FDR's 100 days will stand forever

Record: Each new president is humbled by this unfair comparison

April 29, 2001|By Theo Lippman Jr.

PRESIDENT BUSH has invited all 535 members of Congress to the White House tomorrow for a First Hundred Days luncheon.

Paul West, The Sun's Washington bureau chief, noted in a Page One story last Sunday that that the president's advisers "were trying to discourage efforts to put his first 100 days under a microscope." But they've had to yield.

Holding the 100-days standard up to a new president's record has become an entrenched ritual for the press, the major parties' leaderships, interest groups, academics and barroom debaters. It is as institutionalized as the presidential press conference and lacks only a constitutional imprimatur to rank right up there with the State of the Union Address.

How did this come about?

Well, the story begins in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. He was inaugurated March 4, 1933, and called Congress into a special session March 9 to deal with the worst economic depression in the nation's history.

Fifty-five hundred banks had closed down. Overall unemployment was 30 percent. It was higher than that in manufacturing and more than double that in the construction industry. The stock market had lost 80 percent of its value in three years.

The first day Congress met it passed and sent to the White House the president's emergency banking bill. The next day the president sent a measure up to Capitol Hill to reduce certain government expenditures. Congress passed it in 10 days.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, making work for 250,000 young men, was law less than three weeks after the inauguration.

On a single day five weeks after the inauguration, Congress gave his requests for emergency relief to deal with unemployment and hunger, an act establishing a national agricultural policy and a measure to refinance farm mortgages.

A week later came the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, aimed at developing a huge and particularly depressed region; nine days later Congress passed the Truth in Securities Act, providing investors with honest, helpful information about investments; the nation was taken off the gold standard a week and a half later.

Eight days after that, a law was passed to provide refinancing for home loans; three days later came the act creating the National Recovery Administration, which was to develop controls on production, pricing and other trade practices and labor relations.

Also that day, Congress gave the president an act that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (Roosevelt wasn't really interested in that legislation, but signed it into law anyway), and finally, an act to give the federal government more control over the railroads.

The last accomplishments came on the last day of the special session that began March 9 and ended in the early morning hours of June 16. Thus "The Hundred Days."

That record of so much major legislation has never been approached. It not only was a lot of new laws fast, but also groundbreaking law - and in some cases revolutionary.

The United States was beginning to be changed forever. Few if any reputable political leaders and commentators today do not accept in fact, if not in rhetoric, that the sort of government that the 100 days and subsequent lawmaking foreshadowed is a permanent fact of life.

Given the grave economic times and the extraordinary magnitude of change implemented by Roosevelt and the Congress in 1933, it is unfair to measure later (or previous) presidents by the 100-day yardstick.

20th Amendment

Bush and his advisers believe that he has a better reason than other presidents to resist being so measured. They are absolutely right.

Until the 20th Amendment was passed in 1933, the president was inaugurated on March 4 and a newly elected Congress ordinarily waited 13 months before it began its first meeting. That meant that the nation's business was carried out by lame ducks for a full session. That horse-and-buggy arrangement, a carry-over from the Articles of Confederation, was changed by the 20th Amendment.

Members of Congress now take their oaths and go to work on Jan. 3, and presidents on Jan. 20.

New presidents who followed Roosevelt had from Election Day in November until Jan. 20 to prepare for the first 100 days in office.

But Bush didn't know he had won the election until 39 days before Inauguration Day. His recent predecessors have had 75 or 76 days.

Who coined the phrase "the hundred days"?

Apparently no one knows. It is commonly agreed that it was based on a familiar phrase about the period of Napoleon's return from exile until his defeat at Waterloo

According to "Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Time, An Encyclopedic View," edited by Otis L. Graham Jr. and Meghan Robinson Wander, "newsmen dubbed" the 1933 period "the hundred days."

Actually, the only newsman FDR Library Supervisory Archivist Raymond Teichman came up with when I inquired was Walter Lippmann.

Lippmann wrote June 14, 1933, "In less than ninety days the president has proposed and Congress has accepted a program which in its scope and rapidity has never been equaled in time of peace." Nor in time of war.

Fireside chat

President Roosevelt used the phrase in one of his intermittent radio speeches to the nation (dubbed "fireside chats" by Harry Butcher of CBS). On July 24, 1933, he referred to "the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal."

The president's closest speechwriter of the period, who coined "new deal" for the inauguration speech, made no mention of "the hundred days" in his memoirs.

"We have only one draft of this speech," Teichman told me. "Unfortunately it does not tell us how the terms were inserted in the speech."

Theo Lippman Jr. retired from The Sun after 30 years as a political writer. Record: Each new president is humbled by this unfair comparison.

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