There are some who say that, of all those 12 unprecedented years Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, the first hundred days were the high point.
"What a time. A really dynamic period. Even more than the Kennedy years, or World War II. We had a sense of mission, all of us, even the lowest clerk. Nobody minded working 16 hours a day and Saturdays, and they weren't looking for overtime. There was an all-night stenographic pool for guys who worked through to dawn."
When William T. Evans came to Washington in mid-1933, the New Deal had already started, inventing itself as it went along, frantically trying to do something about a country with 15 million unemployed (out of a population half what it is today), with banks shut down in 38 states, with farmers plowing under their crops and dumping truckloads of milk in the gutters, with the doom-shouters crying that some sort of revolution was just around the corner.
"New Deal" was hardly more than a campaign slogan on March 4, 1933, when the 24-year-old Evans and a friend spent their last $10 to hitchhike from New York for the inauguration. They got close enough to hear Roosevelt actually say what have become almost the only words anybody remembers from any inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself," and then they watched the first Democratic inaugural parade since 1916, "sort of a people's parade" on that raw, gray morning, with the defeated Democratic rival Al Smith leading the sachems of Tammany Hall in their silk hats and black overcoats.
Evans got a ride back to New York, but had to borrow a dime from a cop to reach his home in the Bronx.
Some weeks later a friend told him that Lindsay Rogers, a Columbia University political science professor who had just been named a deputy administrator of the National Recovery Administration, was looking for a secretary, male, because there would be a lot of traveling with him. Evans, a gifted typist and stenographer with a high school business education, went to see the man.
"He said, 'I'll let you know,' and a few nights later I was playing handball at the 7th Regiment Armory downtown and he called and said, 'Be in Washingtom tomorrow morning.' This was 10 p.m. I dashed all the way to the Bronx, packed, borrowed some money from the family and took the sleeper to Washington. Rode a cab from Union Station to the Wardman Park now the Sheraton Washington, but still the Wardman Park to Evans and many another old hand . It cost 20 cents. I was so amazed I gave him a 50-cent tip."
Immediately, Evans was swept up into the excitement of the times. Rogers had a suite at the hotel for $90 a month, as did Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky, future secretary of state Edward Stettinius, NRA chief Hugh Johnson and other New Deal leaders. The young secretary lived in the YMCA, but went up every morning to share a cab into town with his boss and the others. "It was quite an education," he said.
The education had started long before, actually, when Evans, the son of a New York painting contractor, saw the apple stands, the Hoovervilles along the Hudson River, the soup lines run by Mrs. Hearst at Times Square.
"Why Times Square? Why not on 10th Avenue where half the world wouldn't be gawking? It was really just a publicity scheme. It was so depressing to see these men, decent people, not bums at all, desperate for work or just something to eat. It was a pathetic sight when it snowed, you'd see these guys out there with their summer coats and patent leather shoes, shoveling snow for 50 cents an hour."
Evans himself had been out of work for several years by '33.
In the first excited rush of legislation, Roosevelt passed an emergency banking bill to shore up private banks -- instead of nationalizing them, as some wanted -- and cut $400 million from veterans' payments, cut $100 million from federal salaries, legalized beer, took us off the gold standard, conjured up $500 million in relief grants to the states. "President Roosevelt had two broad choices," writes Ernest K. Lindley: "To leave the collapsed credit system on the junk heap, or to try to salvage it. The former would have meant an abrupt departure from American experience and a swift march toward what might be called loosely a socialized state. He chose the latter course."
That summer saw the NRA's brief moment of glory, and since Rogers was presiding over the codes for the graphic arts and garment industries, Evans worked closely with those two groups as well as the Newspaper Guild, which was born, according to him, in the men's room of the Commerce Building auditorium.
"The NRA was the forerunner of the wage and hour law and the Wagner Act, really. The brainchild of Barney Baruch and the crowd around him, I understand. It was probably the least worthwhile of the New Deal agencies, though it did give a certain shot in the arm to morale, if not the economy. People would show that blue eagle in their shop windows. 'We Do Our Part.' Fundamentally, it was a suspension of the antitrust laws in return for a promise to pay fair minimum wages and guarantee collective bargaining, and both sides were to work out codes of fair competition."
Almost from the start, the courts undercut the labor guarantees, employers bypassed the codes and progressives groused about monopolies being protected. By mid-September the NRA had brought payrolls and prices within shouting distance of each other, but re-employment was lagging badly and industrial production was sinking again. What was left of it was shot down finally by the Supreme Court in May 1935 in the "sick chicken" decision.
But for a while there, it was the talk of the country: labor and business yoked together to pull us out of the slough.
"I was there when the honeymoon ended for the New Deal. I had typed the final draft of the American newspaper publishing industry code myself and delivered it to the White House for the president to sign." (He subsequently met the president at a reception: the famous jack-o'-lantern grin, the head tilted back, the big handshake. "So glad to meet you, Mr. Evans!")
Anyway, during the code hearings the counsel for the American Newspaper Publishers Association urged Rogers to include the First Amendment in the code, so nervous were the publishers about the possible loss of their right to print. The acid-sharp Rogers retorted, "Certainly. You want the Lord's Prayer, too?"
