Modern history

Chapter 4

FDR

1932 Presidential Election

Image Credit: Enslow Publishers, Inc.

Franklin D. Roosevelt scored an incredible victory in the 1932 presidential election. Herbert Hoover beat the Democrat in only six eastern states—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

On Inauguration Day, 1933, America faced a national crisis. Thousands of banks had gone out of business, and millions of workers were unemployed. It would take an extraordinary leader to guide the country from economic ruin. America found such a hero, but he was an unlikely one.

Young FDR

If anyone was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His family had wealth. It was not the newly acquired wealth of capitalists. Instead, it was the wealth of American aristocracy. Young Franklin had twelve ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower and others who were among European royalty. Distant relatives included eleven former United States presidents. Neighbors along New York’s Hudson River Valley had known and respected the Roosevelts for generations.

Roosevelt’s father James and mother Sara rejoiced at the birth of their son in 1882. Franklin Roosevelt grew up happy, safe, and more than a little spoiled. By the time he was sixteen years old, he had visited Europe eight times.

Franklin attended Harvard, where he was known more for his yachting skills than his grades. At Harvard, he fell in love with the woman who became his wife.

Some people say that opposites attract. That seemed to be the case with Franklin Roosevelt. Young, handsome, and wealthy Franklin Roosevelt could have dated many women. His fourth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a plain, shy orphan. Yet she had qualities that attracted him. He admired her intellectual abilities. She also showed great concern for other, less fortunate people.

Franklin idolized Eleanor’s uncle, former president Theodore Roosevelt. When Eleanor and Franklin were married in 1905, Theodore (who was Franklin’s fifth cousin) gave the bride away. Franklin was aware of Theodore’s career path—New York state assembly, assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, president. He followed a similar one.

Sunrise at Campobello

Roosevelt’s state senate district was wealthy and overwhelmingly Republican. Even the most loyal Democrats gave him little chance of winning when he ran in the 1910 election. But Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, refused to listen to scoffers. He toured the district in his red car, shook as many hands as possible, and squeezed out a narrow victory.

Franklin supported Woodrow Wilson for president in 1912. The new chief executive rewarded Roosevelt by making him assistant secretary of the Navy. By most accounts, he was a hard-working administrator. But skills in the Cabinet do not always mean election victories. Roosevelt was trounced in a 1914 Senate election. Six years later, he ran for vice president with James M. Cox. Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge defeated Cox and Roosevelt. “It wasn’t a landslide,” noted Joseph Tumulty, President Wilson’s private secretary. “It was an earthquake.”1

Even with the loss, Franklin Roosevelt’s political future appeared bright. Voters throughout the country now knew him. His possibilities appeared limitless—until one summer day in 1921.

The Roosevelts were vacationing at their summer home at Campobello, New Brunswick, in Canada. It was a typical busy day for the active Franklin Roosevelt. He sailed with his sons, fought a small forest fire, then refreshed himself with a swim in the cold ocean water.

When he woke up the next day, he could not move his legs. Franklin Roosevelt had contracted the polio virus a few weeks earlier. The swim tightened his muscles and put him into shock. Although he tried hard, he never walked unaided again. A few months later he received sevenpound leg braces, which would be his companions for the rest of his life.

Franklin Roosevelt refused to feel sorry for himself. His self-confidence allowed him to challenge this physical disability. His wealth permitted him to work full-time on rehabilitation.

In one respect, the ailment helped him in life. Before contracting polio, Roosevelt had seen suffering only from afar. Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, later commented, “The man emerged . . . with a deeper philosophy. Having been to the depths of trouble, he understood the problems of people in trouble.”2 By 1928, he re-entered the political scene. There were political wars to be fought, and he was one of the fighters.

The Happy Warrior

Politics came naturally to Al Smith. The New York City native, in his trademark brown derby hat, had a smile and a handshake for everyone. He rose through the ranks of Tammany Hall, New York’s political organization to become the state’s governor. Along the way he gained an ally—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Even after the polio attack, Roosevelt managed to help his friend. He aided in Smith’s 1922 re-election campaign. Two years later, Smith sought the Democratic nomination for president. Franklin gave the nominating speech. He also gave Smith a nickname that stuck—“The Happy Warrior.”

Four years later, Smith won the nomination. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (or FDR, as he was increasingly known) again placed Smith’s name in nomination for the presidency. It proved to be an important speech. Roosevelt, more than most, realized the importance of the new medium of radio. He intended his speech as much for a nationwide radio audience as for those in the convention hall.

Roosevelt charmed listeners with an excellent radio voice. He also knew how to communicate with that voice. He explained things simply and in a personal manner. Roosevelt peppered his speeches with “my friends” or “you know and I know.” When his speeches started, many in the radio audience were mere listeners. When he concluded, they were friends.

This charm helped him in the 1928 race for governor of New York. Republicans swept most of the nation amidst general 1928 prosperity. But the following Inauguration Day, it was Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was sworn in as governor of New York. He proved to be an energetic leader. Under his leadership, New York provided relief to unemployed residents and reform of the civil service system. Roosevelt won re-election in Depressiontorn 1930 by a landslide. At the 1932 Democratic national convention, there was little doubt who was the favorite.

“All You Have to Do Is Stay Alive”

Franklin Roosevelt had backed Al Smith for president in 1924 and 1928. In 1932, Smith refused to return the favor. Incumbent Herbert Hoover appeared weak. The now-wealthy Smith wanted the prize for himself.

Southerners wanted one of their own in the White House. Their choice was Texan John Nance Garner, speaker of the House of Representatives. Roosevelt, Smith, and Garner staged a bitter three-way battle for the Democratic nomination.

Delegates cast their votes, and Roosevelt received about half of them. This total ran far short of the two thirds needed for nomination. The second and third ballots showed little gain. Finally, Roosevelt made a deal with Garner. If the Garner delegates backed Roosevelt, he would choose the crusty Texan as his vice-presidential running mate.

Roosevelt secured the nomination on the fourth ballot. During the acceptance speech, he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”3 The “New Deal” would become the slogan of his administration.

Few things appeared more certain than Hoover’s defeat in 1932. According to one joke, Hoover asked Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon for a nickel so he could buy a friend a soda. “Here’s a dime,” said Mellon. “Treat them all.”4 After the nomination, California senator William McAdoo told Roosevelt, “Now all you have to do is stay alive until the election.”5

Garner, too, was convinced the election was a sure thing. He made only one speech—over the radio—during the campaign. Roosevelt, however, traveled and spoke anywhere and everywhere. He wanted to show that his polio was not a work-threatening disability. Roosevelt also wanted the good will of the American people. As president, he would introduce measures that were potentially unpopular. He could use that good will later.

“Landslide” barely described the Roosevelt victory. The Democrat won by 7 million votes and carried forty-two of forty-eight states. After the election, defeated candidate Hoover tried to work with the victor. Roosevelt refused. He wanted a clean start in his new administration. That meant no association with Hoover’s failures.

Roosevelt almost did not live to see the inauguration. On February 15, he was speaking in Miami. An anarchist named Guiseppi Zangara shot at the president-elect. The bullet missed him but hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak. The mayor, who died a few days later, told the soon-to-be president, “I am glad it was me instead of you.”6

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