Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Flashback: During the FDR Years, My Indoctrination Proceeds While Father Shaves…and When He is at the Office Mother Responds. But Then She Becomes a Convert.

[More memoirs for my kids and 13 grandchildren].

Conservative philosophical political indoctrination in my family ran from 6:30 a.m. every morning until about 7:30—fifteen minutes while Father shaved as I read Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s “Chicago Tribune” lead editorial to him…he occasionally soaking the blade under steaming hot water and commenting—most time agreeing although on occasion not. The newspaper’s chief editorial writer, a brilliant polemicist named George Morgenstern, had an uncommon facility with words with Father admired hugely. While growing up, sitting on a clothes hamper reading aloud, I accepted as 100% right each and everything Father and Morgenstern pronounced; in fact, as a boy I did not know what to think in the area of public affairs until the mornings when Father held forth as he was shaving.

“The fact is,” he said ominously one day, “the socialists have gotten to Bob Taft!” That was a condemnation against Taft’s modest support of a federalized housing program. “Yet,” he would say as he washed the soap off his face with the wash-rag, “it is exceedingly prudent to go with Taft for president in the hope that we can drill some sense into his head.” One day in 1938 he said as he brushed his teeth, “It is extraordinarily clear to me that Roosevelt has not won in his battle against the Depression but will seek to involve us in a war so as to give this economy some artificial stimulus.”

Of course as it is with all youth, once I grew up I would occasionally shake free of Father and Morgenstern…becoming, in contrast to them, a more liberal Republican which Father would call a “squish” but as I grew older I determined that they were right but for two important features. One was that they both were entirely too pro-Hoover out of imbued partisanship (not sufficiently recognizing Hoover’s unpublicized regulative activism and his lamentable tax hike of 1932 which contributed enormously to the worsening of the Depression). They felt that indeed Hoover was a do-nothing but that passivity was the correct course—not understanding that Hoover was a terrible do-something, just slightly less an intruder in the economy than Roosevelt.

The second was that through no fault of their own they did not have access to Milton Friedman’s landmark theory that much of the Depression was caused by the Federal Reserve’s mismanagement of the money supply. The monetarist theory is now on the ascendancy, teaching that there is an indissoluble link between inflation and the money supply, teaching that inflation can only be regulated by controlling the amount of money poured into the national economy by the Fed; he rejected use of fiscal policy as a tool of demand management, insisting the government’s role should be severely restricted, pronouncing that “the Fed was largely responsible for converting what might have been a garden-variety recession into a major catastrophe.”

He continued: “Instead of using its powers to offset the depression, it presided over a decline in the quantity of money by a third from 1929 to 1933. Far from the Depression being a failure of the free-enterprise system, it was a tragic failure of government.” Yes and Hoover pushed it along a great deal with his antithetical protectionism and tax hikes. But it was a superb political education which began seriously as soon as I could read aloud literately, at about age 8. After my reading and indoctrination, I would go to grade school and study history under the direction of the nuns but was far more interested in that what was happening in the ideological battlefield involving FDR and Colonel McCormick than were the Franciscan sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes (who were all FDR Democrats who didn’t care for being contravened by a third-grader repeating what his father and George Morgenstern had taught him).

While I was receiving a superb indoctrination from Father and indirectly from Morgenstern, the household of Harold and Frances Roeser was doing well thanks to Father’s monthly crisscrossing the country by train through the innovation of selling monastic orders on trips to Europe. On occasion, J. Walter Thompson would ask Mother to come back to work the production department when people went on vacation which she gladly did; when Leddy retired, the man who succeeded McQueen wanted Mother to take her job but she declined). She was happy with her life as a neighborhood matron. The lady next door was an old-line German-American widow, Mrs. Elsie Steinweg, who taught Mother how to cook and keep house according to Germanic formulae (to Father’s delight)—Mother having worked in an office since she was sixteen) and she enjoyed cooking greatly.

In those years—not subsequently--I found Mother privately unsympathetic with the editorials of George Morgenstern and the anti-FDR views of Father since she was reverting to her traditional Irish Democratic blue-collar position. But she would never contradict him, believing that as the one who interested her in politics initially, he knew more than she—but she would respond with the other side often in those years while he was at work. And too, her view took an eminently practical side.

“Now look at Roosevelt in the newspaper pictures,” she would say after I would come home from school in the afternoon. “Always smiling! That’s nice! Now contrast that with the Republicans: always dour, grumpy, always finding fault! Every day when FDR proposes something the Republicans say `this is the last straw! It will be the death knell of the republic!’ Well the Democrats passed it and the world didn’t come to an end, did it? In fact, things got better!” For a while I would seek to look up things in the paper to contradict Mother and when Father would come home and begin the shaving indoctrinations, to contradict Father—but I fear this was too wearying so I just listened to Father and accepted what he said. He would say, “Now as you know, I love your Mother very much! The greatest woman alive! She means the world to me! But, remember this: she is not politically reliable!”

