What will it all mean 60 years from now?


October 27, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

Sixty years ago -- on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1932 -- New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic nominee for president, addressed 20,000 cheering men and women at Baltimore's Fifth Regiment Armory.

As reported in The Sun, Mr. Roosevelt accused his opponent, Herbert Hoover, of "turning loose on the nation the Four Horsemen of Destruction, Delay, Deceit and Despair."

The governor thundered on: President Hoover had "promised industrial prosperity and never has such disaster happened to industry. He promised to banish poverty and 11 million are out of work. He promised sound fiscal policy and never has government been so deeply in the red."

Meanwhile, President Hoover's aides vowed that the Republican incumbent would step up his campaign for re-election with an intensive schedule of appearances and a lot more speeches. Unfortunately, admitted a Hoover aide, the president had nothing new to say.

Other news that day: In Annapolis, the president of the student council at St. John's College promised to investigate reports that editors of the campus weekly showed an "unbecoming lack of restraint" when they celebrated a colleague's birthday over the weekend.

At the Lyric Opera House, Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra opened with Bach's Organ Prelude and Fugue in E minor. And at the Europa Theater, a travel film called "The Virgins of Bali" offered "breathtaking sunsets for anyone able to tear their attention away from the naked dancing girls."

On Wall Street, the Investment Bankers Association reported a business upturn but asked that the public "not get depressed if the recovery is slow."

Sixty years ago this week, America was solidly into the Great Depression, yet life went on.

I'm fascinated by the tone of news coverage back then -- the air of normalcy it conveyed. I get a sense that the country didn't want to face its predicament. Reporters used the word "depression" but not with a capital "D". And the word was used as a broad description of the nation's mood, not just of the economy.

Life went on; The Sun covered movies and athletic events and carried breathless advertisements for storewide sales. But there was bad news aplenty: bank holdups and murders, suicides and bitter labor disputes.

One who remembers this national malaise is Harry W. Weisman, 88, of Pikesville. "Things were tough, very tough," he says. "I remember people selling apples, candied apples, at Howard and Lexington streets. That's how they made their living. That's all they had.

"Then, businesses were closing -- every time you turned around, it seemed. And I remember all of the suicides -- people jumping off of the top of the Stewart Building downtown."

Mr. Weisman was one of the lucky ones who still had a job. In 1932, he was an advertising executive with the Sunpapers, making the lofty salary of $25 a week.

"We had a feeling back then that things would never change," Mr. Weisman says. "I think [the authorities] were afraid people would rise up and there would be a revolution." That's why the government started so many relief programs, he says.

Today, the National Bureau of Economic Research defines a "Depression" as a "recession that is major in both scale and duration." Recession is "a recurring period of decline in total output, income, employment and trade, usually lasting from six months to a year."

The bureau says the current recession began in July 1990 and has not been declared over by the economists who monitor such things.

Meanwhile, life goes on and things often feel normal. New movies open, the World Series excites us and breathless ads for storewide sales appear on TV and in the papers.

But let's not be fooled. We're terrorized by an outburst of violent crime. Unemployment continues to grow. Uncertainty spreads. We are gripped in a national mood of depression.

Sixty years from now, we'll be spelling it with a capital "D," no matter what the economists say about this period.

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