Neal's 'Happy Days Are Here Again' -- FDR rises in 1932

July 18, 2004|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR -- and How America Was Changed Forever, by Steve Neal. Morrow. 384 pages. $26.95

In recent years, national party conventions have become such cut-and-dried soap operas that it's hard to believe there was a time when delegates actually performed the function of choosing their party's presidential candidate rather than merely rubber-stamping what had already been decided in the primary elections.

This book captures all the high drama of one of the most important conventions in the nation's history -- the 1932 Democratic National Convention that nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt for the first of his four successful campaigns for the presidency.

When the delegates gathered in Chicago in the summer of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the clear favorite to win the nomination. His cousin Theodore had been a popular president just a few years earlier; he had served as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Wilson; he was his party's nominee for vice president in the 1920 election; he had just been re-elected governor of New York by a huge majority; and he had more committed delegates than all the other nomination-seekers combined.

Despite all these impressive credentials, Roosevelt's nomination was anything but certain as the delegates assembled under a cloak of intrigue much like that surrounding the selection of a medieval pope. Winning a mere majority of the delegates was not sufficient; to win the nomination, Roosevelt had to navigate the minefield of the two-thirds rule, which required that the party nominee gain a super-majority. It was a pernicious device designed to give the South a de facto veto over the party's candidate.

Steve Neal, a Chicago newspaper reporter whose earlier books include an account of the erstwhile friendship between Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, draws memorable portraits of the ragbag of power manipulators who were seeking to wrest the nomination from Roosevelt. Among these was Maryland's governor, Albert C. Ritchie, who, Neal maintains, could have gotten the vice presidential nomination if he had been receptive to a proffered deal to throw his support to Roosevelt at a crucial moment in the convention. In the end, that prize went to John Nance Garner, the Texan who was willing to cut a deal. Given the relative obscurity of most of these contenders, the book inevitably sinks into passages of tedium that would tax the patience of even political junkies. But the most riveting sections deal with the redoubtable Huey Pierce Long, one of the most volcanic figures in American political history.

Long, who by that time was a virtual dictator of Louisiana, came to the convention uncommitted but wound up grudgingly supporting Roosevelt as the best of bad alternatives for dealing with the misery of the Great Depression, which by that time had taken hold with a vengeance.

Long regarded Roosevelt's proposals for addressing the crisis as entirely too timid. What was necessary, he stated in the bluntest terms, was a radical redistribution of the wealth.

Indeed, even though the book ends with Roosevelt's triumph at the convention and in the election that followed, he continued to be stalked by the menacing figure of Huey Long, who reasoned that despite Roosevelt's wonderfully optimistic and inspirational persona, his scattergun policies for dealing with the Depression were largely ineffectual.

Neal's book ends with the 1932 election, but before Roosevelt's first term was half over, Long had already written a book with the audacious title of My First 100 Days in the White House. In his magisterial 1969 biography of the Louisiana Kingfish, Huey Long (Vintage, 944 pages, $24), the historian T. Harry Williams lays out Long's Machiavellian strategy.

Long, who by that time had built an impressive national following by hammering on the pervasive economic anguish, would run in the 1936 election as a third-party candidate to the left of Roosevelt. This maneuver would split the liberal-left vote in a way that would assure the election of the Republican candidate, who that year was Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas. Under President Landon, according to Long's scheme, the Depression would only worsen, and Long would roar back in 1940 as the Democratic candidate for president.

Improbable, perhaps, but chillingly plausible at a time when other charismatic and dangerous demagogues across the Atlantic were taking over Germany and Italy.

America was never put to that test, because just as the election of 1936 was taking shape, Huey Long was assassinated. None of the others who would pick up his mantle -- including Dr. Francis Townsend, the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, and Father Charles E. Coughlin -- had anything approximating Long's skill and intelligence to carry out such a ballot-box coup.

So Roosevelt coasted to comfortable elections three more times. And the Depression was ended -- not by Roosevelt's policies, but by the coming of the Second World War. Winning that war -- and saving Western civilization -- would become the supreme achievement of the man who, by a near miracle, won the Democratic nomination for president at that Chicago convention in 1932.

Ray Jenkins, as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, The New York Times and the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and was editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun. His book, Blind Vengeance, was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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