'Nothing to Fear' by Adam Cohen

Nothing to Fear

FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America

Adam Cohen

Penguin Press: 372 pp., $29.95

Adam Cohen's cogent chronicle of the pell-mell opening months of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration couldn't be timelier. Facing our own economic meltdown, we are able -- perhaps for the first time since the Great Depression -- to truly understand how frightened Americans were as they waited for FDR to take office in 1933. And we're not nearly as frightened as they were, because laws passed during the New Deal now shelter us from the harshest effects of financial speculation and industrial downturns. President Hoover, wedded to the principle that business must recover on its own and private charity should succor needy citizens, did essentially nothing for 41 long months after the stock market crash of 1929.

The result, Cohen reminds us, was not just destitution but rage. In Iowa, where farms were failing at a record rate, vigilantes dragged a judge out of a courthouse, drove him to the outskirts of town and, when he refused to swear not to sign any more foreclosure orders, put a rope around his neck. They settled for pouring grease over his head, but the president of the Farm Bureau Federation warned that "unless something is done for the American farmer we will have revolution in the country within less than twelve months." FDR economic advisor Adolf Berle put the date much sooner. When he ran into newly appointed Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in Washington, D.C., during the spring of 1933, he told her to get her family out of town by June 15. After that, he said, "The cities will not be safe."

June 16, instead of being the day the revolution started, marked the close of a period of furious government reinvention we now call the Hundred Days. On that date, Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, capstones of a rush of legislation that inaugurated the New Deal. No fewer than 15 bills regulated the banking and securities industries, rescued farmers from ruin, offered mortgage holders refinancing and lengthier repayment schedules, established emergency relief and public works projects, mandated fair treatment of labor and promised to bring electric power to the countryside. Spotlighting Perkins and four other FDR advisors primarily responsible for those bills, Cohen offers a fascinating case-study of political response to crisis. The reason it's so fascinating is that the response was so ad hoc, thrown together under enormous pressure by a group of people often at odds, led by a brilliant pragmatist confident enough to say, "You tell me what you think and what you think I ought to do. Leave the politics to me."

Anthony J. Badger's recent book, "FDR.: The First Hundred Days," emphasized the president's political skills in shepherding laws through Congress, and in "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope" (2006), Jonathan Alter devoted much attention to Roosevelt's biography and charismatic personality. Cohen, a member of the New York Times editorial board and coauthor of a biography of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, takes a valuable alternative approach. His focus is on FDR as chief executive in the most fundamental sense of the term: a masterful manager who set the agenda and delegated others to sweat the details.

The inner circle of five that Cohen identifies "did not have the biggest titles in the administration," he writes. "They were simply people who, by virtue of their jobs, talents, rapport with the president, and force of personality, were able to leave the greatest mark." The greatest initial mark, made by the two-man "bedside Cabinet" that met with Roosevelt each morning, was not notably liberal. Raymond Moley, FDR's principal policy advisor, crafted the Emergency Banking Act, which propped up a financial system on the brink of complete collapse. Budget Director Lewis Douglas was responsible for the Economy Act, which slashed federal spending. Passed within 16 days of the inauguration, these bills reflected Roosevelt's fiscal conservatism (reluctantly abandoned later) and bedrock commitment to capitalism, which he intended to reform, not reject.

Reform led FDR over the course of the Hundred Days into the camp of his inner circle's three staunch progressives: populist Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, whose Agricultural Adjustment Act was decried as "radical interference with the free market"; social worker Harry Hopkins, who drafted a federal emergency relief plan for the unemployed; and Perkins, who brought Hopkins' plan to the president's attention, fought to include protection for organized labor in the National Industrial Recovery Act and relentlessly prodded Roosevelt toward support for a massive public works program. On Aug. 14, 1935, a year after Moley and Douglas resigned in frustration over their waning influence, Perkins watched FDR sign the Social Security Act she had crafted to provide old age and unemployment insurance for all Americans.

"What this country has been operating under for the past twelve years," Colliers magazine opined in 1944, "is not so much the Roosevelt New Deal as it is the Perkins New Deal." (Stay tuned for a full-scale biography of this under-appreciated visionary in March.)

In a lucid, intelligent narrative as fast-paced as the hectic Hundred Days, Cohen skillfully charts the course of events with just enough detail, building by accretion a portrait of the stop-and-start process by which sweeping change is made. Present-day liberals dismayed by an Obama Cabinet filled with centrist old hands may take comfort in the author's analysis of Roosevelt's decision-making style: He surrounded himself with experts, listened to everyone, then made up his own mind. "He was evaluating what he believed to be the best policy, but also what he thought would work politically," Cohen notes. Rejecting the laissez-faire philosophy of rugged individualism that still exerts a powerful hold on the American imagination, insisting that government's primary duty was to care for its citizens, FDR launched a revolution. But he never lost sight of the fact that "the only kind of revolution this nation can stand for [is] a revolution at the ballot box."

Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

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