Another Cup of Coffee, Another Pair of Socks

NATHAN MILLER

January 03, 1992|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON — Washington. - "Mr. Herbert Hoover says, Now's the time to buy. So let's have another cup of coffee. Let's have another piece of pie.''

I was reminded of this Depression-era song as President Bush recently made a great to-do about buying a few items at a Frederick shopping center in an obvious effort to encourage consumers to spend their way out of the current recession.

Like the hapless Hoover, Mr. Bush is trying to restore the confidence of consumers, businessmen and investors in the economy.

Everyone recognizes its revival hinges on a restoration of confidence just as it did in 60 years ago, but it's going to take considerably more than a photo opportunity to give the economy a jump start.

Mr. Bush must do more than buy a couple of pairs of socks and counsel patience until he gets around to unveiling a program to get the nation moving again. Such a program is promised for his State of the Union speech, several weeks hence. Being president carries special responsibilities in times of national unrest.

No modern leader understood this better or dealt more effectively with crises of public confidence than Franklin D. Roosevelt -- and Mr. Bush might do well to follow Roosevelt's example. Instead of the the floundering that has characterized the Bush administration as the recession has deepened, Roosevelt believed in action.

A study of Roosevelt's system of crisis management shows that he took the offensive at a number of levels.

He seized personal control of the situation; he communicated directly with American people through formal speeches, informal fireside chats and twice-weekly press conferences.

He consulted with a wide range of knowledgeable citizens and he recognized that massive problems required bold responses.

Roosevelt's actions in the days immediately after his inauguration during the depths of the Depression were like a streak of lightning out of a black sky.

Within a hundred days, confidence was restored in the nation's banking system and efforts were made to save the nation's farmers and to put people to work again.

Not everything worked and the nation's economy did not fully revive until the outbreak of World War II, but the confidence of the American people in the future of the nation was restored.

Will Rogers, the humorist, put it best. ''We have no jobs, we have no money, we have no banks; but if Roosevelt had burned down the Capitol, we would have said, 'Thank God, he started a fire under something.' ''

A comparison of Rooseveltian confidence-building with the Bush version is unflattering to Mr. Bush. Months after the economy began to sour, there is little sign that he is personally involved in any effort to restore it, and only now are there signs that he has been consulting with outside experts.

And except for a few disjointed remarks, there have been few efforts on his part to show his concern. In fact, only now has he acknowledged that the nation indeed faces a crisis.

No series of events completely parallels another, but if FDR were in charge today he would seize the initiative and make it clear to the American people that something was being done about the problems facing them.

First, there would be a speech demonstrating his concern and understanding of the crisis.

Next, he would take personal charge of finding a solution. Outstanding business and financial leaders and experts would be summoned to the White House to provide advice and help build support for his his eventual proposals. Discussions would be held with international leaders to hammer out commitments on the means to stimulate the economy and terms of trade.

Such action would be a tonic for a dispirited nation. The result would be a calming of consumers, businessmen and investors.

Unfortunately Mr. Bush's lack of of action smacks more of Herbert Hoover than Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover was defeated after only one term -- and George Bush might well profit by his example.

Nathan Miller is the author of several books, including ''FDR: an Intimate History,'' which has recently been republished in paperback.

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