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Born rich; prep school kid; Harvard grad; governor, then president.
FDR was definitely one of the 1% for his entire life. So how'd he become the defender of the working man, the poor man's friend, savior of the economy, and creator of a New Deal that guaranteed some financial security for all Americans?
We'll do a Huey Long here and say right off the bat that we don't have enough space to give the long answer to that question. The short answer? Check out Shmoop's guide to everything you always wanted to know about FDR. We'll stick to discussing the parts when 32 crossed paths with Huey Long. It was definitely a case of the irresistible object meeting the immovable force.
FDR in the early 1930s was in a tricky spot. The Republican nominee for the 1932 presidential election was the unpopular Herbert Hoover, who was somewhat unfairly shouldering the blame for the complete and utter disaster he he'd inherited from the previous decade of governance (or lack thereof). The Great Depression had destroyed the economy and made life even more miserable for the working man—who was now probably not working at all.
With such a weak opponent, there was no shortage of contenders for the Democratic nomination. FDR quickly distinguished himself from the pack through a series of political and media alliances, his powerful base of support as governor of New York, and of course, his family name. There'd already been a President Roosevelt (although the closest family tie was through his wife Eleanor, also a Roosevelt—she didn't even need to change her monogrammed towels).
During those hectic days of the early Great Depression, there was a sense of desperation for a solution, a course of action, even a half-baked dream of a possible plan to address the aftermath of the economic collapse. Campaign promises were thrown about in droves by all the candidates, and FDR was no exception.
Roosevelt called for serious cutbacks on public spending (which he'd later ramp up to never-before-seen levels), he promised to abolish countless government agencies in order to tighten the belt (and would later oversee the formation of dozens of such agencies), and he supported the repeal of the hated and totally counter-productive prohibition on alcohol in the interest of increasing tax revenue.
All that added up to victory in the 1932 presidential nomination. We'd guess repealing Prohibition was pretty popular for a nation that was looking for some escape from its troubles. (Not that Shmoop advocates drinking as a way of coping, however. Like Hillary Clinton, we prefer cat videos.)
There was a slight hiccup, of course. In the months leading up to his inauguration, there were bad aftershocks of the initial crisis. Investors lost all faith in the economy and began a series of bank runs, which forced the entire banking system of the U.S. to grind to a halt. Oh, and someone tried to assassinate FDR too, but that was small potatoes compared to the shotgun barrel of runaway unemployment that the U.S. economy was staring down.
When FDR took office in 1933, the U.S. was at the very bottom of the economic downturn. Not that they knew it at the time; it was anyone's guess whether or not the bad news would keep piling on. FDR was determined not to let that happen, and he immediately began a series of actions centered on "relief, recovery, reform."
FDR was a hands-on leader, approving every decision, reading through all legislation, and beginning a series of now-famed fireside chats to rally the nation and provide a sense of order in what were becoming increasingly desperate times. (See our "Compare and Contrast" section for more on those radio broadcasts.)
FDR's first hundred days in office were characterized by Step One of the Grand Plan to Dig America out of the Really, Really, Really Big Economic Hole: massive and never before seen relief spending. That's right, those promises to reduce government spending? FDR likely never had any intention of keeping them. This would be the first live-fire test of a fairly recently formed branch of economics formulated by John Maynard Keynes.
The Keynesian idea was this: rather than saving when times were bad and spending when times were good, you could sort of smooth out the boom-or-bust business cycle by doing the exact opposite of what intuition might tell you—spend when you're in the hole, and save while things are on the up and up. This was all well and good in theory, but quite frankly nobody knew what was really going to happen here.
Step one of Step One was to get the banks up and running again. A national bank holiday was declared. Next, a special session of Congress convened for a series of bills designed to reinvigorate confidence in banking institutions, passing the Emergency Banking Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, and the formation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insured customer's hard-earned savings. Noticed those FDIC signs in your bank? That's it.
