Last October, after the economy's downward spiral became obvious, I closed an e-mail to a friend with the words: "I never thought my obsession with the 1930s would ever be relevant to my life." That obsession had many roots, not the least being that my hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, was a '30s kind of place with a '30s kind of culture, a '30s kind of economy, and '30s-style New Deal politics. But if there is a single person who inspired my fascination with an era, it is the historian William E. Leuchtenburg.
I can't remember which of two inspiring high school history teachers, Jim Garman or Norm Hess, gave me Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932–1940. Rereading it recently, I was reminded of the excitement I felt at age 15 over the realization that a graceful writer could bring politics to life. Leuchtenburg's version of FDR launched my teenage journey toward a practical kind of liberalism.
And my latest reading underscored the point that our times really do bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1930s, and Barack Obama's opportunities are quite like those seized by Franklin Roosevelt.
Consider, first, how the urgencies of the Depression swept aside the 1920s culture wars over prohibition. Leuchtenburg cites a letter written to FDR's political maestro Jim Farley observing how ridiculous it was "for a jobless wet Democrat to wrangle with a jobless dry Democrat over liquor when neither could afford the price of a drink." One can imagine our current economic distress having a comparable impact on disputes over, say, gay marriage.
Also striking is how the discrediting of the leading economic classes followed the same form, then and now. "Throughout the 1920s," Leuchtenburg writes, "publicists had trumpeted one never-ending refrain: that the prosperity of the decade had been produced by the genius of businessmen. If businessmen had caused prosperity, who but they must be responsible for the depression."
You wonder if our Congress will launch a probe along the lines of the 1930s Senate investigation of Wall Street led by Ferdinand Pecora. "Pecora revealed that the most respected men on Wall Street had rigged pools, had profited by pegging bond prices artificially high, and had lined their pockets with fantastic bonuses," Leuchtenburg writes. "The bankers seemed bereft of a sense of obligation even to their own institutions."
But what gives this book its power is Leuchtenburg's brilliant portrait of FDR, his administration, and how they got so much done, so fast. The anecdotes, the revelatory quotations, the pen portraits of Roosevelt's friends and enemies, are put to the service of a shrewdly analytical account that balances the role of Roosevelt himself, the force of social movements, and the exigencies of circumstance.
Leuchtenburg does not quite buy the "great man" theory of history—he gives proper due to the unions and the agitators and the interest groups. Yet he is right that FDR was the essential inspiration, thanks to his "ability to arouse the country and, more specifically, the men who served under him by his breezy encouragement of experimentation, by his hopefulness and—a word that would have embarrassed some of his lieutenants—by his idealism."
Leuchtenburg's account is also helpful in sorting out the false debate over whether Obama is more progressive or more pragmatic. FDR was the subject of the same misleading argument because he was both. "The New Deal," Leuchtenburg says, "was pragmatic mainly in its skepticism about utopias and final solutions, its openness to experimentation, and its suspicion of the dogmas of the Establishment."
Yet New Dealers "inwardly recognized that what they were doing had a deeply moral significance," rooted as it was in "a broadly humanistic movement to make man's life on earth more tolerable, a movement that might someday even achieve a co-operative commonwealth."
Shortly before Obama's inauguration, a Spanish journalist, to illustrate Europe's exuberance over Obama, told me that her working-class parents were flying to Washington to join the inaugural celebrations. We agreed that the excitement over Obama was rooted in more than just the pleasure of not having George W. Bush around anymore. There is a sense of exhaustion and disillusionment in many of the democracies, and suddenly comes Obama with his promise of turning the U.S. into a beacon of reform and a source of political energy.
And so it was with FDR. Leuchtenburg cites a Montevideo newspaper declaring that under Roosevelt, the United States had become "as it was in the eighteenth century, the victorious emblem around which may rally the multitudes thirsting for social justice and human fraternity." Wouldn't it be lovely if that happened again?
Leuchtenburg's account of the past invites us to be part of our own era's rendezvous with destiny. He certainly enlisted me, and I'm grateful that he did.