The Democrats were talking about jobs. Prominent among them, in addition to House Speaker Garner, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the governor of New York. He had announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 21, 1932, after a year or more of work by his team of political operatives, raising money, making new contacts, and wooing the party regulars who controlled wards in major cities. As he approached the Democrats’ nominating convention, scheduled for Chicago in late June, Roosevelt was campaigning as the anti-Hoover. He advocated a federally funded program of public works jobs and federal relief for the unemployed, while at the same time courting conservatives by distancing himself from the League of Nations.
Now fifty-three, Roosevelt had been a politician most of his adult life. He had won his first elective office, a seat in the New York State Senate, when he was twenty-eight, in 1910. Reelected two years later, he soon resigned to accept an appointment as assistant secretary of the navy in the administration of the new president, Woodrow Wilson, the New Jersey governor and former head of Princeton University whose candidacy he had vigorously supported in the 1912 election. Family wealth had eased Roosevelt’s journey into politics and shaped his profile: he was a patrician with a common touch, a reformer, a conservationist, and a pragmatist given to testing the political winds to see where opportunities might lie. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece Eleanor had married Franklin in 1905, was a distant cousin, but where “Teddy” was direct and blustery, Franklin was oblique and rhetorically eloquent. Wilson was reelected in 1916, and again Roosevelt made a significant contribution. After helping manage naval affairs through the United States’ eighteen-month involvement in the world war in Europe, he was rewarded with the Democratic vice presidential nomination in the campaign of 1920. Although he and Ohio’s James M. Cox, the presidential nominee, lost badly to the Republican ticket of Harding and Coolidge, Roosevelt proved an enthusiastic and able campaigner, laying the groundwork and whetting his ambition for another bid at national office.
Those ambitions came to a grievous halt the following summer when Roosevelt, now thirty-nine, was stricken with polio at his family’s summer home at Campobello, an island in Canadian waters off the northern coast of Maine. Severely crippled, he began his lengthy rehabilitation in the magnesium-salted thermal baths of Warm Springs, Georgia. There he learned to walk again, and he stepped back onto the national stage in the summer of 1924, using two canes and braces on his legs to walk fifteen perilous feet before a crowd at Madison Square Garden to nominate Alfred E. Smith, then the governor of New York, as the Democratic candidate for president. The hall burst into a standing ovation when he reached the podium and gripped its edges for support. Although Smith lost the nomination to John W. Davis (and Republican Calvin Coolidge was to win the presidency in November), Roosevelt had rekindled his own political career. Four years later, in 1928, he won his first two-year term as New York’s governor, succeeding Smith, and during his second term launched a series of measures to combat the depression in New York.
Roosevelt had always been a natural politician. He was gregarious, laughed easily, and was quick to smile. And after his rebound from polio, he had acquired a deeper and more subtle quality of confidence: nothing seemed to faze him. He communicated a forceful serenity, an attitude that no crisis was too great to overcome. One pose in particular would become iconic—his head thrown back, face creased in a grin, cigarette holder jutting at a jaunty angle from his teeth; it imparted a joy of combat and the certainty of winning. Here was a man who believed in himself, it said, and if you took his side in a fight, he would reward your belief in him.
It was this quality that resonated with Americans whose radios were tuned to the National Broadcasting Corporation on the night of April 7, 1932, when Roosevelt made the first nationwide broadcast of his campaign from the state capital in Albany. In his speech, listeners heard what many had not heard for a long time: that America’s people and their problems mattered as much as the difficulties faced by bankers and industrialists.
“It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry,” he said. “He staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.
“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power; for plans…'that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
“The forgotten man” was the memorable phrase. Its powerful impact and populist overtones struck fear in Roosevelt’s rivals for the nomination. They accused him of firing the first salvo in a class war. Al Smith, his former ally, was the loudest.
Nominating Smith in 1924, Roosevelt had called him the “Happy Warrior,” and the nickname stuck. Smith was to finally win the nomination in 1928 but go on to lose to Hoover in a general election landslide that he attributed in part to prejudice against him as a Roman Catholic. In that same election year, Roosevelt had succeeded Smith as New York’s governor, and afterward, Smith, a charismatic figure in New York, could never understand Roosevelt’s failure to ask him for advice, accept his suggestions on appointments, or include him in his political calculations. Over the next four years, he came to resent Roosevelt’s swift rise to national prominence.
Smith, the grandson of Irish immigrants, had grown up poor on New York’s Lower East Side. After his father died when he was thirteen, he dropped out of parochial school to help support his mother and his younger sister by working at various menial jobs. But he had one notable skill, a gift for public speaking, and this gave him his entry into politics, by way of the Tammany Hall organization that pulled the strings of New York City’s government. Tammany was corrupt but effective; voters got favors and Thanksgiving turkeys for their loyalty, and the politicians who benefited sealed the bargain by parceling out public jobs.
