Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I had a good time reading John T. Flynn’s “The Roosevelt Myth.” Even many of Roosevelt’s fans will admit that his administration was, well, a little bonkers. But Flynn presents it as nothing short of revolutionary — though in this case the revolution proceeded by blunder rather than decisive action. Flynn’s FDR is a man utterly without principle beyond what can be ascribed to ego, a great nattering booby drunk on quackery and blank-check billions bestowed by a bootlicker Congress. Writing with dry wit and a skittering, run-on style, Flynn portrays the New Deal as an immense and chaotic traveling circus: profligate, vainglorious, forever changing, it began as a fiscally conservative call to balance the budget, and quickly mutated into something very different (its vagueness was its killer app). At the head of the circus rode the president, chin thrust skyward, an American Quixote summoning windmills from the ether of politics and public opinion, and then ostentatiously galloping towards the horizon. I wonder: Has there ever been a more vivid American character than FDR?
According to Flynn, FDR was neither an intellectual nor a deep thinker; unlike cousin Teddy, he didn’t read books. But he loved the burnish conveyed by learning, and as president he collected around him a gaggle of professorial courtiers. Attracted by the glamor of power and the opportunity to conduct social experiments without constraint of budget or good sense, these men poured into Washington, mostly from the east, where they jockeyed for a place at Roosevelt’s ear. That many of these men were Communists is beyond doubt, but how deeply Roosevelt himself was attached to — or even understood –Communism is anyone’s guess. For Flynn, Roosevelt was too self-involved, too unreflective, to back any particular philosophy. But Communism was in the air at the time, and Roosevelt gave considerable succor to its supporters. (So did the First Lady — she held sleepovers for young pinkos.)
It didn’t hurt that the Reds seemed smart and newfangled. FDR loved novelty, and he eagerly adopted every crackpot scheme then fashionable among intellectuals. He was also a natural showman (Flynn compares him to a romantic actor), and he couldn’t resist the opportunity for theatrics presented by such a surfeit of snake oil. Bureaus, agencies, and committees spread like fever sores (Flynn counts 111 of these bodies), each headed by a character wilder and more unscrupulous than the last. There was Henry Wallace, head of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, later a cabinet member and vice president, who commissioned his guru, the mystic Nicholas Roerich, to travel to China to investigate grass seed, where he instead spent his time searching for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. (Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three occasions.) And Hugh Johnson, a former Army man who, inspired by Mussolini (one of the heroes of the early New Deal), turned the National Recovery Administration into a de facto police force, able to send to prison a tailor who dared press a suit for 35 cents rather than the 40 mandated by New Deal bureaucrats. “Flying squadrons of these private coat-and-suit police went through the district at night,” writes Flynn, “battering down doors with axes looking for men who were committing the crime of sewing together a pair of pants at night. But without these harsh methods . . . there could be no compliance because the public was not back of it.”
Flynn, whose background was in economics journalism, delights in providing examples of Roosevelt’s profligacy, and denouncing its effects. Elected on a promise to cut spending, FDR proceeded to outspend all previous presidents combined. I’ll spare you the data but for one citation, intended to underscore the ballooning of executive privilege begun by Roosevelt: “In 1928 all the expenses of the President’s office amounted to $585,000. In 1953 they amounted to nearly six billion dollars.”
The billions that flowed through the New Deal were the key to Roosevelt’s power: he used them to buy the support of political minorities. It’s no coincidence that the FDR era saw the emergence of labor unions as a political force and the reorganization of influential “machines” in the big cities. Their principals knew who wrote the checks, and if they (or their constituents) forgot, they were quickly reminded — often by muscle. In Louisiana Roosevelt tried to use federal money to break the influence of Huey Long, himself something of a FDR wannabe. However, Long out-maneuvered him:
[H]e stopped federal funds from entering Louisiana. He forced the legislature to pass a law forbidding any state or local board or official from incurring any debt or receiving any federal funds without consent of a central state board. And this board Huey set up and dominated. He cut short an estimated flood of $30,000,000 PWA projects. Then he provided, through state operations and borrowing, a succession of public works, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, farm projects and relief measures. The money was spent to boost Huey instead of Roosevelt. The people were taught to thank and extol Huey rather than Roosevelt for all these goods.
The book is full of such stories, as amusing as they are alarming.
Despite all the spending, by the end of Roosevelt’s second term the economy had not recovered:
When he was elected there were 11,586,000 persons unemployed. In 1939 . . . there were still 11,369,000 persons unemployed. These figures are supplied by the American Federation of Labor. In 1932 . . . there were 4,155,000 households with 16,620,000 persons on relief. In 1939 . . . there were 4,227,000 households with 19,648,000 persons on relief. In the presence of these undisputed facts how can any sober-minded citizen suppose that Mr. Roosevelt brought recovery to the United States?
Fortunately for Roosevelt, some economists from Harvard, newly welcomed into the president’s “brain trust,” supplied him with a miracle. The problem, they claimed, was that Roosevelt hadn’t spent enough (sound familiar?). And besides, government debt doesn’t really exist, because it’s money the people owe to themselves. Roosevelt’s spirits immediately lifted. This was like telling Rosie O’Donnell that she needs to eat more Twinkies. But what to spend on?
Prior to the late ’30s FDR had been a staunch isolationist — not because he believed in isolationism, but because that’s what the polls told him he should be. But now Europe was headed towards war, the professors were telling him to spend, and America’s pal (and the object of Roosevelt’s adoration) Uncle Joe Stalin needed our help. Flynn talks of the New Deal having three distinct phases. Is it fair to say that in some ways the war was the fourth?