Nobody can predict with any certainty how the first 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency is going to turn out, but the last time the country decided to play host to a major financial crisis, the new president and cabinet changed the face of America. In his new book Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, Adam Cohen, my former colleague at Time, now a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, tells the story of the remarkable men and the even more remarkable woman (Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, the first female Cabinet secretary) who in those first months began to turn the country away from the depression. Here Adam takes a few questions.
Three quarters of a century have passed since the Depression, and fewer and fewer people have a first hand memory of the situation. Remind us–how bad was it, and how ready was America for dramatic change?
As tough as times are now, they pale compared to 1933. When FDR took office, the unemployment rate was 25 percent. The banking system had collapsed — many banks had failed, and every bank in the country had been ordered closed. In rural areas, farmers were leaving the land because it did not pay to grow crops. In the cities, there were breadlines and unemployed men selling apples on street corners. There were enormous “Hoovervilles” — shanty towns built by the poor — in parks and under bridges throughout the country. My book begins with a chilling, but not uncommon scene — unemployed people descending on a garbage dump in Chicago, and rummaging for food.
Roosevelt surrounded himself with talented and dedicated people like Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace and Harry Hopkins, and gave them a lot of leeway to devise policy. Were they the unsung heroes of the New Deal?
Absolutely. FDR was a great president, no doubt about it. And the New Deal would not have been possible without his charismatic leadership and keen political sense. But much of the substance of what was accomplished, however, we owe to the people around FDR. Frances Perkins was a driving force behind many of the most important New Deal programs. During the first Hundred Days, she pushed for large-scale public works programs to put the unemployed to work. She prevailed, and many families survived the Depression because of these jobs. Later, she headed the committee that developed Social Security. Henry Wallace drafted the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which rescued the farm belt. And Harry Hopkins drew up the plan for the first federal welfare program, and ended up administering it. The program was critical to helping unemployed people survive the hard times. These were brilliant, idealistic people, and they permanently changed America for the better. (more…)