Smith’s base was the Fourth Ward, an irregular patch of lower Manhattan squeezed between the East River piers and Chatham Square, overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge, and so full of saloons and bars that it was also known as the Whiskey Ward. Its tenements were packed with immigrants: Irish and Italians, Germans, Russian and eastern European Jews, and assorted other nationalities. Some had fled tyranny; all sought work. They baked, they pickled, they picked rags, they worked in factories, and they heaved cargo, and when they were tired and broken, like Smith’s father when he died, there were few options open to them. Widows who could not support their children placed them in foster homes and orphanages, as Smith’s mother almost did. The reformer Jacob Riis had focused on the Fourth Ward in his famous exposé, How the Other Half Lives,published in 1890, when Smith was seventeen. It still remained an area where children as young as seven worked in factories, teenagers walked the streets as prostitutes, and charity workers tried to keep the elderly and disabled who couldn’t work from starving. Smith used his wit and charm to solve small problems Tammany leaders delegated to him, and his public speaking skills came to their attention. With a reputation for being incorruptible, he rose through the organization until he won a seat in the State Assembly in Albany, where he emerged as a leader among the minority Democrats. Assembly members of both parties gathered for his speeches, roared at his jokes, and deferred to his sharp eye for spotting bills whose fine print rewarded special interests. When the Democrats won the majority in 1911 they chose Smith, eight years after he was first elected, as majority leader.
In March of that year, 146 young immigrant women, most between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Many were trapped behind locked or inward-opening doors. Others jumped down the elevator shaft, and more than sixty were driven by the heat to jump from the ninth floor to the sidewalk. The only safety measures in the factory had been twenty-seven buckets of water and a fire escape that collapsed.
The disregard for workers’ safety angered Smith, and he lobbied for a place on the factory investigation commission that was formed in the wake of the fire. The rest of his time in the Assembly was marked by his eloquence on behalf of exploited workers. He fought for state pensions for widows, disability insurance, and workers’ compensation, and against child labor. Tammany steered him to election as New York County sheriff and later as president of the city’s governing body, the Board of Aldermen, and in 1918, he became the first Tammany candidate to be elected governor of New York. He lost a 1920 bid for reelection but won again in 1922, and began three consecutive two-year terms that were marked by an avid populism on behalf of ordinary people and against entrenched interests.
But after leaving the governorship following his unsuccessful presidential campaign, Smith found that he missed the perks and authority of office. He had relished knowing men with money and power, chief among them John J. Raskob, a former General Motors executive who, after running Smith’s failed campaign, had built the Empire State Building and made him its president with a $50,000-a-year salary. Smith now seemed blind to the tenement dwellers for whom he once had fought. He bragged of the lease on his Fifth Avenue apartment, rode in a chauffeured limousine, and served as a corporate director. After his defeat, Smith had vowed not to run for president again. But seeing Hoover vulnerable to any Democrat, even a Catholic, probably wishing for revenge, and judging Roosevelt’s populism a threat to his new patrons’ interests, he jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination just two weeks after Roosevelt declared his candidacy.
Now, at the Democrats’ traditional Jefferson Day dinner in April, held a week after Roosevelt’s radio address and attended by all the party’s candidates for the nomination except Roosevelt, Smith accused him of demagoguery. “At a time like this,” he said, “when millions of men and women and children are starving throughout the land, there is always the temptation to stir up class prejudice, to stir up the bitterness of the rich against the poor, and of the poor against the rich.” It would delude and ruin the poor, he said, sounding very much like Herbert Hoover, “to make them believe that they can get employment before the people who would ordinarily employ them are also again restored to conditions of normal prosperity.”
But Roosevelt had found the people receptive to his talk of change. On May 22, he reached another rhetorical high. It came in Atlanta, where he had stopped after a visit to Warm Springs to accept an honorary degree from Oglethorpe University and speak at its commencement. Standing on the stage of the Moorish-themed Fox Theatre under a ceiling of winking lights designed to imitate a starry night, he began with familiar commencement greetings but quickly found his campaign voice. Again speaking in populist themes, he addressed the irony of America’s unaffordable abundance, caused not “by any natural calamity—by drought or floods or earthquakes or by the destruction of our productive machine or our manpower. Indeed,” he said, “we have a superabundance of raw materials, a more than ample supply of equipment for manufacturing these materials into the goods which we need, and transportation and commercial facilities for making them available to all who need them. But raw materials stand unused, factories stand idle, railroad traffic continues to dwindle, merchants sell less and less, while millions of able-bodied men and women, in dire need, are clamoring for the opportunity to work.”
To address what he called this “awful paradox,” Roosevelt said, some preached that the business cycle would eventually return the country to prosperity, while others found the problems confronting society so complex that people who shared common goals could not agree on how to reach them. In each case, he said, the result was inaction—doing nothing, drifting.
Then came the words that Americans were to seize on as they had “the forgotten man”: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
This call to action was not broadcast, so reaction was delayed. But it generated newspaper headlines the next day, and the New York Times and the Atlanta Constitution ran the text in its entirety. Some of his advisors worried that the speech would be perceived as radical, since he had called for “a wiser, more equitable distribution of the national income” in which “the reward for a day’s work will have to be greater…'and the reward to capital…'will have to be less.” The Times criticized its failure to lay out a specific plan. But as news of the speech spread, its message struck home. Americans were ready to experiment, were ready for actions that would break the stranglehold of inaction that had left them helpless.