In the spring of 1932, half a century ago, I came to Washington as editor of the Amherst Student to interview leading alumni in the government. One of them was Republican House leader Bertrand H. Snell (class of 1894), a GOP mossback from Upstate New York. The Great Depression was just about at its worst and Snell's comments to me are the living proof why Herbert Hoover was swept out of office that November, replaced by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Said Snell: "The best thing to do seems to be to wait out the Depression and see what happens to it. You can't cure everything by legislation -- Congress has done all it could."
This little vignette came back to me yesterday as I sat in the White House East Room enjoying President Reagan's centennial observance luncheon in honor of FDR. What irony! The man who a day earlier spoke to the Congress and the country of "50 years of taking power away from the hands of the people in their states and local communities" yesterday was lauding FDR, who had started that shift to Washington.
You must remember that Hoover and the Republicans railed against the idea of a federal "dole." They felt that the states and local communities should take care of their own without federal help, except that to business. Any nationwide help to the jobless they left to the American Red Cross. But one in four or five were unemployed, and that GOP philosophy -- epitomized by Snell's verbal hand-wringing -- had proved as bankrupt, as were many a city, county and state. And so Hoover was booted out and FDR came to Washington.
I came to Washington after Labor Day that same 1933, going to work at The Washington Post as a $15-a-week cub reporter. FDR had been in office almost six months, the city was humming, lights did indeed burn late in government offices. Everything revolved around one man, that man in the White House. By now it was FDR this and FDR that; his chief aides referred to him as "the Boss" and after another election the politicians began calling him "the Champ."
Like most cubs, I began writing obituaries; the first one taught me where power resides in this town. I was told to do the obit for an exsenator. Washington isn't Peoria, however, so the speaker I covered at the D.C Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis wasn't Mrs. Jones but Mrs. Roosevelt.
After a month or so The Post plucked two of us city desk youngsters to start a Post News Service. That meant I was writing daily stories for several out-of-town papers as their Washington correspondent. So I got a pass to the congressional press galleries. There, among others, I used to listen to the thundering condemnation of FDR's unbalanced budget by Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish, his own congressman and a die-hard isolationist to boot.
Yesterday Ham Fish, now 93 but still bellows-voiced, was at the White House party. I asked him if he still thought he had been right about FDR. "Of course, I was right. Especially about the war." He had fought FDR every step leading up to American participation.
Best of all, I got a White House press pass, signed by the redoubtable Col. Starling of the Secret Service, and a White House Correspondents Association card signed by FDR's press secretary, Steve Early.
It was Early who stood by the door to the Oval Office as we reporters went in, and when the last of us, usually a junior like myself, had crossed the threshold, he told FDR, "All in," and the press conference began. It usually was crowded and hot -- FDR hated air conditioning because of his sinus problem -- and since the president sat and we stood, it was tough for many of us to see him. But we could always hear that voice and often see the cigarette smoke drifting upward.
Twice a week FDR met the press, and the habit caught on. Across the street -- West Executive Avenue then was open to regular traffic -- Cordell Hull had daily press conferences at noon, though not many bothered to cover the secretary of state. Much more glamorous were Gen. "Iron Pants" Johnson, who ran the NRA program, Harry Hopkins, who dished out relief money by the millions, then by the billions, and Harold Ickes, the interior secretary who ran public works.
Yesterday at the luncheon's end they showed part of an FDR film, by ABC, which bespoke both the despair and then the hope. President Reagan made a graceful little speech that showed once again how much he admires FDR's ability to communicate, indeed how much he tries to emulate it.
But programmatically they are far apart. The New Federalism, in essence, yearns for a return to pre-FDR times. It will be a fascinating debate, and yesterday the White House was full of many of those who will lead each side of the battle.
Of course, FDR never did really "solve" the Great Depression; only the coming of World War II in Europe two years before Pearl Harbor did that. But he left in place a host of social programs on which later presidents, notably Truman and Johnson, were to build much that Reagan now is dismantling or trying to dismantle. How far the voters will let that proceed is the election mystery ahead.
But sitting there yesterday under the benign glance of George and Martha Washington, I marveled that for all the differences between and among us, we are still talking it out, arguing it out, voting it out. Nobody has even suggested that martial law may be necessary to get the country back on track.