VIEW TO A NEW DEAL
June 1932–June 1933
Lorena Hickok drew two prime assignments from the Associated Press in New York in the summer of 1932. She would be among a dozen reporters covering Franklin Delano Roosevelt while the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago, and one of three AP reporters—and the only woman—attached to the nominee’s presidential campaign. As the summer advanced, though, Hickok found herself drawn more to the candidate’s wife than to the candidate himself. By autumn, the presumptive first lady would become her full-time beat.1
By custom, presidential candidates kept to the wings until the national party convention completed its business, and even then the winner would lie low until the party sent official notification of the nomination some weeks later. Roosevelt, his wife, two of their sons, and members of his brain trust monitored developments in Chicago from the governor’s study in the Executive Mansion in Albany. Roosevelt had gathered pledges from hundreds of delegates, but party rules required him to reach a two-thirds threshold to win the nomination. With his forces entering the convention around a hundred delegates short, the two-thirds rule gave his main rivals, 1928 nominee Al Smith, Texas congressman John Nance Garner, and Virginia governor Harry Byrd, a chance to stop his momentum and pick off his delegates.
Roosevelt may have been mindful of the two-thirds rule as he burnished his reputation for opacity in the months leading up to the convention. So enigmatic was he that his opponents, and even some of his friends, complained they could never be certain where he stood on a given issue. At one moment he would pledge unprecedented expansion of government power to attack the Depression and restore prosperity; at another he would promise economy in government and a balanced federal budget. Some of his pronouncements were visionary; others, such as his notion that joblessness might be dealt with by resettling city people on farms, cast a backward glance to an irrecoverable America. Roosevelt straddled the Prohibition issue too, at one point suggesting the federal government should allow the individual states to decide the question.2
The influential political commentator Walter Lippmann confessed he found the candidate difficult to read and limited in political understanding. “Mr. Roosevelt is a highly impressionable person, without a firm grasp of public affairs and without very strong conviction,” Lippmann wrote. “He is a pleasant man who, without any very important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.” Still, Roosevelt had been clear enough in articulating his broad political philosophy: unrestrained capitalism had failed, and the national government’s resources must be used to repair the damage and rebuild the shattered economy. And he promised to be creative and improvisational. He had told graduates of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in May, “The country needs—and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands—bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”3
The Democratic National Convention opened in hot, airless Chicago Stadium on June 27. The radio in FDR’s Albany study crackled and droned, the candidate tracking events up to the minute via a direct long-distance wire to Louis Howe, his political mastermind, operating from a suite on the seventeenth floor of the Congress Hotel in Chicago. Organizational matters, platform debates, and nominating speeches for Roosevelt and his rivals consumed the convention’s first three days. On the first ballot, recorded just before daybreak on July 1, Roosevelt collected 666 of the 770 votes needed to win the nomination. He kept a careful tally as he chain-smoked in an armchair next to the radio. The key was to maintain an aura of invincibility. With James Farley and his lieutenants working the convention floor, FDR picked up eleven votes on the second ballot, while Smith lost six. Imperturbable on a sofa opposite the governor, Mrs. Roosevelt knitted away at a sweater for the near-invalid, gnomelike Howe, with whom she had enjoyed a long, beneficial association. Roosevelt gained a net of nine votes on the third ballot, and Garner began to contemplate releasing his delegates to the front-runner, a move that might send others to Roosevelt and break the deadlock. The convention adjourned at breakfast time. The delegates, jaded, blue-chinned, reeking of tobacco, sweat, and liquor, strung out from lack of sleep, scattered to their hotels. They would return to settle the business at 8:30 in the evening.4
Hickok and the rest of the Albany press pool had passed the night in a garage behind the Executive Mansion, their improvised newsroom equipped with a radio, telephones, and a telegraph link. Toward midnight Mrs. Roosevelt looked in briefly, then ordered coffee and sandwiches for the reporters. Early on July 1, Hickok and a colleague, Elton Fay, the AP’s Albany Bureau chief, encountered Mrs. Roosevelt on the lawn; she waved them onto a screened side porch with an invitation to breakfast. She struck Hickok as distracted, pensive. The nomination remained in the balance, Hickok knew, with Howe and his operatives in high anxiety as Garner weighed his options, but she sensed something more. As they moved off, she turned to Fay and said, “That woman is terribly unhappy about something.” A dozen hours later, on the fourth ballot, the Chicago convention awarded the Democratic nomination to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and second place on the ticket to Jack Garner. Next day, breaking precedent, Roosevelt flew from Albany to Chicago—a long, turbulent voyage into fierce headwinds—to claim the nomination in person. In his acceptance speech, he pledged “a new deal” for Americans, coining the happy phrase that would define an era.5
