The planets were realigning over Harry Hopkins in the fall of 1938, though for better or worse it was impossible to tell. Just as fatigue with reform was setting in, so too was an impatience with Hopkins as the most visible and vocal head of a New Deal agency.
Back in September, newspaper reports had tarred him with an outright lie. Frank R. Kent of the Baltimore Sun, Joseph Alsop and Robert Kintner of the North American Newspaper Alliance, whose column “The Capital Parade” ran in more than 200 newspapers, and Arthur Krock of the New York Times all reported a conversation allegedly overheard at a New York racetrack. Hopkins, they wrote, had told an unidentified companion, “We shall tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect.” Alsop and Kintner wrote that the story was “probably apocryphal,” as indeed it was. Hopkins denied he had ever said it. So did two people who were with him, and even the person to whom he was supposed to have made the remark. But it was widely considered, as Krock smugly told a Senate committee, “a concentrated gem of Mr. Hopkins’s philosophy.” Coming in the run-up to the November elections, the quote was political dynamite, brilliantly confirming the views of New Deal haters.
At the time Hopkins was experiencing a case of presidential fever. He had been encouraged by Roosevelt to think he was his favored successor, although the president had not specifically ruled out seeking a third term. His notes from a conversation in the spring of 1938, after he returned to Washington following his recuperation from cancer surgery, indicate that Roosevelt had considered his advantages and liabilities as a candidate and spelled them out to him in a kind of campaign primer. He noted that Hopkins had been divorced but that previous candidates and presidents had also overcome personal drawbacks: “Cox divorced + Cleveland bastard,” Hopkins wrote. Roosevelt thought that his marriage to Barbara would help, but that his own health might become an issue. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic had given him two-to-one odds against a recurrence of his cancer, but Roosevelt noted that the presidency is a killing job, so Hopkins should be fully recovered before he made a presidential run. Assessing other potential Democratic candidates, the president dismissed Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Hopkins’s nemesis Harold Ickes of Interior and the Public Works Administration, and several others. Of them all, he considered his Postmaster General appointee and Democratic Party chair James Farley the most ambitious and therefore the most dangerous. After running Roosevelt’s campaigns in 1932 and 1936, Farley had drifted away from his support for the New Deal and was now aligned with another onetime supporter turned opponent, Vice President Garner. The president told Hopkins he thought he would do the best job of any of these possibilities and offered him “assurances and hopes.” Among those assurances was a cabinet appointment. He planned to name Hopkins secretary of commerce, a job that would allow him to mend his fences with the business community, whose support—and donations—he would need.
From that point on Hopkins had taken his presidential aspirations seriously, despite the fact that he had never held elective office. The caustic relief administrator who had always had sharp words for politicians now became a political animal himself. His speeches took on pro-business themes, while at the same time he tried to help Roosevelt purge the Democratic Party of conservatives by supporting a liberal challenger to Senator Guy Mark Gillette of Iowa. It did not bode well for his ambitions that his home state Democrats renominated Gillette overwhelmingly. Nevertheless, he explored buying property back in Grinnell, the idea being to run as an Iowan and a midwesterner and not as the eastern bureaucrat he had been these many years; the harness maker’s son would be so much more appealing to the voters. He told a few close friends, sworn to secrecy, that he was planning to run. But when the subject came up in public, he denied it, or hedged, as was the case at a news conference a month after the election.
About a third of the way through the session, the subject turned to rumors circulating in gossip-driven Washington. A reporter asked him if he intended giving up his WPA job “anytime soon.”
“No, sir, I certainly do not,” Hopkins replied.
A moment later, the question came at him again, this time with a reference to “statements that the White House has been so well pleased with your work here that they would like to elevate you to a job of greater importance. It has even been suggested that you might be elevated to the White House.”
“You hear anything you want to hear in this town,” Hopkins responded, drawing laughter.
Still, the news conference had a valedictory quality about it, as if everybody in the room knew that Hopkins would soon be leaving the WPA and moving on. He was spent and distracted. His new immersion in politics was stealing his attention from policing the kinds of activities in local WPA offices that had raised cries of election scandal in Kentucky. It is also likely he was bored. By now he had headed the New Deal relief setup for five and a half years and the WPA for three and a half, and the howls of criticism from the right had never eased and never changed. Indeed, with the Dies Committee hearings savaging the Federal Theatre Project and Federal Writers’ Project, they had increased. Congress had vindictively tried to cut his salary. Legislation impelled by the Kentucky scandal that would prevent federal employees from engaging in political activity was gathering support in the Senate under the guidance of its sponsor, Democrat Carl A. Hatch of New Mexico. There was also legislation afoot to change the way the WPA was organized, which would limit workers to eighteen months on the job before they were pink-slipped and would require them to take a month off before working again—and then only after they requalified for relief. After building to their peak in November, the rolls were falling again; between 100,000 and 150,000 workers a month were finding private jobs. The WPA still had an energetic and accomplished workforce that was undertaking projects small and large. Work on New York City’s first commercial airport was occupying 5,000 men working three shifts a day, as only one example. But Hopkins’s dream of a twenty-year WPA, which he had spelled out in September, was dimming. He undoubtedly sensed that the agency’s salad days were over, and was eager to pursue the administration’s goals in a new way, as well as his own newfound ambitions.
For all of that, he still bristled when the familiar charge that WPA workers were loafing on the job was raised. One reporter asked if the Democratic losses in November were an expression of dissatisfaction with the WPA.
“My answer would be no,” Hopkins replied. “After all, you are asking me a thing that is purely a matter of opinion. You might have an opinion about that and I might have one and neither of our opinions would make it a fact.”
