In January 1916, the young journalist Walter Lippmann dropped a note to Franklin Roosevelt, the young assistant secretary of the Navy. Lippmann was planning a visit to Washington and “would like to see you if it is possible for a little talk while I am there. . . . I shall be staying at 1727 19th Street,” he wrote, a boarding house described by James Srodes in “On Dupont Circle” as “a nondescript row house on a tree-shaded side street just two blocks east of busy Connecticut Avenue — jocularly known to its inhabitants and many visitors as The House of Truth.” It had “a raffish, slightly bohemian atmosphere that made it highly attractive to the young people who were drawn there.”
They were drawn to it out of a shared commitment to the progressive cause, a belief that the best and the brightest could employ modern science to solve the nation’s and the world’s most pressing issues. They were “a hybrid of various reformist movements that had come and gone before,” now united by “the revolutionary concept that a strong and active government was needed to intercede for the individual citizen as a referee and advocate in the increasingly exploitative relationships people had with big corporations and big city governments, which had agendas that too often ignored the public good.” Many of them were “university-trained, fiercely ambitious intellectuals” who believed — to use a phrase that by now has become hopelessly trite but then seemed fresh and new — that they could change the world.
The names of some of them remain familiar to this day: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Felix Frankfurter, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen. Herbert Hoover, though he does not seem to have hung around at 1727 19th St. NW — indeed it is difficult to imagine the reserved, humorless Hoover “hanging around” anywhere — was not part of the group, but as a leading apostle of the notion that engineering could conquer all, he was certainly an ally. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., though far older than the others, lived in the neighborhood and “relished ruling over the dinner table debates as both referee and devil’s advocate.” Communism was much in the air at the time but was resisted by these well-dressed young revolutionaries, as was socialism. Lippmann had flirted seriously with it but eventually rejected it:
“In short, if socialism did not produce quick improvements in society, Lippmann was prepared to find another cause to support. In that, he and Frankfurter were like many other Progressives: what was important, essential, was that an idea had to work. Where doctrinaire socialists put their faith in strong central government to improve society, Progressives like Frankfurter and Lippmann argued a faith in the scientific certainty and expert interpretation of statistics to determine social policy. Facts, they believed, were indisputable. All one had to do was gather the facts, the data, the unassailable statistics that were transforming the industrial age in such a dramatic fashion, and the way to broader improvements in any community would be virtually automatic.”
Srodes is not as clear about this as he should be. Having said earlier that the progressives believed in “a strong and active government,” he then implies in the paragraph above that they rejected socialist support for “strong central government.” In fact, they had not. They believed that a strong government was necessary to attack the problems that private interests could not or would not address, but they believed that government action should be rooted in the rational accumulation of factual evidence, data that could point not merely to where governmental action was needed but to what action should be undertaken. They were disciples of expertise, and they tended to place considerably more faith in it than was always warranted.
Frankfurter, in many respects the wisest and most principled of them, told Roosevelt in 1928 — FDR had just been elected to his first term as governor of New York — that he was against “a new type of oligarchy, namely government by experts . . . experts should be on tap but not on top.”
The electoral successes of Roosevelt, first as governor and then as president, gave the progressives the opportunity they had so eagerly sought to put their ideas into action. Though FDR was neither an expert nor an idea man — nor, for that matter, an ideologue — he relied heavily on real or self-described experts during all of his eventful years in elective office. Experts gave the country the alphabet-soup agencies of the New Deal, they packed the offices of the White House and the federal departments, they wrote the bills that were sent to Congress. Even though we have become increasingly skeptical about the power of expertise to cure societal and political ills, the persistence of their influence can be seen throughout not only the agencies of the federal government but also those of government at all levels.
The little crowd that gathered occasionally near Dupont Circle had its full share of shortcomings. Srodes mentions a lack of interest in “discrimination against minorities,” private lives that were occasionally “chaotic and destructive to themselves and others,” and a lack of sophistication about economic matters. He doesn’t mention arrogance, which unquestionably was an important part of the equation. Nearly a century after they began to gather, their idealism looks more than a little naive, but it is true that “their assumptions of our exceptionalism, of our duty to foster our kind of democracy for diverse people, of our commitment to intrude commercially, militarily, culturally” around the world remain deeply engrained, on the right as well as the left.
Perhaps because sufficient evidence simply does not exist, Srodes doesn’t manage to make as much out of the Dupont Circle location as his title and opening pages imply. Indeed, after those first pages are out of the way, the book becomes a fairly straightforward narrative of the march of the progressives toward the culmination of their faith in the New Deal. To be sure, it is interesting to be reminded that the Dulles brothers, regarded ever since their rise to high office in the Eisenhower administration as high priests of Cold War confrontation, were as young men closer to what now would be characterized as liberal positions than to conservative ones. The chaotic sexual life of Sumner Welles is a much-told tale, as is the romance of FDR and Lucy Mercer, but these stories add a dollop of spice to what might otherwise be heavy going.
On a strictly personal note, I must add that, however important the house at 1727 19th St. NW may or may not have been to the rise of the progressive movement, the disclosure that it played any role at all adds an agreeable fillip to my occasional walks through the neighborhood. I start out at Logan Circle, walk west along Q Street, north along 19th to Florida Avenue, then back home through a winding route that takes me past many of the places mentioned in “On Dupont Circle.” Sometimes I go past 1733 N St., where the young Roosevelts lived at the time, and at others past 1323 18th St., where some of the older progressives gathered from time to time. It’s a part of Washington that tourists only occasionally see, but one every bit as interesting as the places the tour buses go.
ON DUPONT CIRCLE
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World
By James Srodes
Counterpoint. 325 pp. $26