"Is the New Deal dead?" asked historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 45 years after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 4, 1933.
In spirit, it was very much alive and lively among the 400 guests at the New Deal anniversary dinner at the Capitol Hilton on Saturday evening.
And Schlesinger, in none too subtle references, made it clear without mentioning names that he thinks an infusion of the New Deal spirit might help another Democratic president in the White House today.
A president, he said, must do more than "tinker with the machinery of government," he added, and must recognize politics as an "education process" and know where he wants to go and take the people with him.
Schlesinger spoke of the intellectual vitality and excitement of F. D. R.'s White House, observing that Roosevelt had a cabinet of "strong men and women . . . not administrators." Above all, the historian added, Roosevelt's administration was marked by a readiness to act, to "try something," even if it was at times chaotic and incoherent.
No one in a high post in the Carter administration was there on Saturday night to hear Schlesinger's advice. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, who had expected to go, had to cancel because his son was admitted to the hospital. President Carter was invited but did not attend.
Gathered were veterans of the New Deal days, some with cames for support, and others, younger, whose lives have been touched by its spirit. It was a geriatric class reunion, a night to remember the days when they came to Washington with fresh law degrees and cheap suitcases to take over a government and nation in crisis.
Dore Schary, the playwright who wrote "Sunrise at Campobello," looked over the crowd and recalled Adlai Stevenson's observation on the ages of man: youth, middle-age, and "you're looking fine."
And they looked as if happy days were there again at the anniversary dinner -- Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, of F.D.R.'s White House staff; Grace Tully, the president's secretary; West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph, who was on the inaugural stand as a first-term congressman when Roosevelt took the oath of office; Averell Harriman, one of Roosevelt's closest friends and advisers. And there was the former U.S. marshall from West Virginia who remembered teaching lifesaving to Boy Scouts while serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In the story-swapping, it was about names like Benjamin Cohen and Rexford Guy Tugwell, the brain trusters, Leon and Mary Keyserling, Bob Nathan, Joe Borkin, Jim Rowe, and Wilbur Cohen.
Esther Van Wagoner Tufty remembered covering the White House as a reporter in the early Roosevelt years.
"We gathered around the president's desk," she recalls. "There were only three women then -- May Craig, Doris Fleeson, and myself . . . I always played F.D.R. in the press club skits because of my bone structure. Give me a cigarette . . ."
And she flashed a remarkable facsimile of the Roosevelt smile. With a cane to help her manage the aftereffects of a broken leg, Tufty still covers Washington for 26 newspapers subscribing to her news service.
Sen. Randolph, getting ready to run for another term, is the only member of Congress who came in with President Roosevelt in 1933 who is still serving on the Hill.
Harriman, both friend and adviser to the president, recalled that there were penalties for personal intimacy with Mr. Roosevelt -- the White House food and, most of all, the martinis that the president insisted mixing himself on a two-to-one ratio (two-third vermouth).
The night of nostalgia ended on a song for the New Dealers. Harold Rome, who wrote such musicals as "Pins and Needles," and Sing Out the News," sang of "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones" and "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance."
The lyrics turned on topical references, but then everyone there knew all about a postmaster-general named Jim Farley and the CCC and NRA.