The reporter persisted. “A week before the election in Pennsylvania, on a small road project on the highway there were seven men working. Four of them were holding flags.”
“What do you want me to comment about that?” Hopkins asked sharply. “Are you just making a little speech? Fine.”
“What do you think of it?”
“I could say I doubt that it ever happened,” Hopkins said. “That kind of statement does not mean anything unless you have all the ramifications of what happened there. You might make an isolated case of eleven people out of three million people working. They might have been shooting off dynamite, and four people were holding flags. Perhaps eight should have been holding flags. It does not necessarily mean anything.”
Hopkins also denied manipulating the WPA rolls from Washington to aid Democrats’ election chances. Asked if there was any significance to the rolls having peaked at the time of the election, he responded, “If anybody would tell me why we would decrease WPA in Michigan immediately prior to the election and increase it in Alabama for political purposes is beyond me. If we wanted to play politics, we would have increased the WPA in Michigan and not decreased it. We would have increased it in Cleveland, not decreased it, and certainly we would have had no occasion to increase it in all the southern states where no Republican is ever elected to office and where the highest increases in the WPA took place.” As for the charges that local supervisors in Kentucky and other states had directed workers to vote or work for favored candidates or exacted contributions, he said he favored a ban—“the stronger the better”—on political activity by WPA workers.
But for all the attention on Hopkins’s future, the election, and the old saws and canards attached to the WPA, only one question got at the future of the agency itself. “What part will the WPA play in the national defense program?” one reporter asked.
“Whatever part Congress and the president want us to take,” Hopkins answered.
And less than two weeks later, he was gone. At a news conference on December 23, he was asked if he would accept the commerce post if it was offered, and replied, “Don’t kid me, boys. This is the Christmas season and I’m accepting anything.” Roosevelt announced his appointment as secretary of commerce later the same day.
Hopkins’s resignation as WPA administrator was as terse as his responses were when politicians wanted to drag out the process of getting jobs, food, and money to the unemployed. “Dear Mr. President,” he wrote. “I hereby resign as Works Progress Administrator, effective December 23, 1938. Very Sincerely Yours, Harry L. Hopkins.”
Polls did not ringingly endorse this choice for a cabinet post. In a Gallup poll, two-thirds of those who had an opinion said Hopkins should not be named commerce secretary, but 40 percent of those polled said they simply didn’t know. The results of a Roper poll showed him in a better light. While only 10 percent said he had done a fine job at the WPA and should be kept in mind for higher office, another 30 percent agreed that he had handled a difficult job well. His detractors—those who agreed that he had done fairly well but not well enough, and those who believed he had done a bad job and should get out of government—amounted to less than 30 percent. Another 30 percent had no opinion. A few newspapers applauded the appointment, but most attacked it in terms like those used by the normally supportive Chicago Daily News, which called it the “most incomprehensible” and “least defensible” appointment of Roosevelt’s entire presidency. What these responses showed, if anything, was less about Hopkins as a cabinet choice than about the implausibility of his presidential hopes.
Nevertheless, he was confirmed easily and Roosevelt, seeking a less polarizing choice for his successor, named Colonel F. C. Harrington over Hopkins’s alter ego, Aubrey Williams, to head the WPA. Harrington, whose white hair and mustache set amid a florid complexion had given him the nickname “Pinky,” was a no-nonsense type from the Army Corps of Engineers who was the WPA’s chief engineer in charge of the construction division. He was also an attractive choice because he was serving for his army pay and thus would not have to undergo the Senate’s confirmation process.
Hopkins’s departure signified an end to the New Deal as much as did the rise of the conservative alliance in Congress. It was more symbolic an end than that one, which had also signaled the end of reform through legislation—but it was no less real. For all of the attention given to what became known as Roosevelt’s “Brains Trust”—Rexford Tugwell, Raymond Moley, and the other academic architects of the New Deal’s first thrust of government into the banking and securities systems and the agricultural and industrial economies—it was Hopkins who had emerged over the president’s term and a half as the face of the government’s new concern with the welfare of individual citizens. With his exit, conservatives and the anti–New Deal press lost a political piñata; reporters lost a reliable source of juicy quotes; and his coworkers lost a figure who inspired them, one for whom they were willing to work beyond endurance because he did. Hopkins believed in the fundamental worth of people who were unemployed through no fault of their own. He believed that work brought dignity and meaning to their lives, and therefore that government, by providing work, was rebuilding not just the country and the economy but individuals and families. These beliefs were inseparable from his leadership. His impatience with those who questioned the work ethic and skills of the men and women who labored on WPA projects characterized the sea change that the New Deal represented in American life. Never before had the federal government taken an active role in addressing the employment and health needs of Americans. More than anyone, Hopkins reflected that new role. His willingness to cut red tape and spend money brought a new urgency to human needs. Conservatives hated him so violently because he made no apologies, instead rebuking those who denied the government a role in easing deprivation.
One political cartoon, from the Parkway Transcript in Roslindale, Massachusetts, summed up Hopkins’s lasting image. It pictured a plaque on the front of the WPA’s headquarters building with the words:
EVERLASTING HONOR OF
HARRY L. HOPKINS
AN AMERICAN BOY
FROM IOWA WHO
SPENT 9 BILLIONS
OF HIS COUNTRY’S
MONEY AND NOT A
TO HIS FINGERS!
And the WPA after Hopkins would remain significant, especially as totalitarianism increasingly gripped Europe and the Far East and America turned to rebuilding its military capability. At the end of 1938, some of its most important and long-lasting projects were still on the drawing board, and even without him, it would stay in the forefront of the war against the lingering depression. It was still an agency with heart, although with Hopkins gone, it had a little less soul.