I have never been much of a historian, but I picked up “The Plot Against the President” at the library recently and I have really been enjoying it. According to the theories of Strauss and Howe, we are in a period that is very similar to the early stages of the Great Depression. This period, known as [4th] is similar to the period starting in 1929. The book is about the early period of FDR’s presidency, including his campagning before getting into office. I have only finished the first half of the book which mainly covers up until FDR took office.
I suppose my education in the 80’s was lacking because I had no idea that there was an assassination attempt on FDR right before he took office. The first half of the book covers this event in detail, including all the social chaos going on at the time. Clearly the period from 1929-1933 was one of the worst in American history. Herbert Hoover (portrayed here as a bitter and ineffectual man) was all chased out of office but there still seemed to be little hope for the country at the time. The Depression had hit hard and there seemed no end in sight. Roosevelt, to many observers, seemed to be just the wrong person to take the helm at the time. There was a huge division between rich and poor (the greatest disparity ever in American history up until just recently) and great distrust of the moneyed class. Roosevelt came from old money and was seen as somewhat of a dilettante at the time. The fact that he had been paralyzed by Polio made his election even more surprising.
But FDR managed to prove all of his detrators wrong even before he took office. He took a two-week vacation at sea (on an expensive yacht owned by a friend) prior to his inauguration. When he landed in Miami, Florida there was a huge crowd assembled to see him. Denton tells the story of how Giuseppe Zangara took five shots at the President-elect but failed to even hit him. Six people around Roosevelt were struck and they were all rushed to the hospital. FDR held one of them, Anton Cermak (Mayor of Chicago) and kept him from going into shock as they sped to the hospital. Cermak died two weeks later but Roosevelt was held in high regard for how calm he remained after the attempt on his life. This event, at least as presented by Denton in the book, gave Roosevelt a boost in popularity as he took office.
The interesting parallel to today’s crisis is that we too have been suffering the effects of a financial crisis that still seems to be hanging around. Although there are signs of improvements it is clear that a recurrence is entirely possible. And we are headed towards what may be a very contentious election that does not seem to offer any candidates with a clear ability to lead (in my opinion). Obama’s first term has not shown him to be a firebrand but rather a compromiser on many issues. Romney also does not appear to be the sort that would take on the status quo to really shake things up. It is certainly possible that another candidate will take the Republican nomination, but the interesting thing to me about the lead-up to the 1932 election is that Roosevelt and Hoover seemed to be a choice between the lesser of two evils too.
Hoover had certainly been more than useless during the later part of his term and using Douglas MacArthur against the Bonus Army was the death blow to his chances at a second term. But Roosevelt certainly did not seem very Presidential at the time either. Many described him as a dabbler without much real knowledge of economics or larger political issues. But when the time came for him to take office (at the very pit of the Great Depression) he proved to be and incredible leader. The times, in some ways, defined his abilities. The same may be true for our next President, whoever that may be. We can certainly hope that whoever does take office can unify the nation during this portion of the crisis.
The other striking thing about the history presented in the book is just how ready the US was for a leader that would dictate our direction. When FDR came into office there were journalists and pundits that called for him to be a dictator during our time of need. The country was willing to give up their liberty if it meant the possibility of turning around our economy. So in many ways the country was primed to take the direction of Roosevelt if he was strong in his convictions. It will be interesting to see whether the same is true in the upcoming election. Will the US be ready to have a leader that does whatever is needed to lift our country out of the recession fully? Only time will tell, but the parallels to our history 80 years ago are enormous.