In the meantime, Roosevelt was assembling his cabinet. He sought a mix of the familiar and the new that would offer the same qualities that he himself projected—reassurance that he would not stray too far from the mainstream, and promise that he would push an agenda of reform. He did, however, tell a representative of William Randolph Hearst that the cabinet would be “radical” in that no one in it would know the way to the New York Stock Exchange. And he avoided making cabinet posts quid pro quos for early political support.
Senator Thomas J. Walsh, a craggy Montanan who had uncovered the Teapot Dome bribe-taking scandal in the Harding administration, was Roosevelt’s choice for attorney general. For secretary of state he turned to Senator Cordell Hull of Tennessee, who had fought for lower tariffs and might be able to repair the mistrust and damage generated by protectionism. William Woodin, a Pennsylvanian whose long career in business included heavy manufacturing, banking, railroads, and shipping, was one of the rare businessmen who supported the new president’s ideas, and despite concerns about his health he agreed to serve as secretary of the treasury after Virginia senator Carter Glass declined the job. Henry A. Wallace of Iowa, whose father had been agriculture secretary in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, was a progressive farmer who argued for limiting crop production through his popular family journal, Wallace’s Farmer. When Roosevelt floated his name among farm leaders for secretary of agriculture, the response was so positive that he asked him to serve even though, or perhaps because, he was a Republican. For secretary of war and secretary of the navy, Roosevelt chose Utah governor George Dern and Virginia senator Claude A. Swanson, respectively. Commerce went to Daniel C. Roper, a South Carolinian who had served as commissioner of internal revenue in the Wilson administration. The one obvious patronage appointment was James Farley, his longtime political advisor, as postmaster general.
Aside from Farley, none of these were people Roosevelt knew well, but he dipped again into his pool of close acquaintances for the sensitive post of secretary of labor. Frances Perkins, a well-born Bostonian who had risen through the ranks of social work, had helped make Al Smith an advocate for labor reforms and worker protections when she worked as an investigator for the Factory Investigating Commission, formed after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. During Roosevelt’s governorship, she had headed the New York State Industrial Commission that oversaw relations between labor and employers, and proved herself a skilled political maneuverer. She protested that the secretary of labor should be a union leader, but Roosevelt, urged on by a letter campaign organized by reformer and Democratic women’s organizer Mary Williams (Molly) Dewson, insisted that Perkins take the appointment. She did, and in the process became the first female cabinet member in history.
If Roosevelt knew Perkins well, he did not know Chicagoan Harold L. Ickes at all. But his initial choices for interior secretary had not worked out, and as time drew short Ickes’s credentials came to his attention. He was a lawyer, a longtime advocate of better government, and a passionate Progressive. Loosely defined, a progressive was anyone who favored an agenda of social and political reforms aimed at improving the lot of factory workers and slum dwellers. The name fit social workers such as Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, who with her supporters pushed protective laws for women and children through the Illinois legislature at the turn of the twentieth century. In its more formal sense, it identified a Midwest-centered movement, largely Republican, that championed urban and industrial reforms, trust-busting, and natural resource conservation, of which Ickes was a part. He was among the reform-minded Republicans who had split from the national party and formed the Progressive Party in 1912. It was the Progressives who nominated former president Theodore Roosevelt, and Roosevelt who gave the party its more colorful nickname when, asked if he was fit to serve, he pronounced himself “fit as a bull moose.” The Bull Moose Party outpolled the Republican ticket but lost to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in the 1912 presidential race. However, state-level Progressives were more successful at putting through reforms, as in Illinois and in Wisconsin under Governor Robert M. La Follette, whose legislative successes included workers’ compensation and a number of progressive tax laws. Nationally, the Progressives had felt by 1932 that they had no alternative but to get behind the Democratic ticket, and Ickes had served on the national committee of the National Progressive League for Roosevelt. When the president-elect summoned him to New York to look him over and subsequently offered him the job, he did not have to be asked twice.
But as the negotiations and arm-twisting with the various nominees proceeded, Roosevelt could do little that was substantive other than wait for his March 4 inauguration, so on February 3, in Jacksonville, Florida, he boarded the yacht of his Hudson River neighbor Vincent Astor for a vacation cruise. The 264-foot Nourmahal worked its way down the coast and docked in Miami on the fourteenth, the day after the Michigan bank closings, and Roosevelt came ashore for a reception at Bayfront Park on Biscayne Bay that evening.
He rode to the park in an open car and, from a perch on the top of the back seat, addressed the crowd of 20,000 gathered at the amphitheater, saying he had enjoyed the fishing and hoped to return next year. In the crowd was Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who had made the trip to Miami hoping to mend fences with Roosevelt after delaying the delivery of Illinois delegates at the convention. He was also planning to appeal for federal money for Chicago teachers, who were owed months of back pay but had continued working, in some cases mortgaging their homes to stay in the classroom despite the city’s inability to pay them. He approached the car and asked for a meeting. Roosevelt, who was leaving later in the day, agreed to see Cermak on the train before he left.