They never debated at the table, however; Father dominated the table and Mother was content with listening. But at the outset one-on-one with me they were different in those `30s. With that bubbling discussion around home when one or the other was not present, almost every day was a Town Hall Meeting between one or the other which was thoroughly fun. As a result, I never went to bed at night thinking about my school lessons but turning over in my mind what one or the other had said about public affairs. (Unfortunately—or fortunately, I don’t know which—they were so engrossed in the issues of the times and so busy with their lives that no one taught me, their only child…notwithstanding that Father had been a semi-pro baseball and amateur football player…how to satisfactorily play baseball or football or basketball. While other boys tussled with these sports, I walked around the neighborhood with a buddy who was a fervent Democrat with whom I debated furiously. Thus I didn’t care then nor now about sports…but I am regularly stumped when a guy might say to me, in a bar, on a train or plane or elsewhere, “how about them [Bears-Sox-Bulls…anything but Cubs]?” To which I have learned to respond noncommittally: “Yeah—how about `em?”).

A crescendo was building in 1936 when I was eight about whether or not this Roosevelt would be elected. The “Literary Digest”—the most successful magazine of the time—sponsored a public opinion poll that seemed very impressive. Rather than hire Gallup, it sponsored a straw poll with many thousands of ballots sent to a carefully weighted list and hired more than a thousand people to count and sort the responses. To everyone’s surprise, it found that the Republican presidential candidate, Governor Alfred M. Landon of Kansas would beat Roosevelt heavily. Then to be sure, the “Digest” distributed yet another poll and hired another thousand people to count the results. The findings were the same, only Roosevelt had picked up a few percentage points. The findings got Super-bowl style publicity. Even the FDR liberals stopped in their tracks. They calculated that FDR could lose. After all, he was not an average guy but a patrician; he spoke on the radio in a carefully modulated voice of an aristocrat. For a time the liberals turned on themselves, condemning elitism in the Roosevelt administration and its supposed lack of communication skills (incredible when one now considers it).

All the while Father was thrilling to the prospect of Roosevelt losing and George Morgenstern, writing his editorials, was ecstatic. Filled with giddy optimism myself, I went to my grade school and in the cinder-filled playground taunted my four of my most liberal Democratic classmates—all of whom were Democrats and to my disgust good athletes—with a song I had contrived myself to the effect that Roosevelt was in the dust-bin ready to be collected and Landon was approaching the White House ready to be elected. They surrounded me and beat me until their arms ached while the good nuns, also all Democrats, turned their backs on the scene so they would not have to bear the sight of one Republican being beaten so mercilessly. The “Literary Digest” poll, of course, failed miserably and Roosevelt swept the nation losing only two states, Maine and Vermont.

While Mother was a New Dealer at the outset of the Roosevelt regime in the 1930s, Father ultimately got to her…not by persuasion but by the use of unassailable statistics. Roosevelt was a master politician—a smiling, hugely optimistic leader not unlike John Edwards is now in his way…sometimes fun, sometimes angry at the vested plutocrats…but Father wisely stayed away from the externals and concentrated on the details. While he wasn’t aware of Milton Friedman’s criticism of the Fed (because it wasn’t written yet) he distrusted the Federal Banking Act of 1935 which turned the Fed into a more independent central bank. The secretary of the treasury and controller of the currency were no longer on the board and members, called governors, would serve for staggered 14-year terms, insulating the board from political pressure.

Not that Father particularly wanted FDR to control the board…but a president of Father’s choosing…and he suspected the people Roosevelt was naming to it who would not be able to be swayed by free market economics and who would run amok in deference to what he believed was a closed, pro-socialist theory of economics. Number one was one Marriner Eccles (for a time I would fall asleep in bed repeating that memorable name: “Marriner Eccles”). Who in the world was Marriner Eccles? He was FDR’s Fed chairman, the man who dictated the strengthening of the Fed to a rapt Roosevelt.

Eccles was of a fresh new breed whom liberal newspapers celebrated—and which media still do: not one of the old guys with celluloid collars like Cal Coolidge but a liberal businessman who emigrated from Scotland and made huge sums of money here in lumber, livestock, sugar refining, railroads and banking. He believed with John Maynard Keynes that if there is enough government spending, it would overcome the Depression. He testified that the Depression came because too few rich people controlled too much wealth—the exact conclusion made by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who wrote a series of laudatory books on the FDR takeover. Eccles came to Washington and worked as an assistant in Treasury and pioneered a philosophy that has never died—and, in fact, thrives today in the populist palaver of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. To-wit: the key to greater prosperity is getting more money into the hands of average people, God bless `em.

