Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America by Adam Cohen, Penguin Press, 372 pages, $29.95
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and his Moral Conscience by Kirstin Downey, Doubleday, 458 pages, $35.00
Obama-watching has become a new national -- even international -- sport. First, all eyes were glued to his miraculous triumph over seven opponents in the primaries, followed by a remarkable victory over John McCain. Next came "picking a Cabinet" as Americans witnessed a selection process touted for careful vetting descend into allegations of financial misconduct, tax evasion, and conflicts of interest. Now attention has turned to Obama's behind-the-scenes work with his inner circle as he tackles the biggest challenge of all -- a deepening depression.
For months, commentators have likened Obama's situation to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's when he took office in 1933. Both inherited a failing economy from a Republican predecessor who clung to free-market nostrums when greater federal intervention was needed. Then each new president acted boldly upon inauguration and harnessed a new technology -- radio in 1933, the Internet today -- to bolster confidence as troubles mounted. In both eras, liberals pinned hopes for fundamental reform on a man of centrist tendencies.
As David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner, Christina Romer, Eric Holder, and the rest of the gang are becoming household names -- Hillary Clinton and Larry Summers already were before they signed up -- interest is growing in how they are jockeying for turf and adapting to the pressures the administration now faces. Roosevelt watchers no doubt wondered the same about the people he brought together at the top of his administration.
Two recent books that take as their subject five key figures in FDR's inner circle during his first hundred days as president provide fascinating answers to that question. The press -- and possibly President Obama himself -- has fixed on comparing his Cabinet to Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals" as recently conceptualized in Doris Kearns Goodwin's bestseller by that name. But, as Adam Cohen demonstrates in his new book, the parallel to FDR may be more compelling. What Cohen (no relation) calls "the most diverse Cabinet in history" consisted of three Republicans as well as the expected Democrats, representatives from the South and West as well as the Northeast and Midwest, two Catholics, the first woman ever, and by 1934 a Jew. Roosevelt deliberately surrounded himself with advisers expressing conflicting points of view in order to weigh the alternatives before him. Cohen shows us a president, much like Obama, who valued wide-ranging advice but then trusted his own judgment.
Five members of Roosevelt's "team of rivals" emerge from these two books. The most developed figure is Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in any Cabinet, who is one of Cohen's protagonists and the subject of a fine biography by Kirstin Downey. Like Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Perkins served the full 12 years of FDR's presidency. She set, and mostly accomplished, the New Deal's progressive agenda of unemployment relief, large-scale public works, minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws, a ban on child labor, and a permanent system of social security. Only health insurance eluded her. With special access to FDR's ear -- having had it already in New York state when he was governor and she served as his industrial commissioner -- Perkins managed to overcome his conservative fiscal tendencies and instinctive wariness of "the dole." "He wanted his conscience kept for him by somebody," she later explained, and she prided herself on being the one to keep it.
The other two liberals in FDR's early Cabinet were Harry Hopkins and Henry Wallace. Hopkins had also known Roosevelt in New York state, where he was a prominent social worker and headed the governor's relief agency. In Washington, he invented and directed the $500 million joint federal-state relief program and went on to pioneer extensive public-works projects through the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. Wallace, FDR's long-serving secretary of agriculture and a third-generation champion of the struggling American farmer, drafted the Agricultural Adjustment Act, best known for its plan to rescue the farm belt by paying farmers to grow less and thereby propping up farm prices.
The centrist adviser in the hundred days was Raymond Moley. A Columbia University government professor who founded the Brain Trust during FDR's presidential campaign, Moley masterminded the rescue of the banks and the revival of public confidence in the financial system through the declaration of a bank holiday and passage of the Emergency Banking Act. Cohen also introduces us to the most conservative member of FDR's inner circle, budget director Lewis Douglas. So close to Roosevelt that he and Moley made up the "bedside Cabinet" that met with the president every morning to brief him on his day, Douglas appealed to FDR's fiscally cautious side. For a time, his budget slashing and opposition to public works held sway, but as Roosevelt himself became more convinced of the need for government spending, Douglas lost clout and eventually resigned.