At that moment, a nine-year-old girl in the waiting crowd, Leona Merrill, noticed a small dark man fidgeting nervously on the park bench next to her. As she screamed, “That man has a gun!” he fired a.32 revolver at the presidential car, shouting, “Too many people are starving to death!” But the child had cried out just in time, and a woman jostled the shooter. He missed Roosevelt, but Cermak and four others were less lucky. “I’m all right! I’m all right!” Roosevelt called out quickly, assuring the crowd that he was safe, and had Cermak lifted into his car. A police escort brought it to Jackson Memorial Hospital as Roosevelt held the wounded mayor and comforted him.
The assailant was an out-of-work bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara. He had no personal grudge against the president-elect; he was an angry, ailing, unemployed anarchist who was to say later, “I hate all officials and everybody who is rich.” In the annals of speedy trials, his murder conviction must have set a record. Zangara was found guilty after Cermak died on March 6, two days after the presidential inauguration, and was executed in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison at Raiford on March 20.
Lulled by the three months of waiting following the election and numbed by the drumbeat of bad news, the nation shook itself awake at the assassination attempt. The inauguration was only three weeks away, and the United States had almost been robbed of its clear choice of leader. Emotions resurfaced now—the respect for Roosevelt’s courage in fighting his way back from polio now renewed by his performance when literally under fire, as well as a realization of what the country had come close to losing.
But not everybody felt this way. Business moguls still believed dark hours lay ahead, when Roosevelt’s radical “new deal” would come into being. And in the bunker-like atmosphere of the White House, his days there dwindling, Hoover clung to his conviction that a failure of public confidence was all that was wrong with the nation. Recovery was right around the corner if only people would believe it and act accordingly. He was still looking for that emblematic song, that poem, that joke that would inspire them to forget their troubles. So certain was he that the country could persuade itself out of the gloom of 25 percent unemployment that with only two weeks remaining in his term, he tried to induce Roosevelt to voice support for his economic policies. He handwrote a ten-page letter telling the president-elect he should “restore confidence and cause a resumption of the march of recovery” by stating his rejection of inflationary programs, his support of a balanced budget at all costs, and his pledge to maintain the credit of the government. He sent similar suggestions to Republican senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio, also recommending that Roosevelt should reject federally funded public works and government-backed mortgage insurance. And he warned Senator Reed of Pennsylvania in a third letter that unless Roosevelt embraced his policies and abandoned the promises of the “so-called new deal,” “a complete financial debacle” would result.
It was bizarre even to imagine that the new president might accede to Hoover’s program and repudiate his own. But Roosevelt did recognize that the fear consuming the nation was real, and he knew he had to address it. As he sat in his study at Hyde Park, drafting his inaugural speech in pencil on a yellow legal pad, he sought words that would give Americans fresh courage and restore their belief in the country and its future. He felt the weight of history, and he strove to keep the speech close in length to the seven or so minutes of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. That biblically infused speech, delivered as the Civil War was in its final weeks, was almost literally a prayer, in which Lincoln fervently condemned slavery and prayed that the nation be reunited under “a just and lasting peace” with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” But Roosevelt, driven by the need to explain complex events, kept making additions to the draft until it stretched to almost fifteen minutes.
As he wrote, the bank panic continued to spread. The days leading to March 4 were as harrowing as any the country had experienced since the Civil War. By the end of February, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio had declared bank holidays to halt the bank runs and another twenty states were considering the move. On March 1, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York informed the Federal Reserve Board that its reserves of gold had fallen below the legal limit of 40 percent of the value of paper currency the bank had issued.
That day, Roosevelt and his party left Hyde Park and drove to New York City in an eight-car motorcade. Cheering crowds lined the streets of every town and village they passed through, and filled the sidewalks of New York on the route to his East 65th Street townhouse. Security was tight after the assassination attempt in Miami three weeks earlier. At around four the next afternoon, the door of the townhouse opened and Roosevelt and his wife emerged at the head of a party that descended to the street as police held back the throngs of onlookers. Minutes later, a motorcade of fifteen cars, followed by a luggage van, carried the Roosevelt party through Manhattan to the West Side Elevated Highway and downtown to a ferry slip at the end of Liberty Street. There, they boarded a ferry that took them across the Hudson to Jersey City, where a train was waiting to bring them to Washington.
They arrived that night and checked into the Mayflower Hotel. Flags in the capital were flying at half-staff for Senator Tom Walsh, the attorney general–designate, who had died aboard a train on his way to the inauguration, and Roosevelt named Homer S. Cummings of Connecticut, a trial lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to replace him.
Meanwhile, the newspapers were tracking the ever-spreading bank closings. California, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Louisiana declared bank holidays, and Mississippi limited withdrawals. Pressure was mounting on Hoover to close the banks nationwide. The departing president, however, would not act on his own. But even when New York declared a statewide banking holiday effective March 4, inauguration day, and Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania followed suit, Roosevelt declined to join him. He wanted his actions to stand apart from Hoover.