Turn on the radio: the President is going to speak. It is Saturday, March 4, 1933, and you join the family in the living room and switch on the Atwater Kent. You tell them how you went to the bank the day before --yes, it's in the newspapers -- the notice pasted on the inside window of the Merchants & Mechanics Trust saying that the bank is temporarily closed. How much money did you have inside? All the banks across the nation are closed. It's only temporary. It's a "bank holiday." We'll see what the new President, Franklin Roosevelt will say.
It's not only the banks; factories are closed too. About a quarter of the nation's work force is desperately hunting for jobs; that's 13 million Americans. There's something mysterious, malign, malevolent about it. The plants are there, the people are there, the machinery is there; everything looks the same. It all began somewhere back when the stock market crashed three years ago, Oct. 29, 1929, when in a few stunning hours fortunes vanished that had taken decades to accumulate.
Americans couldn't understand it: People were hungry, weren't they? But farmers couldn't sell their food; people needed shoes, but the factories of Brockton, Mass., were closed. Food lines began, but where would the city get money to buy the soup? What would Roosevelt say?
A few introductory words from an announcer in Washington: it's cold there, and a vast crowd has assembled, looking up at the Capitol under the sullen sky. The inaugurual platform is built out over the steps. People are warming their hands. The radio announcer takes a resolutely optimistic tone; it sounds phony; the listeners guess that he's scared, too.
The voice comes over the radio, Chief Justice Hughes gives him the oath and Roosevelt repeats it. The words come clearly.
Roosevelt has a high, vibrant voice. He has taken the oath; it is 8 minutes past 1 o'clock. Now across the nation people lean to the radio for the inaugural speech:
"This is a day of national consecration. I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction the presidency I will address them with candor and a decision which the present situation of the nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in the country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper."
At the radio you lean forward. This is the critical moment -- will it be doubt or confidence?
"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. . . ."
You can hear a little murmur from the undemonstrative crowd. The crowd sounds increase in the background as he goes on. The biggest demonstration comes when he says that it might be necessary to assume powers ordinarily granted to a president in wartime. What does he mean by that? He promises to ask Congress, if need be, for emergency power "as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."
New York Timesman Arthur Krock writes the lead story about the inauguration under the eight-column, three-bank headline, and the details are already out of date. Krock described Roosevelt as stern and grim, and the headlines sayd that the new President is preparing to call the Congress in a special session and to do something about the banks. Actually what happens is that Congress returns immediately and passes the Emergency Banking Act --already waiting for them -- in just eight hours.
On that front page of the New York Times every story but one deals with Roosevelt or the banking crisis. The exception comes from Germany: "Victory for Hitler is expected today," the headline runs. Yes, that new German leader with the funny moustache and the outstretched salute is going to take over in Berlin. The two careers, Roosevelt's and Hitler's, take official form together.
Nobody knew when FDR took over that his explosive initial 3 1/2 months that the period would be dubbed by journalists "the hundred days." That term had been applied to Napoleon, whereas this President was acting by Democratic sight. Napoleon escaped from Elba March 1, 1815, entered France near Cannes, gathered support around him like a snowball starting an avalanche, and entered Paris in triumph March 20. He rallied the army, but was defeated at Waterloo June 18 -- actually 110 days after his escape.
Roosevelt's 100 days turned a nation around, too, but in the paths of peace.For better or worse, the New Deal that Roosevelt outlined in those first extraordinary weeks left a permanent impress on the nation.
There is something gay, affable insouciant, in ronald Reagan that recalls to many the Roosevelt wave of the hand and the big, radiant smile. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Steven R. Weisman deals with the latest episode and the headline says, "In the most dramatic 100 days since FDR, President Reagan has set the agenda to win the nation to his conservative views." Some old-timers will smile a little at the comparison. Yes, Mr. Reagan is off to a stimulating start, but historical parallels are difficult. Certainly great events are going on today in Washington that will leave their imprint on the country. But, fortunately, these are happier times.
