5. A NATION AT WORK

The WPA was just over a year old at the time of the Timberline groundbreaking. The money squandered on the ship canal—and another $7 million in work-relief funds spent on a system of dams designed to generate electricity from the tides on the northern coast of Maine before it, too, was halted by the Congress—had produced less of an outcry than might have been expected. Other New Deal developments, the stirrings of the presidential campaign, and the march of fascism in Europe were getting more attention from the press. And for the most part, the agency was working as intended. Midway through 1936, it had met its employment goals: men—and a great many women—were at work in every single county of the nation. Most of the work was unskilled labor, which was what most of the jobless had to offer. Men with shovels and pickaxes cleared land, dug trenches, scattered gravel. Others laid asphalt, pushed wheelbarrows, and mortared bricks as they built new and improved roads and airports, schools, hospitals, courthouses and city halls, sidewalks and sewer systems, playgrounds, parks, and zoos. From the Mendocino Woodlands of northern California to the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, more workers still were building campgrounds—forty-six of them—where families could rent cabins and enjoy the wonders of nature.

Eye-catching signs marking these projects told the public how its tax money was being spent. They mixed patriotism in red, white, and blue with graphic impact—“USA” at the top in big letters flanked by stars, “WORK PROGRAM” on a white stripe across the middle, and “WPA” at the bottom. Hopkins had instituted the sign program back in March, and they quickly became as familiar as the NRA’s blue eagle logo had been in its heyday. Republicans and the anti–New Deal press predictably complained that they were propaganda. In New York, parks chief Robert Moses banned them despite the fact that 71,500 WPA employees were working at parks jobs, setting off a weeklong spat with Victor Ridder, who had followed Hugh Johnson as the city’s WPA administrator. Ridder had to threaten to pull all WPA employees from the parks before Moses agreed to allow smaller signs to be displayed.

The WPA was also gaining a reputation for disaster response, working with the Red Cross, National Guard, and other military and law enforcement agencies. In March, a swift spring thaw had caused flooding from New England to the Ohio River that left 171 dead and 430,000 homeless, and the WPA had thrown almost 100,000 workers, from laborers to clerks to nurses, into rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts. Residents of Washington, D.C., had seen men of the WPA filling sandbags and building levees along the Potomac River in view of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. In April, thousands of WPA rescue and cleanup workers moved in after two of the worst tornadoes in the country’s history struck twelve hours apart in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, killing more than 200 people in each city and destroying Gainesville’s downtown and courthouse square. And in the tinder-dry summer that was now affecting the upper Midwest, at least 20,000 WPA workers would join the fight against forest fires that ravaged timberland and threatened towns in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Building work and disaster response were obvious jobs for the WPA. Some other jobs were not. But Hopkins needed to put men who were not laborers, and women other than teachers, nurses, and seamstresses, to work, and so across America the WPA paid people to copy old records that were moldering to dust, repair toys for poor children’s Christmas stockings, rebind books for libraries, index newspapers, compile lists of historic buildings, and record folk songs. Much of this work never would have been done had the WPA not needed to create jobs for these segments of the population; with it, the WPA was helping to preserve the country’s past even as it was helping to build for the future.

Hopkins being Hopkins, he continued to enrage the New Deal’s enemies. He remained impatient with politicians who questioned the need for relief or who wanted to postpone it to see how other programs would “work out,” and his responses were scathing and quotable. “Hunger is not debatable,” he said once, and “People don’t eat in the long run, they eat every day.” His blunt-spoken ways endeared him to working reporters who covered the WPA. The columnist Ernie Pyle, just beginning his climb to fame, described his grassroots appeal on October 26, 1935, in his column syndicated by Scripps-Howard to about 200 newspapers:

And you Mr. Hopkins, I like you because you look like common people. I don’t mean any slur by that either, because they don’t come any commoner than I am, but you sit there so easy swinging back and forth in your swivel chair, in your blue suit and blue shirt, and your neck is sort of skinny, like poor people’s necks, and you act honest, too.

And you answer the reporters’ questions as tho you were talking to them personally, instead of being a big official. It tickled me the way you would say, “I can’t answer that,” in a tone that almost says out loud, “Now you knew damn well when you asked me that I couldn’t answer that….”

And that old office of yours, Mr. Hopkins, good Lord, it’s terrible. It’s so little in the first place, and the walls are faded and water pipes run up the walls and your desk doesn’t even shine. But I guess you don’t care. Maybe it wouldn’t look right for you to have a nice office anyway, when you’re dealing in misery all the time.

One nice thing about your office being so little, tho, the reporters all have to pack close up around your desk, and they can see and hear you and it’s sort of like talking to you in your home, except there they’d be sitting down, I hope.

