HISTORY FLASHBACK: HORATIO…ER… FDR AT THE BRIDGE WHICH IS WHERE IT ALL BEGAN.
If you want to put your finger on when it all began, it was at the dedication of an Outer Drive Bridge, Oct. 5, 1937 with an unsufferably arrogant speech by “Dr. Roosevelt” who would put whole nations in quarantine.
The second in a series tracing how foreign-military policy interventionism became a staple of both parties—and how a quiet, studious thoughtful leader, Robert Taft emerged to lay down a legacy of constitutionalism that can well be applied by the next Republican president.
As the year 1938 dawned, five years after Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated with the hope of ending the Great Depression with massive public works and government intervention, there was little hope this could be done soon. The historian of the Depression Amity Shlaes writes inThe Forgotten Man: A New History of the Depression [HarperCollins: 2007]that shockingly there was another downturn. By August there came the sharpest drop in industrial production ever recorded. Unemployment stood at 17.4%.
Two New Deal Octogenarians.
When New Deal guru Rexford Guy Tugwell, then 83 spoke at my 1975 political science class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance on the 30thanniversary of Roosevelt’s death, April 12, he told me, “at first we didn’t know what the hell to do; we were bewildered and confused. Our formulae seemed not to be working at all.”
Tugwell told me that to his great surprise that from 1933 to `38 there was “no real alternative to the New Deal” coming from congressional Republicans (therewasbut he was looking for liberal Republican ideas of the Fighting Bob LaFollette variety). In 1936 Kansas Gov. Alf Landon had lost spectacularly to FDR on a “dime store New Deal” program: a me-too, carbon-copy facsimile of Roosevelt’s program just trimmed a bit around the edges. But all changed as the jobless figure neared 20% in 1938. Gallup found that 66% of the American people thought FDR had turned the wheel too far to the Left.
“That just reinforced me and others with the need to give our redistribution and government planning programs some impetus before the country turned back to the reactionaries,” he said using the radical terms that got him canned as a U of Penn. professor of economics—and which ultimately forced his resignation from government after his farm resettlement plans gained him the appellation “Rex the Red.” Knowing him 36 years ago I can say his critics had him pegged rightly as a Communist in ideology although he was probably just an academic theorist and never got enmeshed in the subversion network since he was too much a dreamer and abstruse.
Tugwell thought he and others had time to spare to fight joblessness—but it was not to be. In the congressional midterms of 1938 a heavy voting majority resolved to turn New Dealers out in the midterms while keeping the Congress moderately Democratic. Tugwell…who later became FDR’s far left appointed governor of Puerto Rico… was one of two oldest-living relics of the FDR administration whom I interviewed in 1975. A strange kind of agriculturalist who was prevented by extreme hay fever from visiting the fields, he was retained by the administration to think of radical new means of stimulating farm prices (he came up with the Agricultural Adjustment Act that paid farmers for cutting production). When I asked him whether FDR veered to interventionism in the late `30s so defense arms buildup would gin up the employment and reelect him to a 3rdterm, the old Ph.D dismissed it. “The war just caught up with us, that’s all.”
The other octogenarian I interviewed closely was a man nearer my own temperament—Tugwell’s old nemesis in the New Deal, a devoutly Catholic Dem, Jim Farley, 86, whom I questioned for a day and a half in his Manhattan office where he served as chairman of the Coca-Cola Export company. The post was a sinecure: Farley just made the office his home. Later we rode in his private limo to the exclusive New York city restaurant21. He was eager to talk.
“Without a doubt,” he said when I asked him if FDR deduced that he could only solve our unemployment by putting us into a war. “And,” he said with a smile, “tell Rex I said this will you?”
Jim Farley was—andisin terms of modern political history—a legend of political management and strategy. He managed Roosevelt’s 1932 and 1936 campaigns, serving as Postmaster General and who mobilized heavy patronage to push FDR’s program through early Congresses, ultimately splitting with his old boss on the issue of a third term in 1940. The Hatch Act was passed by Congress to stop Farley midway in hiring armies of political workers.
Angling Toward War to Solve Joblessness.
Unlike Tugwell Farley candidly acknowledged that Roosevelt decided to play the war card as early as 1937 when joblessness rose spotlighting the New Deal’s failure to get the country back to work—and he didn’t care for it one little bit. “I know the boss had decided to change the subject and get involved in international affairs,” Farley told me. “He was convinced that what would put men to work was a peacetime national defense effort pumped up by psychosis of fear. I was getting very uneasy with that.”
War clouds were on the horizon, begging to be exploited he said. In 1937 Germany and Italy intervened in the Spanish Civil War; Japan invaded China; two years earlier Italy invaded Ethiopia to harvest her African colonies. “The time was ripe for The Boss to capitalize on this as a change of subject,” Farley told me.
That year—on October 5- Roosevelt came to Chicago, an event I remember as a child of nine fortified by a Dad to whom politics was as savory asfilet mignon.Roosevelt came hereto dedicate the old Outer Drive Bridge running south from Navy Pier over the Chicago River, hailed as an historic linkup between two major park systems, Lincoln on the north and Grant on the south.
The president gave what was then seen as an engineering marvel a brief kiss-off, calling it a “civic betterment.” He chose Chicago because two publishers here—Robert R. McCormick and William Randolph Hearst—dominated the media. They charged what he wanted to do was change the subject, from joblessness to tailor himself as a potential wartime leader and thus gain employment from a so-called “national defense” effort.