FDR revamped relief agencies created under Hoover under the new shiny name of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency. The National Industrial Recovery Act quickly followed. The idea behind these programs was to employ people in ways that were necessary anyway; you lower unemployment and get a road or a school or a bridge in the bargain. It cost money, sure, but that was a small price to pay to pull out of the downward spiral of the Great Depression and get people back to work.
So FDR was chugging along, trying to get the gears of the economy into motion, when here comes this funny looking fellow from Louisiana griping and groaning about income inequality and wealth distribution. That wouldn't be so bad, but alongside Long's boisterous and off-putting manner was a dangerously keen intellect and a powerful talent to rouse a crowd.
This might not seem like such a big deal. So some senator in a cream-colored suit and an orange tie is making speeches about the redistribution of wealth. He's one guy—how much harm can he do?
Maybe we haven't done a proper job of explaining the fragility of the situation FDR was in. He wasn't just waging a war against unemployment, or financial crises, or any one aspect of the multiple fronts of the Great Depression. He was trying to coax an entire nation back into believing in the institutions that had totally failed them in 1929.
It was fundamentally a matter of faith. People could've turned the Great Depression around much sooner if they'd just stuck to their guns, kept investing, and kept their consumption up as much as possible. But faith in the stock market and the banks had been shattered on Black Tuesday when the market crashed, and if the American people weren't willing to play ball then this whole thing would only get worse and worse.
So when you have a volatile and powerful speaker rousing up class agitation and spreading scary information on how the richest have only gotten richer while everybody else is either jobless, homeless, or both, you can imagine that FDR was not amused.
Imagine FDR carefully and painstakingly trying to blow up a recently deflated balloon, and Huey Long standing there grinning gleefully and brandishing a needle. Imagine that balloon is the entire U.S. economy. That's why when FDR came after Long, and he came out swinging.
What certainly didn't help was that they took an immediate dislike toward each other. During their first meeting, Long refused to take off his hat and referred to the President as "Frank" (source). FDR would simply smile and make no comment, much to Long's consternation. History Prof William Leuchtenberg summed it up: "Roosevelt and Long each sensed that there was not room enough in Washington for both of them" (source). As long as people had faith in the New Deal, there was no room for Long. And FDR knew that if his New Deal failed, Long wouldn't hesitate to rush in and say he was the man to make things right. FDR told an aide that he thought Long was one of the two most dangerous men in the country—the other being General Douglas MacArthur.
FDR was a lifelong member of the Eastern aristocracy, who saw themselves as the saviors of the poor. Long hailed from rural Louisiana and closely identified with those poor folks and loved playing the hillbilly. FDR's plans for reform, relief, and recovery were complex; Long claimed there was a simple solution that everyone could understand. FDR was gentlemanly and proper; the boisterous Long loved to upend any idea of proper behavior.
It was hate at first sight.
Long's antagonistic personality and brazen political ambition sparked a short and totally one-sided political battle between him and the prez. FDR took steps to cut Long out of the picture: he removed Long from any committee that determined the federal distribution of relief funds to Louisiana and he began quietly backing anti-Longists for Long's senate seat.
He also opened up investigations of voter fraud in Long's elections and he sent the IRS after Long in order to flush out any fishy finances. While the voter fraud and tax evasions didn't pan out, they did make Long jump through hoops and take his attention away from his speeches. His inability to dispense federal aid to his state was the only aspect of Louisiana he didn't control.
While FDR had effectively neutered Long the Senator, he likely would've had a much tougher time against Long the Presidential candidate. But luckily for FDR, an assassin solved this problem with a generous application of gaping chest wounds to the would-be candidate. FDR went on to be something of a tyrant in his own right, though in a different manner than Long. Long assumed complete control of his state to a point where he could abolish civil liberties at his whim. FDR's power over the federal government would never begin to approach the stranglehold with which Long held his state.
FDR's New Deal owed much to the ideas that Long was advocating, like old-age pensions (Social Security) and tuition support for young adults (the National Youth Administration). Was the New Deal a success? Depends who you ask.
Why don't you ask Shmoop?