Nothing to Fear

Article excerpt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced extraordinary economic challenges when he assumed the presidency of the United States in March 1933. The nation was stuck in a seemingly endless depression, unemployment stood at 25 percent, and many governors had declared "bank holidays" to prevent bank closings.

Roosevelt promised "bold, consistent experimentation" and said that his policy would be to "try something and if that doesn't work, try something else."

He meant it. In just 100 days, his new administration advanced a series of initiatives that gave the federal government a direct role in managing the economy. The steps he took during this brief period permanently transformed the political landscape and American society.

Time has dimmed the memories of the crises Roosevelt confronted and legend has obscured the day-to-day events.

Now, as a new US president takes office amid a welter of dire economic problems, Nothing to Fear, a fascinating new book by Adam Cohen describes this watershed in American history.

Cohen makes clear that - regardless of what we might think today - Roosevelt did not have a grand plan when he campaigned for office. After the election, President Hoover tried, during the five long months between the election and inauguration, to get Roosevelt to adopt his policies. Correctly fearing that he would be locked in if he accepted Hoover's narrow and restrictive policies, Roosevelt declined to work with his predecessor.

But, unlike today, there was no large transition team generating ideas for a new administration. As a result, almost no planning was done before Roosevelt took the oath of office.

Even those most knowledgeable about American politics will be surprised by some parts of the story.

The Emergency Banking Act, for example, was Roosevelt's first major proposal. Designed to stabilize the nation's banks, the bill was drafted by two Roosevelt staffers and - surprisingly - three of Herbert Hoover's former aides.

The Hoover men had vigorously urged their boss to take strong action on the banking crisis before he left office. They could not persuade him, but their ideas found a ready audience with the new administration.

They worked around the clock to help Roosevelt's team design a plan. One copy of the bill was sent to Capitol Hill. It was signed into law nine hours later.

Another surprise: The New Deal began with aggressive steps to reduce federal spending. Roosevelt was, by nature, a fiscal conservative and throughout the campaign he promised to reign in federal spending.

The second piece of legislation he advanced - the Economy Act - gave the president virtually unlimited authority to reduce federal salaries and slash veterans' benefits. …