The Tribunewas by far the stronger paper. For days before the speech workers labored on a creation hidden under a tarp across the river facing the speaker’s rostrum. Workmen pulled away the tarp unveiling a massive billboard. It featured garish white letters on a dark blue background, reading:The Chicago Tribune: Completely Un-dominated. The paper had received a tip on what he would say in a speech that was one of the most influential speeches any president would make. (When he held his next news conference, Roosevelt said “Is Walter Trohan of theChicago Tribunehere?” When Trohan stood up, FDR said, “Thank you. I just wanted to see what a completely un-dominated newspaper reporter looks like”).
The Tribunepredicted this speech would launch a drive to join Europe’s war. It was right. What FDR did in the speech was to suggest that a nebulous community of nations should “quarantine aggressive nations”—unspecified although it was clear he had in mind Germany, Japan and Italy. Yes—he meant “quarantine.” The word was immediately understood by all Americans. In the 1930s “quarantine” was applied as a precaution to families whose members were infected with polio—even measles, scarlet fever and whooping cough. A health department worker came to your door and actually affixed a sign attesting that you were to be incommunicado. Health Commissioner Herman Bundeson had a sign with red letters nailed to our door, too, since I had chicken pox.
Roosevelt could not have gotten away with that speech today. It was overbearing, brimming with I-know-better-what’s-good-for-you-than-you-do-yourself sophistry. His speech was a shot across the bow to signal that if we were not to be the world’s policeman, we would serve as its health officer, barring nations infected from associating with others.
“My Friends,” he began in his usual unctuous patronizing, radio announcer-resonant patrician tone which would be unacceptable for any politician to use today, flourishing what his friends called the “Endicott Peabody accent” named after the Brahmin Episcopal headmaster of Groton School for Boys which Roosevelt attended, the exclusive 5-year college preparatory school in Connecticut, “…It is because the people of the United States must, for the sake of their own future, give a thought to the rest of the world that I, as the responsible head of the nation, have chosen this great inland city and this gala occasion to speak to you on a subject of definite national importance.”
A few paragraphs down after he emphasized he sorely wanted to preserve international peace he issued one of the most arrogant precepts the head of a nation ever enunciated in peacetime:
“When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.”
Thus “Dr.” Roosevelt, the world physician in a massive show of effrontery, would decide what nation should be ruled out-of-bounds in the international community.
“I knew then,” Farley told me in 1975, “that we were moving out of the domestic into the global in the drive to change the subject for the American people which would ultimately lead us to war. I guessed then he was aiming for a third term—never anticipated by most presidents including the founders—and I figured I would do myself a big favor by not being around when he tried it. Not that I thought he couldn’t get it—but that he shouldn’t try.”
1938 and the Rise of Robert Taft.
Quarantine the Aggressors or not, in the congressional midterms of 1938, voters had had enough of FDR’s failure to solve unemployment—and though they didn’t defeat the Democratic congress, they rewarded the GOP with 80 new seats in the House, eight in the Senate and eleven governors. One of the Senate victors was 49-year-old Robert A. Taft of Ohio. Except for a famous surname as the oldest son of the 27thpresident, no one expected this quiet, studious workaholic to be anything more than a nerdy backbencher. But Taft was one of the greatest senators in history—and his constitutionalism and courage has always stayed with me, leading me to suggest that he should be the model in foreign-defense policy for future Republican presidents. By which I mean not neo…not seeking to democratize the world as George W. Bush articulated in his Wilsonian first inaugural…nor like Ron Paul wishing to disband our foreign intelligence defenses, repeal the Patriot Act that protects us from domestic terrorism cut back our military to the size of the scrub armies at Lexington and Concord and curtail our navy to the status of privateering vessels under John Paul Jones.
From the outset, Bob Taft of Cincinnati seemed an anomaly. Totally unlike his gregarious jovial chief justice father, he seemed dry and antiseptic, seemingly unnourished by human juices. Yet he was anything but under-motivated.
Topping the academic lists —undergrad at Yale, law at Harvard—he came from a wealthy family (though by no means equal to either the Roosevelts or Kennedys), he sought twice to enlist in WWI, being rejected for poor eyesight, served as a young lawyer with the U.S. Food Administration run by Herbert Hoover under Wilson, was elected to the Ohio House, being elected Republican floor leader and later Speaker, went to the Ohio Senate where he rewrote the law for city, county and school finances which he jammed through by overriding a governor’s veto, and headed a joint tax reform legislative commission that repealed the old personal property tax.
He was defeated in the landslide Dem year of 1932 and decided he had enough of politics and started making a bundle at his prominent law firm. But the New Deal’s demagogic radicalism drove him nuts and he made the circuit in his state delivering studious speeches on the need to return to constitutionalism.
In 1938 a Democratic kingpin, Sen. Robert Bulkley was running for reelection and was seen as a sure thing. To everybody’s astonishment Taft decided to take him on. At first watching Taft on the stump and making a botch of handshaking was a painful embarrassment. His gregarious wife Martha told him so.
“For God’s sake, Bob, loosen up!” she said in Columbus. “Think of something civil to say to these nice people rather than boring them to death—or I tell you I’m going to take you home! Be more like your father or your brother Charlie [the mayor of Cincinnati]! I tell you—I’ve never seen anybody…anybody!...less suited for political life than you! You’re a wet blanket!”
But his cousin Dave Ingram who was running Taft’s campaign said “lay off, Martha! You can’t make Bob be what he isn’t! You’ll never change him! I tried that! If he loses he loses but let him be the dull old Bob Taft God meant him to be!”
Martha did. And lo and behold, the Bob Taft God meant him to be took hold and won election over Bulkley by 170,000 votes. Next week how Martha Taft’s nerdy, wet blanket husband became the uncrowned leader of conservatives in the U.S. Senate and a model for what this country needs in its next Republican president.