In "The Coming of the New Deal," Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "In this period Franklin Roosevelt sent 15 messages to Congress, guided 15 major laws to enactment, delivered 10 speeches, held press conferences and Cabinet meetings twice a week, conducted talks with foreign heads of state, sponsored an international conference, made all the major decisions in domestic and foreign policy, and never displayed fright or panic and rarely even bad temper. His mastery astonished many who thought they had long since taken his measure. . . . 'Many of us who have known him long and well,' wrote Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of the Nation, 'ask ourselves if this is the same man.'"
Here is a partial chronology of the Roosevelt activity of almost half a century ago, adapted from the Schlesinger book. It runs from March 4 to June 16 :
March 4, 1933 -- inaugural.
March 8 -- first press conference; 100 skeptical reporters corwded 'round the desk in the Oval Office; no more written questions; it was a gay and open atmosphere.
March 9 -- Congress convened. With breathless speed it received a message from Roosevelt: "I cannot too strongly urge upon the Congress the clear necessity for immediate action." There was only one copy of the emergency banking bill, and the chairman of the House Committee read it amid cries of 'vote, vote.' After 40 minutes it passed unanimously; no roll call. It was like a fire brigade responding to an alarm. The Senate didn't wait, at 7:30 it passed the measure, 73 to 7. It reached the White House an hour later. Even before it passed, the secretary of the Treasury issued regulations permitting urgent transactions to go ahead. After the weekend the banks reopened. And the Roosevelt mood was so powerful that there were no runs. For the nation a sense of motion had been established; "something was being done about it."
March 9 -- FDR met congressional leaders that evening and outlined an economy program. They listened with incredulity: he proposed saving half a billion dollars by cutting veterans' pensions, by cutting federal salaries, by cutting (sensation) congressional salaries. Stunned legislators left the White House, still wondering.
March 12 (Sunday evening) -- Roosevelt gave his first "fireside chat." He seemed right in everybody's living room. In plain language he analyzed the banking crisis. Said Will Rogers: "The President took a complicated subject like banking and made everybody understand it, even the bankers."
March 20 -- The still-astonished Congress passed the Economy Act.
March 31 -- Establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal makework program.
April 19 -- Abandonment of the gold standard.
May 12 -- The federal Emergency Relief Act set up a national relief system.
May 12 -- The Agricultural Adjustment Act set up a national farm policy, with an amendment giving the President powers of monetary expansion.
May 12 -- Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, providing for refinancing of famr mortgages.
May 18 -- Tennessee Valley Authority Act, providing for the unified development of the Tennessee River Valley.
May 27 -- Truth-in-Securities Act, requiring full disclosure in the issue of new securities.
June 5 -- Abrogation of the gold clause in public and private contracts.
June 13 -- Homeowners Loan Act, providing refinancing of home mortgages.
June 16 -- The National industrial Recovery Act (NIRA -- the "blue eagle"), a system of industrial self-government under federal supervision and a $3.3 billion public-works program.
June 16 -- Glass-Steagal Banking Act, guaranteeing bank deposits and divorcing commercial and investment banking.
June 16 -- Farm Credit Act reorganizing agricultural credit activities.
June 16 -- Railroad Coordination Act, creating a federal coordinator of transportation.
They rounded if off and called it "the 100 days."
Ronald Reagan admires and frequently quotes FDR; his bouyant, amiable friendliness has been compared with Roosevelt's. FDR moved toward federal control and regulation; Reagan moves in just the opposite direction. Conditions are different. But this must be emphasized: Many thought in 1933 there was real chance of revolution in America, and the question was whether it would be legislated and democratic or would come in the streets toward a violent socialized up-heaval. As in so many episodes, Walter Lippmann, greatest of American columnists, summed it up:
"At the beginning of March the country was in such a state of confused desperation that it would have followed almost any leader anywhere he chose to go. . . . In one week, the nation, which had lost confidence in everything and everybody, has regained confidence in the government and itself."
Could it have been different? There was Hitler in Germany. He came to power at the same time as FDR. But in America people held their old system. That was the 100 days.