The anti-rich crux of his argument: As people earn more income, the percentage they spend tends to go down and the percentage saved and invested goes up. Getting more money in the hands of the average guy means they will spend a higher percentage of their earnings because they will want more and need more instead of the rich guy who has sufficiently and doesn’t need as much. Edwards, the North Carolina ex-senator who made a vast fortune as a personal injury lawyer, is the farthest left in the Democratic presidential field, is for redistribution of income, national health insurance for which he will hike taxes on those earning more than $200,000. The “New York Times,” once dallying with Barack Obama, now seems to be truly in love. Much of his rhetoric sounds like Eccles.

Father assailed that philosophy of Eccles, of course but there was more. In preparing these stories, I checked back through history now some 70 years back to ascertain just what Father’s concern was. Remembering his warnings and interruption to my reading at my age of eight, it was how wrong Eccles was to insist that banks up their reserve limit to 50% which meant a greater portion or reserves had to stay inside the banks. Nonsense, said Father. Let the free market work! When, on March 12, 1937, the government bond market dropped and interest rates climbed from 2.48 to 2.52—a trivial figure to us but in those days rates had hardly changed since World War I—Father angrily dabbed his shaving brush into his china mug and said, “Aha!” The bond market dropped yet again on March 16 and interest rates were up to 2.61%. Treasury secretary Henry Morganthau vowed to take action if the Fed didn’t which pushed the Open Market committee to buy $250 million worth of government bonds. Interest rates rose and the economy dipped. A week later, standing before his bathroom mirror, Father said again: “Aha!”

As he shaved every morning, he would tell me that the power of the newly-strengthened Fed to do harm was enormous. That and he was angered at the new head of the SEC, William O. Douglas, who was interfering in the way Wall Street firms conducted their business. He growled when Douglas maneuvered his way to get FDR to name him to the Supreme Court; when the Wagner Act prompted union monopolies in mass production industries. He lay down his razor which he had been twirling (a gesture that reassured me mightily) when FDR said he would raise taxes by “going after the economic royalists who did not pay their fair share of taxes.” Mother privately thought it was fine to see those fat cats pay higher taxes but during the summer of 1937 industrial production fell a third, durable goods production fell an almost unheard of 50% and the unemployment rate once more reached 20%. Finally Mother said, “your father was right and I was wrong. I’m never going to question him again.” With that she became a pro-business conservative. Still a Democrat but a pro-business conservative.

“Now,” said Father, “you can go into the schoolyard and confront your schoolmates with the truth.” I thought better of the idea after the last episode when I taunted them.


Many years later…in 1968… when I was at Quaker Oats, I went to New York to a Conference Board meeting on corporate government relations for a two-day session. At a 10 a.m. coffee break, one of my fellow conferees, a young marketer in his early 30s from Coca- Cola, knowing that I am a political junky, said I would do him a great favor if, after that afternoon’s session, I would spend an hour or so, say from 5 to 6 p.m., with an old Coke executive who by all rights should have been retired but sits around in a palatial office in the retired officers quarters with no one to talk to. The office was just down the block and he would be very grateful if I would do this because the old gentleman was somewhat in his care and the senior officers in New York were very solicitous that people be found who can converse with him. I thought: oh, God, just what I wanted to do after a conference when I was planning to get an early start, dine out at a good Manhattan restaurant and maybe try to see a stage show. I asked: Who is it? He said: He’s got the title of president of Coca-Cola Export which is a nothing job. He has a secretary and a splendid office but he’s there as result of some longtime favor he did as a politician for Coke. I said: My God! That must be Jim Farley! He said yes, that’s his name. Have you heard of him?

Heard of him? He was Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager when FDR was elected in 1932, was his Postmaster General when that job ran all the administration’s patronage, was also national Democratic chairman and at the same time state chairman of the Democratic party of New York. He was the most powerful Democrat in the country after FDR and broke with Roosevelt over the third-term. Of course, I’d love to meet him! We skipped a boring session and got to Farley’s office just in time for lunch…whereupon my fellow conferee skipped out and left me alone with the old gentleman. He asked if I had luncheon plans; I said I had not. He called for a limousine and together he and I went to his favorite restaurant, “21” where we spent the most rewarding three hours I have ever put in. Then eighty years old, tall, 6 feet 2, erect, white-haired, ruddy-faced and in the bloom of health (he lived to almost ninety), he told me tales of the New Deal that have stayed with me ever since. More anon.

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