after word surfaced of a letter Roosevelt wrote to the aforementioned Roy Howard of Scripps-Howard, in which Roosevelt wrote of his intent to have a "breathing spell" from further reforms in 1936.
"While his letter to Roy Howard had evoked a favorable reaction among people in the center, it did not deeply move those affiliated with either the organized left or the organized right. The breathing spell, Tom Amlie thus said for the radicals, signified 'the end of New Deal liberalism'. The New Republic muttered gloomily about 'the final death rattle,' and The Nation entitled its comment, 'The New Deal Ends.'" (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 500)
As late as early 1936, the year FDR was re-elected by the greatest landslide in history, the year after he passed the most liberal legislation of his presidency like WPA and Social Security,
"The Gallup poll gave (Roosevelt) barely over half the electorate. His foes had never been more confident, his friends never more exasperated and apathetic." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 502)
And speaking of Social Security, in a manner reminiscent of the dissatisfaction many liberals had with the health care reform bill, the Townsendites, named for their charismatic leader, Dr. Francis Townsend, who were the most prominent advocates of old-age pensions (or what would be called social security) were utterly disappointed with the social security legislation that the administration passed in 1935.
Like the public option supporters of today, part of the reason why the Townsendites opposed social security was genuine concern over its adequacy and effectiveness. The Townsend Weekly denounced the social security bill as "outrageous", and Dr. Francis Townsend called the legislation as "wholly unfair, inadequate and unjust."
But also like the public option supporters of today, the Townsendites were motivated in part by resentment at the disdain they believed the administration had directed toward them. For instance, the Townsendites had been initially agnostic toward the social security bill and the New Deal. But their neutrality soon became outright hostility:
"When Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins expressed skepticism about the Townsend Plan, the Weekly lost all hope in Roosevelt and thereafter scathingly attacked all aspects of the New Deal." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 39)
Nor was this the only snub that rubbed the Townsendites the wrong way.
"The Doctor himself had been early offended by Roosevelt's refusal to grant him an interview. 'That is an insult that the masses of the people should resent,' the Townsend Weekly declared in February 1935. 'We have an aristocracy in the White House – not democracy.' When an orator said of the President at the 1935 Townsend convention, 'If only he would spend as much time looking after the welfare of the people as he does playing on his yacht, he might be of more help,' the delegates cheered wildly for several minutes." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 550)
The administration, of course, didn't simply take all this criticism laying down, and they engaged in their fair share of what many liberals would characterize today as "hippie-punching".
For example, Secretary of the Interior and PWA head Harold Ickes, in a letter to the editor of The Nation, wrote -
"that so-called liberals spend so much time trying to expose fellow liberals to the sneering scorn of those who delight to have their attention called to clay feet...I get very tired of the smug self-satisfaction, the holier-than-thou attitude, the sneering meticulousness of men and women with whose outlook on economic and social questions I often regretfully find myself in accord. It seems to be a fact that a reformer would rather hold up to ridicule another reformer because of some newly discovered fly speck than he would to clean out Tammany Hall. Sometimes even the fly speck is imaginary." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 413-414)
There was also this, from Rex Tugwell, one of the most liberal members of the administration, who you would think would have some sympathy with Roosevelt's liberal critics:
"They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there. The progressive mind is stratified with dogmatism of the most appalling kind...The progressive theme-song is 'I'll tell you about my panacea but you must not tell me about your panacea.'" The progressives seemed to Tugwell perennial skirmishers – free, like feudal chieftains, to change sides whenever the ideas to which they held allegiance prompted them to do so. "They are like Chinese warriors who decide battles, not by fighting, but by desertion...They rush to the aid of any liberal victor, and then proceed to stab him in the back when he fails to perform the mental impossibility of subscribing unconditionally to their dozen or more conflicting principles." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 414)
And lastly, there is this letter to DNC member Molly Dewson, in response to complaints about the administration:
"The ups and downs in peoples’ feelings, particularly on the liberal side, are an old, old story. The liberals always get discouraged when they do not see the measures they are interested in go through immediately. Considering the time we have had to work in the past for almost every slight improvement, I should think they might get over with it, but they never do.