Roosevelt regarded the nine-hour flight to Chicago as a stunt, even though America’s pioneering airlines were transporting more than half a million passengers a year by 1932. The railroads were the candidate’s preferred mode of travel, and he chose them for the most important initiative of the campaign, a late-summer tour of the western half of the country. The seven-car special steamed out of Albany just before midnight on September 11, Roosevelt in his private car, Pioneer, with a son, James, and a daughter, Anna Dall, in the entourage. (Mrs. Roosevelt stayed behind to settle their two younger sons into boarding school at Groton in Massachusetts and would board in Arizona on the return.) Press secretary Marvin McIntyre, brain trust chief Raymond Moley, twenty-four reporters, among them Lorena Hickok, and twelve photographers were berthed in three Pullman cars. The three-week trip would cover 8,900 miles and traverse twenty-one states. Roosevelt called it a “look, listen and learn” tour, but he also planned to deliver major speeches on the farm crisis, railroads, electric power, industrial policy, and the tariff. The special raced through the Midwest, stopping only for an equipment change in Indianapolis, where FDR confined himself to a wave in the direction of a delegation of Indiana Democrats gathered under the soot-blackened train shed. Serious campaigning commenced west of the Mississippi. He seemed most to enjoy the prairie town whistle-stops, where he found the crowds large and enthusiastic. Amateur bands struck up “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and the paraplegic Roosevelt would appear on the rear platform in shirtsleeves, supporting himself on a set of upright bars upon which loudspeakers were rigged, “cheery and chatty with all comers” in the September dust and heat.6
The governor delivered the farm speech early in the sun-blasted afternoon of September 14 on the grounds of the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka against a backdrop of acute crisis and intermittent violence in the countryside. America’s 6.3 million farms, most of them of a hundred acres or fewer, supported fully a third of the nation’s population of 123 million. “We have poverty, we have want in the midst of abundance,” Roosevelt told the crowd in what Time magazine called his “bland, cultured voice”; with agricultural prices at historic lows, “the farmer misses not only the things that make life tolerable but those that make decent living possible.” The Kansans were noncommittal, wrote Hickok. “They did not applaud. They just stood there in the broiling sun, listening.” Roosevelt went on to propose national planning for agriculture, vast forestation projects on surplus land, reduced taxes, federal credits to banks that rallied to help farmers avert foreclosure, and tariff adjustments favoring farmers. Short on specifics, the speech nevertheless received passable reviews, although The Nation found Roosevelt nebulous and observed that Topeka “seems to confirm what his adversaries have charged—that he has a confused mind which has not thought things through, and therefore has no clear remedies to suggest.” But by consensus, Roosevelt at least avoided any major blunder with the farm speech.7
It wasn’t clear, though, how the address would play in the Middle Border. In mid-August 1,500 farmers in western Iowa had launched a strike that aimed to force processors and distributors to pay higher prices for their milk, corn, and hogs. Picketers established a cordon along the eastern approaches to Sioux City, where they spoke defiantly of the Boston Tea Party and renamed Highway 20 “Bunker Hill 20.” Iowa country people were approaching the end of their endurance. Reporting for Scribner’s Magazine, Josephine Herbst, a native of Sioux City, interviewed a striker who collected a pittance selling cucumbers out of his kitchen garden. “No one had money and he would even take an old pair of shoes,” she wrote. “Other day he took a corset. He didn’t know what he could do with it, but he took it.” Another striker resolved that with hogs at 2 cents a pound he’d experiment to see how big he could grow one. “I got some 600 pounds right now, eating their heads off,” he told Herbst. He had plenty of corn—he couldn’t get a price for corn either—and figured the hogs might as well consume it.8