When Rogers' office sent the code to the president, the covering letter included language to the effect that freedom of the press didn't include the freedom to run a sweat shop. The publishers blew up.
"Some of the ANPA executives had a confab in my office. They talked as though I was part of the furniture," Evans said. "I remember the publishers saying, 'Well this is it, if this is how they want it: The honeymoon is over, the gloves are off."
Huge chunks of early New Deal legislation were thrown out as unconstitutional. It didn't end unemployment by any means. It didn't break the Depression: Only World War II managed that. It showed FDR to be cautious in politics and moderate in economics, an opportunist who for political reasons shied away from civil rights reforms, massive deficit spending, centralization and radical tax policies, who supported big corporations and agribusiness, though that reputation gradually would be reversed. It preserved capitalism without curing its diseases. On the other hand, it restored America's belief in itself. And this, from Lindley: "In 13 months the New Deal had succeeded in increasing the index of farm prices by about 45 percent, on the average, and the farm prices of such important crops as wheat and cotton by about 100 percent. In the industrial sector, it had brought about the re-employment of between 2 1/2 and 4 million persons, and an increase of about 40 percent in industrial payrolls."
Meanwhile, Washington bustled like a beeswarm. Every Saturday after work Evans took the Boston Colonial Express to New York with his boss. The train was jammed full of FDR's architects of destiny, the likes of Raymond Moley and Rex Tugwell and other Brain Trusters, including a flock of Columbia professors. (Someone asked the university's Nicholas Murray Butler what he thought of the exodus. "Columbia's loss," he replied, "is the nation's loss.")
Government paychecks came the 15th and 30th, "and it was like payday at the mines," Evans said. "The absenteeism the day after was terrific. Every nightclub would be crowded. We had a lot of good respectable nightclubs then, the Heigh Ho on Connecticut and Q, the Club Habana at De Sales and Connecticut across from the Mayflower. Every hotel had dancing. The Carlton later had Carmen Cavallero. Louis Prima and other big bands were at the Roosevelt on 16th Street."
Good restaurants were hard to find in a city then known as a culinary desert. The recently razed Occidental filled with Cabinet officers at lunch time. Hugh Johnson had a regular table there. O'Donnell's, now renamed, was popular downtown, as were Hammel's and Harvey's, both since moved westward.
"With Repeal in '34 the bars flowered. In Prohibition I was used to New York, where you could get pretty good booze, but I came down here and it was this place at 13th and H with the peep door and 'Benny sent me,' and you got a fair drink there, but some places, my God, I couldn't drink the stuff. Probably corn liquor from Virginia. After repeal you could get a scotch and soda at the Mayflower for 45 cents or maybe 35."
It turned into a swinging town, with a surplus of single women that was to grow until, in World War II, Washington became known as a Happy Hunting Ground for young officers, and Hollywood celebrated it with "The More the Merrier."
"The government was small then. Everything was smaller. The press conferences were held in the Oval Room, engineered by Steve Early, Mr. Roosevelt's press secretary. Before the Pentagon was built, the Army and Navy were in the Munitions Building, 17 to 21st and Constitution, a temporary, built in World War I. The only good thing Nixon ever did was remove it. The whole Labor Department was in a small building on G between 17 and 18th, and Commerce was just being built, probably the last put up without central air-conditioning. It was called Hoover's Folly because they thought it was too big. The contractor made a bundle on it: Carpenter wages dropped from $1.20 to $1 after the contract was let."
As Roosevelt's faith in a truce with business faded, he turned tough, taxed the rich more, tried to shift monetary policy control from Wall Street to Washington, created the famous Works Progress Administration which spent $11 billion in relief jobs up to 1942, not merely "leaf-raking and ditch-digging" as sometimes charged but painting, writing and acting, a program which gave us a whole genre of people's art from post office murals to Clifford Odets plays to the furious photographic record of the Depression made by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein and others. That Roosevelt, the Roosevelt of Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins, of Michelson and Ickes, the packer of Supreme Courts, the charming Pied Piper of radio (if we'd had TV then, he'd probably still be president), was to be overshadowed by Roosevelt the war leader, the Roosevelt of Henry Wallace and Harry Truman, of Churchill and Stalin, of Warm Springs and Yalta, the world figure whose breezy authority and jaunty confidence, not to say arrogance, drove some men to the brink of frothing insanity. But for a generation, he was part of the landscape. Covering the funeral, old pro Arthur Godfrey cried into his mike. It was said: Maybe the man didn't know the answers, but he always understood the great questions of his time.
Bill Evans was RIFed from the Public Works Administration in 1939, just as he got his night-school law degree from Columbus Law, now Catholic University Law School. He worked in the Department of Labor until '41, went to San Diego as labor relations coordinator for the 11th Naval District, served in the Navy in Europe in World War II, then returned to Labor ('46 to '59) as special assistant to the solicitor of labor, and wound up serving the National Labor Relations Board as special assistant to the general counsel until he retired in 1971.
When he speaks of FDR, he still calls him "Mr. Roosevelt."