Forty-eight years ago this month, in a somber and fearful capital, the Senate Finance Committee summoned the nation's business leaders. They were asked, these most powerful of Americans, how to solve the crisis afflicting the country. Their responses were dispiriting and disappointing; they provided few specific ideas.
"I have nothing to offer, either of fact or theory," said the leader of the American bar.
"There is no panacea," said the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
"Our entire banking system does credit to a collection of imbeciles," said the eminent financier.
If a consensus was reached, it formed around the observations of the elder statesman of their ranks, Bernard Baruch: "Delay in balancing the budget is trifling with disaster."
But in fact, as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed, they and the leading intellectuals of that period shared a common "bankruptcy of ideas."
Schlesinger was describing what he called "The Crisis of the Old Order" that brought Franklin Delano Roosevelt to power that winter of 1933 in Washington. Now, nearly half a century later, another president comes to power confronting what he calls the nation's gravest economic crisis since those Great Depression days. And, in an exquisite historical irony, he promises to solve our woes by reversing the approach used by FDR to lead us out of the Depression and into the modern era that saw the United States become the world's preeminent economic and military power.
We have turned the corner, Ronald Reagan says. It is time to cut, if not dismantle, the massive governmental structures that stand in Washington.
Whether Reagan succeeds or not, his bold assault on the way the government functions ushers in perhaps the most dramatic political period since Roosevelt's New Deal began to reshape American lives and institutions profoundly.
Roosevelt and Reagan. At first blush they have little in common. Yet a curious set of national circumstances and personal characteristics links them:
Each came to Washington after serving as governor of the nation's largest state -- New York in Roosevelt's day, California in Reagan's. Each took office amid widespread public belief that government had failed, that the nation's problems were out of control, that conditions threatened to become worse.(Yes, Reagan's rhetoric about America being in the worst mess since the Depression is greatly exaggerated, but the deep concerns shared by people everywhere about a sense of U.S. decline and deterioration are real enough; they were the main reasons for his victory.) Each stirred strong emotions about being too ideological, while their amiable personalities conveyed a more reassuring, disarming message to their fellow citizens. Each, whether Roosevelt, the supposed radical or Reagan, the presumed reactionary, in practice was more pragmatic than ideological -- FDR, the great improviser of our politics, quickly turning away from his pledge to balance the budget and launching an unprecedented spending program; Reagan, the arch conservative, campaigning by often invoking Roosevelt's words and examples and in private conversation sometimes praising the benefits that the quintessential New Deal agency, the WPA, brought to his small Illinois home town.
And each employed a master's touch in the art of reaching the people, which is the essence of politics and leadership.
Reagan's report to the nation Thursday night on the state of the economy was a brilliant political example of the use of the electronic medium in the age of television. In simple clear terms that everyone could understand, and in an informal yet assured manner that commanded respect, he spelled out the dimensions of the crisis before the country and made it possible to believe something could be done about it.
Washington, the incestuous and fickle capital of conversation, has coined another of its appellations in recent days -- that Ronald Reagan is a "great communicator." Like all cliches, this one contains truth: Reagan's broadcast proves his skills in this area. He's the best public speaker to occupy the White House since John F. Kennedy, and his Thursday performance was the most effective of the genre since FDR's homey-but-direct Fireside Chats.
Again like FDR, Reagan begins his term with a surge of national good will toward him. The upbeat mood is partly of his own making, but stems even more from circumstances over which he had no control, the ending of the frustrating Iranian ordeal and the return of the hostages most notable among them. Whatever the reasons, Reagan starts with a great chance to achieve much of what he proposes.
He also faces a problem with the public, one that could destroy both him and his program unless he resolves it. Here the Roosevelt-Reagan analogy becomes questionable -- and crucial.
Roosevelt, the patrician who came to the White House from a background of wealth and privilege, owed his phenomenal success as president to one principal factor. People, those "ordinary" or "little" citizens he described as "forgotten Americans," believed he was always on their side. They saw him as fighting their battle against the mighty and powerful. When Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1943, providing critical funds for U.S. forces in the middle of World War II, FDR vetoed it because of its loopholes and special interest provisions.
"It is not a tax bill, but a tax relief bill providing relief not for the needy but for the greedy," he said. " . . . The bill is replete with provisions which not only afford indefensible special privileges to favored groups but set dangerous precedents for the future . . . It has been suggested by some that I should give my approval to this bill on the ground that having asked the Congress for a loaf of bread to take care of this war for the sake of this and succeeding generations, I should be content with a small piece of the crust. I might have done so if I have not noted that the same piece of crust contained so many extraneous and inedible materials."
The test for Reagan, as he lays out all the cuts in David A. Stockman's black book, is to show he really means them to be shared equally by all segments of American society. Does he intend to attack the plethora of hidden and open government subsidies for the powerful special interests -- the tax breaks, the pro-business regulations, the antitrust exemptions, the shelters, the loopholes, the depletion writeoffs -- as well as slashing away at expenditures for social programs?
Reagan now commands the country's attention, and its good will. But the advent of his administration also comes amid a spectacle of wealth and privilege, of minks and diamonds, of Hollywood celebrities and fatcat friends unmatched in decades. The result is a mixing of signals to the nation: the new austerity and the new wealth do not play well together. How Reagan, the master communicator, resolves them quite likely will determine the nature of public support he receives -- and his success in achieving the most fundamental restructuring of government in half a century.