Franklin says for Heaven’s sake, all you Democratic leaders calm down and feel sure of ultimate success. It will do a lot in satisfying other people." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 9)
The author of that letter was that notorious hippie-puncher, Eleanor Roosevelt, essentially telling liberals on behalf of her husband, "Chill the fuck out, I've got this".
My big takeaway from all this is that the current despair and disillusionment on the part of liberals is nothing new or unique. Being hyper-critical is something that appears to be hardwired into the genetic code of liberals. After all, if liberals were not even satisfied with the liberal superhero Franklin Roosevelt, we shouldn’t be surprised that liberals are so disappointed with Barack Obama. This is not to rag on liberal criticism. Rather, it is to point out that liberals today don’t have an antipathy that is specific to President Obama. As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Molly Dewson, "the ups and downs" in the feelings of liberals "are an old, old story". And judging by the looks of things today, Eleanor Roosevelt’s words about the dissatisfaction of liberals, "I should think they might get over with it, but they never do", ring truer than ever. We should not view the liberals of today as uniquely ungrateful in the arc of American political history, because the truth is that they are rather typical. Like Prince’s mother in the song "When Doves Cry", they’re never satisfied. The sooner some of the president’s defenders realize that, the less they will despair over liberal criticisms of President Obama.
At the same time, I hope liberals who are deeply disappointed with President Obama and the inadequacy of the progress being made today will gain some perspective from reading this. I hope the realization that liberals were also quite unhappy and critical of Franklin Roosevelt of all people will dull any tendencies toward despair or cynicism. I hope they maintain enough humility to remain open to the possibility that perhaps things are not as shitty as they think it to be. This is not to say that they should just shut up and clap louder. In fact they should continue plugging away as they have been, just as liberals during the 1930s and the 1960s and all throughout American history have done. But my hope is that they will not tune out and become totally cynical.
Thanks to you all for reading this very, very long-winded diary, now that I've made the rec list I can truly die a happy man. But seriously, I hope this gives people on both sides of the skirmishes going on here recently some perspective. Heck, it might even defuse some of the tension. But I have to go to my physical therapy appointment now, I probably have the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome, and I'm sure my therapist would kill me if he knew of all the typing I put into this diary. But thanks again.
I'm back. Since there appear a number of objections to my association of Charles Coughlin with the left, let me just restate what I've written in a couple of my comments below:
Coughlin held many positions that were affiliated with liberals of the day, like nationalization of banks, inflationary monetary policy, heck his political arm was called the Union for Social Justice. In 1936 he teamed up with the remnants of Huey Long's Share Our Wealth Movement and endorsed Long's successor Gerald K. Smith for president. I do concede that Coughlin could be quite schizophrenic in his exact ideological leanings at various points during the 1930s. He railed against communists and capitalists with equal vitriol, and he certainly had some very fascistic tendencies. But I don't think there's any doubt that many of the positions he took can definitely be classified as liberal.
In addition, the discussion of Coughlin in historian Robert McElvaine's book (cited below) is located in the chapter titled, "Thunder On The Left", and in Kennedy's book, Coughlin comes up in the chapter titled, "The Rumble Of Discontent", which is about the discord that Roosevelt felt on his left. Given that they're very well-respected and renowned historians who are far more knowledgable on these matters than I am, I defer to them.
I also want to make clear, I'm not using this to take sides in the piefights that have been going on around here. I also want to make clear that I am not trying to say that Obama is just like FDR. But, as Mark Twain once said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. In other words, history is a useful guidepost by which to give some perspective about current events. I'm just asking you all to look at today's events in a different light with historical context in mind. That is all. If this diary has been interpreted otherwise, that is my fault for not being clearer about that.
Freedom From Fear, The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (1999), by David M. Kennedy.
The Great Depression, America 1929-1941 (1983), by Robert S. McElvaine.
The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal, (1958) by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (1960) by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.