The year had started out badly for Roosevelt and the New Deal. Not only had the Supreme Court overturned the Agricultural Adjustment Act, but before January was over the Congress had resoundingly rejected his second veto of legislation granting world war veterans immediate payment of their bonuses. By the summer, however, $1.1 billion had reached the hands of veterans and Roosevelt had won by losing, the idea being that he had not worked hard to see the veto sustained and therefore had acquiesced to Congress and the veterans. The president and the American Legion both contrasted his behavior with Hoover’s in 1932, when MacArthur expelled the veterans and torched their camp, and that contrast became an early theme of Roosevelt’s campaign for reelection.
Hoover was styling himself as the anti-Roosevelt in any case. He had used the Republican convention, held in June in Cleveland, to call for a “holy crusade” against Roosevelt’s programs, but the party’s nominee, Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon, initially resisted this call to arms. Instead of condemning the New Deal’s initiatives, Landon, who was an oil millionaire and a progressive who had supported Teddy Roosevelt, simply implied that he could manage them better. He tried to appeal to the grassroots by calling himself “the everyday American.”
The Democrats had convened in Philadelphia to renominate Roosevelt. He responded with one of his classic speeches to an outdoor crowd at Franklin Field on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The Penn Quaker football stadium held 52,000 fans, but floor seating doubled its capacity, and an audience of 100,000 greeted Roosevelt on a moonlit night following a rain. They heard the president call his opponents “economic royalists” who “complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.” He went on to assert eloquently that the government bore basic obligations to its citizens: “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.
“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
It was a stirring and memorable phrase: “a rendezvous with destiny.” The election loomed as a crossroads that would show whether America could sustain an industrial society that supported private enterprise and at the same time protected the rights and opportunities of working men and women. “We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world,” the president proclaimed. Cheers rose from the audience to drown out his final words and continued for ten minutes until the band played “Auld Lang Syne.” Roosevelt sang together with the crowd, then circled the floor of the stadium in his car, waving as applause cascaded from all sides.
As the campaign moved into the fall, Landon toughened his talk and became the firebreathing anti–New Dealer that conservative Republicans were hoping for. The WPA was one of their favorite targets. Given those dry lakes and monkey islands, it could be an easy one. The fact that it favored inefficient hand labor over machinery in order to maximize jobs meant that workers were often standing around waiting. A man digging a ditch had to wait for the wheelbarrow he had filled to be dumped and returned. The man pushing the wheelbarrow had to wait for it to be filled again. Observers could easily conclude that WPA workers were idle much of the time, and there were jokes galore: that the initials stood for “We Piddle Around” or “We Poke Along.” Wisecrackers said they liked to advise WPA workers leaning on their shovels to shift sides from time to time to avoid curvature of the spine. An anti-Roosevelt “inventor” announced the WPA “comfort shovel,” featuring an armrest and a seat.
Nor did the workers themselves always protest these dim assessments. Some found humor in their job avoidance skills. One joke, which probably had several versions according to the teller’s national origins, had a worker at a WPA job site urgently needing a bathroom break. Approaching the privy, he saw a long line. A friend and countryman was at the head of the line, though, so the worker approached him and asked, according to the Irish version, “D’you think I might go ahead of you, Mike? I’m in an awful hurry.”
“Go ahead, then, Pat,” his friend replied. “Y’see, there’s no one in there.”
Roosevelt and the Democrats worked as hard to keep the WPA out of the campaign as the Republicans worked to attack it. Hopkins remained sensitive to the president’s original instruction not to play politics with the relief rolls. Every regional, state, and local administrator had been told repeatedly that workers were not to be pressured to join, contribute to, or vote for a particular party. Johnny Mills, a laborer scrambling to make a living in the mountains of Jackson County, North Carolina, said that as a Republican he had never been able to get a state job, but that the WPA, which employed him at road and other work for several years, “was always fair.” Indeed, the agency was so determinedly non-partisan that Democratic politicians in at least four states—California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Washington—complained that Republicans ran the show at the expense of the Democrats.
Nonetheless, as a leading administration figure, Hopkins was no stranger to the campaign trail, making speeches defending the New Deal. But when he snapped that Landon’s state of Kansas “has never put up a dime for unemployment,” he was quickly pushed to a backseat. James Farley, who had resigned as postmaster general to manage the campaign, thought him too outspoken and the WPA too vulnerable to conservative attack, justified or not. Meanwhile, WPA jobs were to be non-partisan but numerous. Under orders to curb spending, Hopkins had been reducing the rolls gradually since the spring, but with the election just a month away, Roosevelt himself forbade a cut that would have dropped additional workers. “Not one person is to be laid off on the first of October,” he told treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.
As the campaign continued, Landon moved ever further to the right, adopting Hoover’s slashing rhetoric. No longer did he say that New Deal programs merely needed better management; now they had to be done away with altogether. There was no middle ground if the American system was going to survive. He denounced the Social Security system, which had begun distributing public assistance and unemployment benefits, as “a cruel hoax.” He charged that Roosevelt had put the country on the path to a dictatorship. By abandoning the middle of the road and dishing up political red meat, Landon pleased Republican reactionaries and most of the big-city dailies, 75 percent of which supported him. The Chicago Tribune banished news of Roosevelt from the front page and headlined Landon’s every move. In September, William Randolph Hearst had his papers run a front-page editorial that said Moscow had ordered Communists to work on Roosevelt’s behalf.
And Al Smith, just eight years earlier the Democratic presidential candidate, took the final step away from his lifelong party by endorsing Landon. He railed against New Deal attempts at economic planning as Communist-inspired. Another chorus, just as shrill, rose on the left, where the remnants of Huey Long’s supporters had joined with Father Coughlin and Dr. Townsend in endorsing Union Party candidate William Lemke, a congressman from North Dakota. The Union Party grew out of Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice and it attacked Roosevelt for being too conservative. Coughlin, who had said the drought in the Midwest was God’s punishment on the country for electing FDR, now used his radio program to hurl a series of increasingly wild accusations, calling him anti-God and a liar and his cabinet members Communists.
But the American people felt otherwise. They mobbed Roosevelt, calling out thanks and blessings when he appeared on the campaign trail. And they talked back to his attackers, booing the press cars of the Tribune during the president’s October 14 appearance in Chicago. There, he told a roaring crowd of nearly a hundred thousand that he believed in individualism “up to the point where the individualist starts to operate at the expense of society.” He reminded cheering audiences everywhere that conditions had improved dramatically in his four years in office. Farmers, workers, merchants, investors, business owners—all were better off. He had not killed the system of free enterprise; he had saved it through reform. Finally, as the campaign reached its climax on October 31 in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he challenged anew the forces of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism” that wanted to reclaim their power.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” he said to wild applause. “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.”
The Literary Digest, a monthly opinion magazine known for its accurate political straw polls, had correctly forecast the outcomes of the previous four elections and now predicted an easy victory for Landon. On election day, November 3, its prediction was crushed by the outcome. Roosevelt carried forty-six states, Landon only Maine and Vermont, prompting Farley to restate the old saw casting Maine as a political bellwether for the nation: “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont,” he cracked. Roosevelt polled 27,747,636 votes to Landon’s 16,679,543. He won 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8. It was the most thorough presidential victory since George Washington and James Monroe ran unopposed. The Union Party candidate, William Lemke, polled fewer than 900,000 votes, Father Coughlin retired from the radio, and the Literary Digest ceased publication the next year. Roosevelt’s second term was soon to begin.