A hundred days in '33
Things certainly were popping 50 years ago here in Washington. I can hardly convey it. Newly elected Franklin Roosevelt had begun his famous HUNDRED DAYS from March to June. Imagine being a reporter, as I was, trying to keep pace with it! He sent 15 messages to Congress and steered 15 major laws to enactment in that time. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (New York Times, April 10) recalls it. The batch included ''central planning for industry and agriculture, new regulation for banking and for the securities exchanges, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a national system of unemployment relief.''
The Monitor office was then on the 12th floor of the National Press Building about four blocks from the White House. We were in and out of the White House all the time. Roosevelt had two press conferences a week, one in the morning (for afternoon papers) one in the afternoon to take care of the AMs. Here is a headline over a breathless story I wrote Wednesday, Aug. 3, trying to sum it up: ''Men in Shirtsleeves Build New Economic Order For America.'' It was a staccato attempt to visualize what had and was happening. ''The rush of new developments passes the ability of any newspaper, no matter how conscientious, to keep pace.'' I editorialized, ''The story must be pieced together, later on, by historians.''
Well, that sounds a bit modest, I must say, as I read it over half a century later. What reporter today would admit that he was boggled by any story? Never mind; it brings back the crackle of those days. What was happening? Everything: After the collapse of Hoover, the new President was trying to catch up with 50 years of social welfare legislation that Europe had had since Bismarck. I wrote: ''Reporters wear out pencils in desperate efforts to follow only one small corner of the panorama of codes and codicils. Behind the codes are bigger questions of policy. Questions are hurled at officials every day which must be decided, for good or ill, at a moment's notice. One can only gulp at the breathtaking consequences of some of these decisions, and hope for the best.''
We hoped for the best. As an example I told the story of a pair of twins I had run across in an exploratory trip; they were tending revolving spools of twine in a textile mill in the Piedmont section of South Carolina. My account explains, ''Now, suddenly, child labor is abolished. Their world is topsy-turvy. That one swift act of the textile code revolutionizes their lives. Their father, mother, and elder sister earn a little more, too. It will take years before the social and economic life of this small town is readjusted to this change . . .''
Well, that's an understatement. The reporter tries to emotionalize these sweeping events (without grasping them all himself). There is the immigrant they call ''Jan'' in a Pittsburgh steel mill working in the inferno of an open hearth furnace. Now, I write, he will only work ''six days a week instead of seven'' and get a slight pay raise. I am stunned, I write.
''And what's more, if Miss Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, has her way, he even will have 10 minutes each day to wash the grime off his face and arms, to cool off and, if possible, to comb his hair before he sits down to lunch. And it will be on company time!''
You can see what fun it was for a reporter to stutter out bulletins like this in the exhilarating days of the ''Blue Eagle'' (organized by Gen. Hugh Johnson in industrial huddles before air conditioning in the sweltering capital). Arthur Schlesinger tells the retrospective story. He says, ''The Hundred Days were only the start of a process that ended by transforming American society.''
He asks, ''Who can imagine a day when America offered no Social Security, no unemployment compensation, no food stamps, no Federal guarantee of bank deposits. No Federal supervision of the stock market, no Federal protection for collective bargaining, no Federal standards for wages and hours, no Federal support for farm prices or rural electrification, no Federal refinancing for farm and home mortgages, no Federal responsibility for Americans who found themselves, through no fault of their own, in economic social distress.''
That was yesterday. Ah, me, what a long time ago! How the stories in my mouldering scrapbook bring it back. We wait outside the Oval Office door at the White House. No radio men; no TV cameras. The door opens; we burst forward. ''All in!'' shouts Steve Early at the end. There the bantering President sits behind the big desk littered with totems. He is anticipating the fun. He gives a big grin. He throws back his head. ''What's the news today?'' he demands.
''That's what we came to find out,'' we shout at him.
The fun has begun.