When the brash young Republican lawmakers of today talk of rolling back the Johnson Great Society and even the Roosevelt New Deal, do they have any idea of what they might be rolling back to?
One of the advantages of age is being able to remember not only when we lost Franklin Delano Roosevelt 50 years ago, but what America was like before FDR.
In 1932, three years into the Great Depression, the unemployed stood on corners selling apples, and banks were closing about one a day, wiping out depositors' savings. A great part of the drought-stricken farmland of the southwest had become a dustbowl, forcing sharecroppers to become nomads. There was no federal welfare. My widowed mother received assistance under a relief program that Governor Roosevelt had introduced to New York State.
About two million Americans, some of them called hobos, roamed the country on freight trains or on foot, looking for a church or a Salvation Army storefront that might feed them. In the South Negroes were sometimes lynched on trumped-up rape charges. Poll taxes kept all but a few Negroes from voting, big city politics was ruled by political machines, sometimes allied with prohibition-spawned racketeers.
There was no minimum wage. There was no consumer protection. There was no safety protection in the workplace. There were no child-labor laws. Schools ran out of money and closed.
I remember that people who slept in the parks sometimes wrapped themselves in newspaper that they called ''Hoover blankets.'' And the shanties some lived in were called ''Hoovervilles.'' President Hoover, whose 1928 campaign slogan had been ''A chicken in every pot -- two cars in every garage,'' refused to recognize that something in America desperately needed to be fixed.
One big story of 1932 was the Bonus March on Washington -- the 25,000 impoverished veterans of World War I who camped and demonstrated around the White House, appealing for early payment of a bonus that had been promised them.
Finally, on Hoover's orders, they were driven out with tear gas and bayonets by the US Army they had served.
So then, in 1933, came Roosevelt and all those ''alphabet soup'' agencies, as we called them. The NRA to spur recovery and the FDIC to insure bank deposits. The CCC to put the jobless to work in conservation and the WPA to put them to work building bridges. The TVA to electrify the south central states and the SEC to protect security investors. The FCC to regulate radio and telephone and the NLRB to protect labor rights.
That was when the great bureaucracies were born that are today the targets of a political generation too young to have experienced what came before. Maybe you have to be a child of the Great Depression to not hate bureaucracy. And now you have to think: Roll back? Roll back to what?