The reporters tell me, Mr. Hopkins, that you’re about the fastest thinker of any of the big men who hold press conferences. Ickes is fast too, and so is Farley they say, but you always come back right now with something pretty good. And you’ve got a pleasant, clean cut face, too, and they say you never try to lie out of anything.

At the other extreme was the Chicago Tribune, owned by the rabidly anti-Roosevelt Robert Rutherford McCormick. A large and blustery man, McCormick had served as an artillery officer in France during the world war, and people had addressed him as “Colonel” ever since. He championed Republican orthodoxy and American isolationism and ran an American flag on the front page of the Tribune along with the legend “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” the first letters of which he unapologetically applied to the radio station he had bought in 1924 when he changed its call letters to WGN.

“Turn the rascals out,” a Tribune editorial exhorted on April 17, 1936. “Only 201 days remain in which to save your country.” The editorial attacked the New Deal in general and Hopkins in particular: “Mr. Hopkins is a bullheaded man whose high place in the New Deal was won by his ability to waste more money in quicker time on more absurd undertakings than any other mischievous wit in Washington could think of. The scandal of the political manipulation of funds under his control is growing and to it may be added the scandal of the uncared-for destitute.”

Hopkins, who was happy to be known by his enemies, enlarged the editorial, framed it, and hung it on his office wall.

In the year since the New York aldermanic hearings, boondoggle and its verb form had become favorite words in the anti–New Deal vocabulary, used to mock WPA projects as frivolous abuses of public spending power. One of these was a dog shelter in Memphis, Tennessee, built at a cost of $25,000. Republican senator Daniel O. Hastings of Delaware charged in the Senate that its art deco facade, shower baths, outdoor exercise runways, and daily changes of straw bedding were examples of high boondoggling. His colleague from Tennessee, Democrat Kenneth McKellar, responded that the pound was needed because Memphis had a high incidence of rabies. “As vitriolic as the senator from Delaware is, I wouldn’t have him bitten by a mad dog,” said McKellar.

The conservative New York Sun started a daily feature called “Today’s Boon-Doggle.” In early 1936, it derided an animal shelter in New York, a veterinary hospital in Auburn, Alabama, a flood control dike in Boulder, Colorado, a road-straightening plan in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, and a livestock trail from the city limits to the stockyards in Caldwell, Idaho. Other boondoggle targets included the WPA arts programs, a plan to clean and varnish desks in the Gadsden, Alabama, schools, road landscaping in Tucson, Arizona, a $65,000 monkey house at the zoo in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a city-wide program of park improvements in Chicago.

In the Sun’s view, WPA employees were a sorry lot. They were slothful and not to be trusted—unless, that is, they had something critical to say about the WPA. This was the case after a big push in the summer of 1936 to complete an athletic field and stadium at Randall’s Island in New York City’s East River in time for the president to open the Triborough Bridge, which arched over the island, connected Manhattan with the Bronx and Queens, and gave the island itself its first road access. The $1.2 million stadium was a WPA project, the bridge a $44.2 million project of the Public Works Administration. It was dedicated by Roosevelt on July 11 among a party that included Hopkins and Ickes, Mayor La Guardia, and parks commissioner Moses, who made his headquarters on Randall’s Island and for whom the bridge represented a vast expansion of his empire since he had added control of the Triborough Bridge Authority to his parks duties in 1934. Afterward, the Sun reported that the stadium had been finished in such haste that the concrete was honeycombed with air pockets and contained pieces of wood and even tools dropped by workers who were given no time to retrieve them, and would require extensive repairs. The paper’s source was inspection reports by “WPA engineers, selected for supervisory positions because of their long experience.” Moses, who was normally critical of the WPA, now managed to attack it and defend it all at once, calling the inspectors “irresponsible” and contending that the stadium was “in good condition.”

The Republican National Committee and the Liberty League also took their turns at bat. Their criticisms usually revealed nothing but their bias against government, as when the Liberty League singled out a shoe repair program on Long Island as an example of boondoggling. Majority leader Joe Robinson responded with sarcasm on the Senate floor: “Think how demoralizing it must have been, with the thermometer ten degrees below zero, to have Uncle Sam supplying funds to repair the damaged shoes of children who were forced to trudge back and forth to school. The du Pont brothers must have been shocked when [Liberty League president Jouett] Shouse showed them that classic example of undermining the moral fiber of children on relief.”

The Republicans and the Liberty League, said Robinson, were “playing politics with human misery.” But Roosevelt took a lighter tone. “If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this depression,” he said, “that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the people for many years to come.” Nonetheless, the WPA’s Information Division kept a state-by-state file of boondoggling charges and issued detailed refutations that went out under the heading “The Facts Are.”

