Presidential Personality Cult Deconstructed

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

So many generations have been taught that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended the Depression that it has become an article of faith for historians in and out of academia and, naturally, their media acolytes. “The life of Franklin Roosevelt has been well-analyzed through the lens of politics and policy,” the editors of U. S. News & World Report write in the April 28/May 5 issue of the magazine. “As the president who lifted the country out of economic despair and stood up to foreign military aggression, FDR offers historians the richest of public material.”

Actually, Cato Institute scholar Jim Powell in FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression (Crown Forum, 2003) brought together evidence from the findings of several dozen economists at Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Brown, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley, hardly a bunch of right-wing think tanks. “Throughout the bulk of the Depression, unemployment rates averaged about 17 percent,” we reported of his findings.

More recently, last year Amity Schlaes, author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, reported that unemployment hovered around 20 percent as late as 1935. Now, thanks to yet another book, we know that some people didn’t think that life was just a bowl of cherries during the New Deal itself.

“Your plans, if I recall 1932 correctly, called for economy in government and a reduction in taxes,” a Phoenix businessman wrote in a guest editorial in the local paper back in 1937 that was done in the style of one of FDR’s famous fireside chats. “In five years you have spent more than this government of ours spent in its entire history before 1932,” the Arizona merchant observed.

“In five years my taxes have increased over 250 percent and I fear greatly that ‘I ain’t seen half of it yet.” The young executive was future presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

When his father died, Goldwater left school to take over the family business. He managed to maintain the Goldwater Department store’s quarter of a million dollar a year gross and keep its 55 employees working through the Depression.

“You had the very commendable plan of bettering the conditions of the working man,” Goldwater observed in his 1937 open letter to FDR. “Have you done that?”

“Well, I wonder,” the future senator ruminated. “True, hours are shorter, which is fine, but wages, well wages have been raised hourly but the working man is working less hours due to an industrial condition that your plans alone have caused, so the working man is making about the same, or a little less, than he did before.”

“The worst thing about your labor plan has been that you have turned over to the racketeering practices of ill-organized unions the future of the working man. Witness the chaos they are creating in the eastern cities. Witness the men thrown out of work, the riots, the bloodshed, and the ill feeling between labor and capital and decide for yourself if that plan worked.”

“You were confronted with a staggering number of unemployed when you took over in 1932,” Goldwater pointed out. “You immediately set up boards numerous enough to tax the entire run of the alphabet to name them in an effort to stamp out this evil.”

“But in spite of your plans we still have just about as many unemployed in our midst as we did back in 1932.” Goldwater, of course, lost the presidential election in a landslide to FDR protégé Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose “war on poverty,” as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has shown, cost billions but left us with about as many poor people.

In retrospect, perhaps those Goldwater presidential campaign strategists who came up with the slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” were onto something. From the vantage point of history, it’s hard to say that he was wrong, at least on economics.

Barry Goldwater, Jr. and John Dean unearthed the New Deal editorial and a treasure trove of the Senator’s private never-before-released correspondence and journals for their new book, Pure Goldwater.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.