The strikers halted milk trucks, spilled the contents into the road, roughed up uncooperative drivers—and reduced the flow of milk into Sioux City by 90 percent. Prepared for violence, they armed themselves with billies and old shotguns. “The first day the deputies drove through, the boys scattered through the corn,” an old man with a white moustache and fluffy white hair told Herbst. “They wouldn’t do that so easily now. Look how tall that corn grows. It’s as good to fire from as to hide in.” The insurgents were big weather-beaten men in loose denim, faded blue shirts, and slouch hats, and to Herbst they carried themselves with an air of desperate dignity, as though they had retreated to the last ditch. With breezy cynicism, Time called them a scruffy lot, “shiftless, debt-ridden, many of them with no underwear beneath their ragged blue overalls.” (This prompted a tart rejoinder from Iowan F. B. Taylor, who wrote, “Where on earth do you get the idea that Iowa farmers are shiftless? They not only have shirts but generally keep them on.”) In early September the strike spread south to Council Bluffs, opposite Omaha, Nebraska. The sheriff, a veteran of the World War named Percy Lainson, mobilized a hundred citizens at $3.50 a day and armed them with baseball bats and pick handles. The strikers’ lines held against a night assault with tear gas bombs that yielded sixty arrests. Farmers in the Sioux City area eventually won concessions, gaining a price rise of a couple of cents a quart. In Council Bluffs, farmers and the authorities fought to a drawn battle, so that one could hardly tell whether farmers unable to sell or city folk unable to buy were the worse off.9
The Democratic presidential special rushed west at a steady sixty miles an hour. In the baggage car, the reporters skimmed the local newspapers, played cards, smoked, and tapped out stories to be filed at the next stop. The train carried FDR from Topeka to Denver overnight, arriving in the Colorado capital on the morning of September 15. Crowds lined the downtown pavements three and four deep as the governor motored slowly to the Brown Palace Hotel. In a brief speech there FDR, who would direct the most active, interventionist federal administration in the nation’s history, promised a return to the minimalist governing principles of Thomas Jefferson. After midnight the special bore north and west for Cheyenne and Laramie, then due west to Salt Lake City for a twenty-four-hour layover on September 17–18. In a speech before a crowd of eight thousand in the Mormon Tabernacle and a much larger audience listening to stations of the NBC and CBS radio networks, the candidate addressed the troubles of America’s sickly railroads, again emphasizing the importance of national planning.10
In Seattle seventy-five thousand people cheered FDR’s motorcade and another thirty thousand, equally divided between the city’s auditorium and an adjacent loudspeaker-equipped baseball park, heard his call for tariff restructuring to spur world trade. The special moved on to Portland for the utilities speech on September 21, then finally to San Francisco for a two-day stop. There, at a Commonwealth Club luncheon on the 23rd, FDR delivered what historian Kenneth Davis would call “the least characteristically Rooseveltian” speech of the entire campaign, a somber address to two thousand Bay Area businessmen. Doleful, drained of his natural optimism, the speech emphasized the tension between aspirations for equality and the protection of property, a preoccupation that dated to the era of the Founders. Conflict between two sets of rights, two contrasting definitions of liberty, two notions of individualism, Roosevelt suggested, had intensified as unfettered capitalism fostered vast concentrations of wealth and power that, used irresponsibly, led to the colossal economic collapse of 1929–30 and brought misery to every part of the land.11
The time had come, Roosevelt told the Commonwealth Club, for “a reappraisal of values.” The economy had matured; the boom times were gone, probably for good. Equality of opportunity no longer existed in America. New economic realities had hobbled the Titan and his day was over. Roosevelt stopped short of calling for a new economic order, though he argued for every man’s “right to make a comfortable living” and to provide for his dependents and for sickness and old age.12
“Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods,” Roosevelt said. “It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of . . . meeting the problem of underconsumption, of . . . distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.”13
The San Francisco business elite responded politely,
The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Shaping of the New Deal
The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Shaping of the New Deal
During the harshest year of the Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, a top woman news reporter of the day and intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was hired by FDR’s right hand man Harry Hopkins to embark upon a grueling journey to the hardest hit areas across the country to report back about the degree of devastation.
Distinguished historian Michael Golay draws on a trove of original sources—including moving and remarkably intimate almost daily letters between Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt—as he re-creates that extraordinary journey. Hickok traveled almost nonstop for eighteen months, from January 1933 to August 1934, driving through hellish dust storms, rebellion by coal workers in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and a near revolution by Midwest farmers. A brilliant observer, Hickok’s searing and deeply empathetic reports to Hopkins and her letters to Mrs. Roosevelt are an unparalleled record of the worst economic disaster in the history of the country. Historically important, they crucially influenced the scope and strategy of the Roosevelt Administration’s unprecedented relief efforts.
America 1933 reveals Hickok’s pivotal contribution to the policies of the New Deal, and sheds light on her intense but ill-fated relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and the forces that inevitably came between them.