There was no defense for some miscues, however. The WPA gave its enemies more ammunition than they needed in tiny Mount Airy, North Carolina, when workers there built a lake that proved not to have a water source. Sardonic stories in the press described the 200-yard-long, 40-foot-thick dam of native rock and concrete holding back a six-inch puddle, the order placed for 30,000 fish to stock the lake, and the town residents who had built boats in anticipation of going fishing. Something similar happened in Butte, Montana, where a WPA ice rink was built too far from a hydrant to be flooded. WPA recreation workers finally solved the problem just in time for the spring thaw, and then turned the rink into a softball field.

Yet despite the wild charges and the occasional blunder, for the most part the WPA was being run efficiently and free of scandal. Hopkins had followed Roosevelt’s call for citizen oversight with vigorous self-policing through an investigations unit. The “W-men,” announced in October 1935, were a squad of fifty investigators working out of Washington and thirteen regional offices under the authority of WPA Division of Investigation chief Dallas Dort. The squad was assigned to look at fraud, corruption, and practices such as payroll padding, the use of relief workers to improve private property, and the extortion of money from workers in exchange for jobs; it had the option of calling on other federal investigative agencies, including the Secret Service, if necessary. “Our job is to keep graft out of the program and we are going to do it,” Dort said. Hopkins was swift to axe offenders and issue news releases before scandals had a chance to build. Moreover, as he had from the start, he kept the agency’s administrative costs low, running around 4 percent of total spending. As a result, partisan attacks failed to gain traction and public and legislative backing remained high.

And the president continued to encourage support for work relief as an obligation of the government, making the case against conservatives who wanted it to retreat to its pre–New Deal inaction. He had challenged them anew in his third State of the Union address, asking, “Shall we say to the several millions of unemployed citizens who face the very problem of existence, of getting enough to eat, ‘We will withdraw from giving you work. We will turn you back to the charity of your communities and those men of selfish power who tell you that perhaps they will employ you if the Government leaves them strictly alone’?”

That State of the Union address, on January 3, 1936, had come at a crucial time. Roosevelt had seen the National Recovery Administration undone by a unanimous Supreme Court the year before. Now, a challenge to the Agricultural Adjustment Act also awaited a court ruling. The justices had heard arguments in the fall term, and there was no reason to suspect that they were any less hostile to what Justice Brandeis had called “this business of centralization,” by which he meant the government’s effort to control business practices and the economy. And indeed, the president’s State of the Union appeal to Congress to keep passing laws that protected farmers—as well as homeowners, child laborers, the elderly, investors, unions, the poor, and the unemployed—preceded the court’s ruling on the AAA by just three days. On Monday, January 6, Justice Owen Roberts read a six-to-three opinion that it, too, ran afoul of the Constitution. The ruling attacked the government’s system for moderating farm production, which taxed food processors and textile manufacturers and used the proceeds to pay farmers for planting less acreage and raising fewer animals for food. It said the processing tax violated the government’s constitutional authority to tax and spend because it required production cutbacks in return, and this was a coercive contract that trampled on states’ rights, which applied because agriculture was a local business and not a national one.

This time, however, Brandeis had sided with the administration. He and Justices Benjamin Cardozo and Harlan Stone objected to the majority’s invocation of states’ rights because, said Stone in his dissent, the constitution allowed taxation that “provide[d] for the…'general welfare” and the agricultural depression was clearly general, meaning national, in scope. But the three votes were of little consolation. The ruling left Roosevelt virtually helpless in regard to the government’s ability to impose its goals on the economy and to moderate the harshest industrial practices.

As for the economy’s still staggering rate of unemployment, here at least the administration was still allowed a relatively free hand. Three and a half million people were on the government’s work-relief rolls that January. Of those the vast majority, 2.8 million, were WPA workers, with the rest divided between the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. They remained the cross section of the American workforce that Hopkins had referred to the year before: workers from building, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and service fields, skilled and unskilled, men and women, urban and rural. Because of the work program, they received more money and were better cared for than they had been a year earlier, Hopkins said, though he contradicted a reporter who asked if relief was “sitting pretty.”

“I would not use the term ‘sitting pretty’ on any relief business,” he said.

However, the fog of numbers and broad categories such as these obscured the individual human beings who were, after all, the objects of the program. Statistics blurred them into nothingness. As Hopkins would write in Spending to Save, his account of the depression and the relief programs he ran, “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.” But at the root of the statistics were real people doing real jobs, providing for their families, and touching other people as they worked. Almost every project, large or small, had its story, and many were impossible to imagine outside the context of the WPA and its inventiveness in job creation.

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