The New York Times carried news of the Liberty League’s formation on its front page the next day, when a transatlantic liner nosed into a pier on the Hudson River and discharged its passengers. Among them were Harry Hopkins and his wife, Barbara, back from a fact-finding trip. Roosevelt had sent Hopkins off to gather information about public housing and social insurance schemes in England, Germany, Austria, and Italy, but the president had an ulterior motive. Hopkins had exhausted himself putting together the CWA and then dismantling it within five months. He had always worked without regard to his health, having twice contracted pneumonia in his days as a social worker, and the rich diet and cocktails of high living, together with his chain smoking and caffeine intake, did nothing to improve it.
“Incidentally,” Roosevelt had told him in a note in making the assignment, “in view of the steady grind you have had, I think that the sea trip will do you a lot of good.”
Hopkins and Barbara had sailed aboard the SS Washington on July 4, leaving their baby daughter, Diana, in the care of friends in Washington. By the time they returned on August 23, Hopkins had seen impressive low-income housing programs. He also had met Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, although Mussolini did not follow the agenda. “I had come to see him about public works and housing but when he learned I had just been to Berlin it was perfectly clear that he wished to talk of Germany. This quite suited me because it is the subject of all others that everyone in Europe is discussing,” Hopkins wrote on stationery of the American embassy in Rome. “I was not prepared for the contempt which he expressed of Hitler’s murders and his stupidity.” The murders to which he referred occurred in the blood purge that became known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler wiped out his enemies and consolidated his power. He had announced the purge—he said seventy-seven had died, most shot for treason, but the number was undoubtedly far higher—to the Reichstag on July 13, before Hopkins reached Rome. Hopkins also recorded, in vivid terms, his impressions of Mussolini: “[He] talks with his eyes and his hands—his eyes grow enormously big—they flash—roll in the most amazing fashion. His hands and arms move constantly…. He is an actor—and controls his emotions like stops onan organ. I fancy he could pretend great anger or pleasure with great effect.”
When he and Barbara returned to Washington after disembarking in New York, Hopkins reported to Roosevelt that he had been impressed with England’s public housing and income security schemes but believed such efforts in the United States would have to be done “in an American way.” That was in fact what the president intended. Ten weeks earlier, in June, he had formed the Committee on Economic Security and charged it with developing a plan for unemployment and old-age insurance. This was not, as might have been expected, a response to Dr. Townsend; he and his $200-a-month pension scheme were still largely unknown outside of California, and besides, Roosevelt had had a plan like this in mind from the beginning. Indeed, labor secretary Frances Perkins, who chaired the cabinet-level committee, had insisted that she be allowed to explore possibilities for creating an economic safety net before she agreed to come to Washington. More recently, unemployment compensation and old-age security bills had been introduced in Congress. But Roosevelt wanted to tackle these issues in a single piece of legislation, so he asked that action be put off until the committee had a chance to produce recommendations of its own. He set a deadline of December, which meant that the administration approached the midterm elections in November, now barely three months away, with no proposals of its own to counter the clamor on the left and right.
The populist crusaders, the angry business lords, the office seekers vying for seats in the next Congress were all scrambling for attention from voters and the press that fall, but crime, that old standby, stole the biggest headlines. After agents of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation gunned down bank robber John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago in July, the agency elevated Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd to iconic stature, naming him public enemy number one. By then Floyd had reputedly robbed thirty banks and killed at least ten men, including one law officer. But like the notorious Al Capone, now serving his federal tax evasion sentence at Alcatraz, he had become an anti-hero; Capone had his soup kitchen, and Floyd, who had grown up on a small farm in Oklahoma, was now called the “Sagebrush Robin Hood” for giving part of his robbery proceeds to the poor. Agents tracked Floyd to a farm outside East Liverpool, Ohio, where they shot him to death on October 22, barely two weeks before the election. Twenty thousand people, mourners and curiosity seekers, attended his funeral, but his reputation lived on in Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd the Gambler,” with lines such as:
Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, and you say that I’m a thief
Here’s a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.
On November 6, the administration took the headlines back, and with a vengeance. Conventional political wisdom says the party in power loses seats in midterm elections, but 1934 defied that wisdom. Democrats gained seats in both houses, and when the new Congress convened in January 1935, they would outnumber Republicans 69 to 25 in the Senate, and an astounding 322 to 103 in the House.
“He has been all but crowned by the people,” wrote William Allen White, a public sage whose widely respected Emporia, Kansas, Gazette was a reliable gauge of grassroots opinion. Arthur Krock of the New York Times called the voters’ endorsement of New Deal policies “the most overwhelming victory in the history of American politics.” William Randolph Hearst joined in, comparing Roosevelt’s popularity to past presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. For Hopkins and the others who wanted to see a new and expanded jobs program, it meant a chance to regain the momentum lost when the CWA was dismantled.
Hopkins was exultant. “Boys, this is our hour,” he told Aubrey Williams and other FERA colleagues one warm post-election November afternoon as they were driving to the racetrack at Laurel, Maryland. “We’ve got to get everything we want—a works program, social security, wages and hours, everything—now or never. Get your minds to work on developing a complete ticket to provide security for all the folks of this country up and down across the board.”
Back from the races, they went right to work. Laboring in the FERA offices in the Walker-Johnson Building and in the St. Regis Hotel three blocks north of the White House, Hopkins and his staff laid out a plan modeled on the CWA and drawn up with input from Harold Ickes, who wanted to be sure his Public Works Administration was not encroached upon. When it was ready, before Thanksgiving, Hopkins got on a train and headed for Georgia to show it to the president.
Roosevelt had been in Warm Springs for over a week; in the two years following his election, his visits to the spa’s therapeutic waters had given his cottage there the nickname the “Little White House.” The tile-lined baths and rehabilitation pools, rooms for physical therapy and treatment, and cottages and dining halls that constituted the Warm Springs complex were set amid low hills, and some of the goings-on there could be observed from the crest of a hill outside the property, so it was here that reporters stationed themselves to pick up hints of the president’s activities. Conservative Democrats, including Eugene Talmadge, had come calling during the first part of the week. The Georgia governor wanted his patronage back; he remained set against federal relief but wished to regain the control of relief appointments that he had lost when Hopkins federalized the Georgia program. With Hopkins’s arrival, reporters saw scenes of play and relaxation as the president and his advisors tossed a ball back and forth in one of the pools. The hard work going on elsewhere was less visible; the team worked in private discussing the organization and costs of the envisioned work relief program and refining Hopkins’s plan for its public debut.
Still, reports leaked out. A Thanksgiving Day story in the New York Times by Louis Stark put the program’s cost at $8 billion to $9 billion, a virtually unheard-of amount of money at the time. Delbert Clark of the Times called it Hopkins’s “End Poverty in America” plan. This was a reference to the failed gubernatorial campaign of novelist Upton Sinclair, whose 1934 End Poverty in California (EPIC) platform had shared a vision of utopia with Townsend. It had called for collectivizing land and factories so that jobless workers could grow their own food and make their own clothes. Hopkins’s plan, unlike Sinclair’s, was politically realistic, but its dimensions were vast enough to shock already roiled conservatives in advance of its formal announcement.