As we watch Roosevelt's team maneuver for power, criticize one another to their boss, and fight it out in Cabinet meetings as well as behind the scenes, we come to realize something to be alert to in the Obama administration. An effective captain of a team of rivals, like FDR, prods his fiercely competitive players to argue with one another to strengthen his own ability to make well-informed decisions. Current Cabinet members beware!
Perkins' experience demonstrates how complex the relationship between a loyal adviser and the president can be. She had a close connection with Roosevelt, often irking her Cabinet colleagues by managing to get a private word with FDR right after Cabinet meetings recessed. But that access did not always enable her to prevail. She sometimes lost control over programs she felt rightfully belonged to the Labor Department, most notably over immigration, naturalization, and deportation as Nazism spread in Europe and later as fears of communist infiltration raged at home. She was personally hurt that the president failed to come to her defense in 1939 when a committee in the House of Representatives red-baited her for refusing to deport the radical longshoreman Harry Bridges.
Perkins' life, too, reveals the personal cost people in public life may pay for their service, which often takes them physically and emotionally away from needy family members and friends. Downey and Cohen both explore with sensitivity the personal pain Perkins bore silently while she devoted herself to government service. Although she deeply loved her husband, progressive economist Paul Wilson, when they married in 1913, she struggled with how to preserve her own public identity and even harder, how to cope with his lifelong battle with bipolar disease and the frequent hospitalizations it required. Tragically, their one child suffered from the same crippling illness and dealt with it by lashing out at her mother, intensifying Perkins' sorrow and guilt. Both authors reveal the sacrifices that Perkins made to spend her life in the public eye but also convey that for some public figures, service to the nation gives solace and purpose to an otherwise demoralizing private life.
Perkins' career as secretary of labor also offers useful lessons in advancing the interests of labor despite the enormous economic pressures of a depression. When Perkins arrived in her new post, the labor movement was in crisis, as union rivalries sapped labor's ability to organize and membership fell. By the time she left her office at Roosevelt's death in April 1945, she had overseen the passage and implementation of landmark laws to institutionalize collective bargaining and to establish minimum wages and maximum hours for millions of workers. Obama's secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, might take note of Perkins' strategy, as Solis takes over with a similar crisis facing the union movement that threatens to eviscerate what remains of labor's achievements during the nation's post-World War II prosperity. Perkins understood the importance of federal legislation that protects workers and establishes mechanisms for leveling the playing field between workers and employers. She likely would have thrown her weight behind the Employee Free Choice Act currently under discussion, which would enable unions to gain recognition when a majority of workers sign cards rather than requiring a vote that gives employers ample opportunity to intimidate union supporters.
Strikingly, both of these books were written by accomplished journalists, not academic historians. Downey spent 20 years as a staff writer reporting on business and economics for The Washington Post. Cohen is currently an assistant editorial page editor of The New York Times. Their talents as writers make these readable books strong on narrative and character development. Not surprisingly, they engage little in scholarly debates about how to interpret the era. Nor do they submit their sources -- often memoirs and oral histories -- to vigorous interrogation for bias and distortions of memory. Likewise, their dependence on first-person accounts sometimes makes it hard for readers to see their historical subjects as others saw them. When such insights occasionally emerge -- such as when Downey quotes a friend of Perkins' as saying the labor secretary "was particularly easy to pick on, being easily agitated and not too tactful" or reveals that Perkins' fellow Cabinet members were put off by her long-windedness at meetings -- they come as a surprise.
Yet Downey's and Cohen's impressive ability to bring these five New Deal figures to life reminds us that administrations are made by more than the great man -- someday it will be a great woman -- elected by the voters. Lately, reading popular American history has often meant reading about the founding fathers. More than a taste for hagiography is involved here. In the story of the nation's birth, history enthusiasts have readily found compelling personalities animating American political history. In contrast, histories of the more recent past often focus on broad social movements and impersonal constructs such as the Cold War or deindustrialization. Cohen and Downey have made an important contribution by introducing readers to four men and one woman who, with dedication and rivalry, brilliance and pettiness, made a New Deal that continues to set the standard for overcoming a national economic crisis.