January 4, 1935, a Friday, was a cool, bright day in Washington, D.C. Elsewhere, the news absorbing readers and radio listeners included the trial in New Jersey of Bruno Hauptmann for the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the French foreign minister’s appeasement of Mussolini’s Italian adventures in North Africa, the messy society divorce case of Snowden and Helen Fahnestock, and the third marriage of Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. A tennis promoter was dangling big checks in front of U.S. Open champions Fred Perry and Helen Jacobs to persuade them to turn pro, and in New York, a battle of basketball unbeatens loomed between Kentucky and New York University. But in Washington, as always, the first sport was politics, so all eyes were on the Capitol for Roosevelt’s annual message to the Congress.
A protester leaped from the crowd and screamed at the president as he was helped from his car outside the Capitol a little after noon: “Pass the bonus! We want prosperity!” It was a reminder of the depression’s unnerving persistence. Like prosperity, the bonus was an elusive goal, and the veterans had continued to press for it with each new Congress despite rebuffs from the White House.
Inside the Capitol, the galleries of the chamber of the House of Representatives were full, and lines had backed up outside the entrance doors. The president’s mother sat in the front row knitting something blue. The Senate marched in from its side of the Capitol, followed by the members of the Cabinet. Police stopped a man who looked suspiciously rustic amid the formal surroundings; he proved to be agriculture secretary Henry Wallace, and after producing identification he took his seat with the nine other secretaries. In the galleries and on the floor, the murmur of conversation filled the chamber as the packed house waited for the president.
The murmur rose to wild applause when Roosevelt was announced. He wore a frock coat and leaned on the arm of his son James as he made his slow way to the podium, illuminated by a massive bank of spotlights set up in the corners of the chamber to assist photographers and the giant movie newsreel cameras. He greeted Vice President Garner and the new House Speaker, Joseph W. Byrns of Tennessee, by their first names and then turned to the crowd and the microphones in front of him. His opening line contained, for the first time, the language by which the speech would be known from then on: “The Constitution wisely provides that the chief executive shall report to the Congress on the state of the union.”
Halfway into the six-page address, he began to talk about the need to put the nation back to work. He spoke of the effects that government handouts had on their recipients. Continued dependence on relief, he said, “induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”
The speech had both energy and moral urgency, and the crowd in the chamber belonged to Roosevelt. Three-quarters of the seats were taken up by Democrats. They spilled across the aisle and pushed the Republicans into an island of glum silence while they interrupted him repeatedly with applause and shouts of support. Even conservative Democrats, no fans of the New Deal, could count votes, and they had absorbed the lesson the CWA had taught them: jobs were popular.
“The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief,” Roosevelt declared, drawing an explosion of applause. The president waited until it ebbed, then took up his speech again: “I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.”
Five million jobless men and women occupied relief rolls, the president said. Of these, 1.5 million could not work, and responsibility for them would be thrown back onto state and local governments and private charities for a continuation of direct relief.
For the rest, he said, “it is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three and one-half million employable people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.
“It is my thought that with the exception of certain of the normal public building operations of the Government, all emergency public works shall be united in a single new and greatly enlarged plan.”
The overriding criterion of the new and so far unnamed program, said the president, was that “all work undertaken should be useful—not just for a day, or a year, but useful in the sense that it affords permanent improvement in living conditions or that it creates future new wealth for the nation.”
He went on to say that payments for work should be larger than the dole, but small enough to make private employment preferable. Projects should not compete with private enterprise, and they should spend a high proportion of their cost in labor. They should be placed where the most workers on relief were located, and they should be capable of being wound down quickly in the event that private jobs became available. He listed among the types of jobs he had in mind slum clearance, rural housing and electrification, reforestation and erosion control, road improvement and construction, expansion of the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, non-federal projects that would pay for themselves, “and many other projects which the nation needs and cannot afford to neglect.”
The president set no price tag on the program except to say the costs “will be within the sound credit of the government.” He ended the speech with an appeal to divine providence “for guidance and fostering care,” and made his way from the chamber through cascades of applause. That night, twelve House and Senate leaders attended one of Roosevelt’s indifferent suppers at the White House—neither the president nor Mrs. Roosevelt cared much about food, an attitude in keeping with the unremarkable cooking skills of the White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt—where after dining he told them he intended to ask for $4 billion for the works program. He soothed the impact by saying he did not actually expect to use that much since increasing private employment would allow the program to taper off.
Reaction the next day was generally positive, and even a bit surprised, given the exaggerated dreams churned up by the populist trumpeting of Townsend, Coughlin, and Long. Townsend’s appeal had spread beyond California by now; 3 million Americans were giving their monthly dimes to Townsend Clubs to lobby for his scheme of old-age pensions. Coughlin’s radio audience was larger than ever, drawn by his denunciations of wealth, excess profits, and “the exploitation of the laboring class” he was now calling for nationalization of utilities, banks, and natural resources such as oil and minerals. Long’s Share Our Wealth Society, announced the year before, had now grown to 27,000 chapters and claimed millions of members drawn to his proposals to “soak the rich” by breaking up “the swollen fortunes of America and to spread the wealth among the people.” He called for giving every family a $5,000 homestead and $2,500 a year. The popularity of these appeals led many to expect something more radical from Roosevelt, such as an extreme wealth redistribution program. They were surprised when he stayed close to the middle of the road.
The National Association of Manufacturers, the powerful business lobby that was usually suspicious of Roosevelt when not openly hostile to him, now focused favorably on his determination not to create jobs that would compete with private industry. The Boston Herald agreed, calling the plan “a little more rightish than leftish.” The Los Angeles Times said the same of the president’s determination to end the federal role in direct relief. Typically, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement favoring direct relief as less costly, and the Baltimore Sun thought that Roosevelt “would have done better to have provided for direct relief in conjunction with the States. The cost would have been less.” But even the Liberty League reserved judgment pending budget figures.
Only the Washington Post seemed to have a sense of the vastness of the program that the president had sketched. As the paper’s editorial page wrote, “There is no parallel in history for a successful effort by any government, perhaps excepting that of Soviet Russia, to create direct employment for an army of 3,500,000 people, as Mr. Roosevelt asks the Congress to make it possible to do.”