“On the flat, in the crowd, half blind with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as for us.” — Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” collected in The Common Reader, 1925.
Molly Dewson was very sad in the spring of 1934 because of the politics, so she wrote a letter to her friend Eleanor Roosevelt. Dewson was the head of the women’s division of the DNC, and she was in a tizz because Congress was evidently so opposed to Roosevelt’s policies. You will recall that Roosevelt took office in January of 1933, so this was something over a year into his first term.
Eleanor wrote back:
The ups and downs in peoples’ feelings particularly on the liberal side, are an old, old story. The liberals always get discouraged when they do not see the measures they are interested in go through immediately … Franklin says, for Heaven’s sake, all you Democratic leaders calm down and feel sure of ultimate success. It will do a lot in satisfying other people.
(That from from Susan Ware, Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics, 1987.)
Molly Dewson, let it be known, was no kind of wimp. She was a powerfully effective organizer, instrumental in the enactment of the first statewide minimum-wage law, in Massachusetts; she fought like a tiger to get women into high political office, including the first woman Cabinet member, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins; she was a driving force in Democratic electoral politics and in the fight for equality. Plus she was gay, and seems to have had an awesomely happy lifelong relationship with Polly Porter; they were together for fifty-two years. In the 1930s this maybe represented even more of a triumph of love and fortitude than it does now, which is saying something.
So miserable and pissed off about the politics, in the mid-1930s! And why not, when it was taking forever to get (for example) even a watered-down version of Social Security passed, owing partly to the efforts of the lunatic Dr. Francis Townsend and his competing “Townsend Plan,” and partly to those of “have-mores” like Robert A. Taft, Jr., son of the former president, who said that Roosevelt was willing to “mislead the people” and worse yet, “encourage them to believe that the government owes them a living whether they work or not.”
No really. If it weren’t for the telltale old-fashioned typesetting you’d have to keep checking the date to make sure it wasn’t yesterday’s blasted paper.
Even the watered-down version of the Social Security Act would not be passed until August of 1935, well over two years after Roosevelt took office. The NAACP observed that the original bill was “a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” This “sieve” was devised, some have said, in order to ensure passage by courting the votes of Southern members of Congress — not by forbidding Social Security benefits to black Americans explicitly, but by excluding the types of jobs they ordinarily held from eligibility: agricultural work, factory work and casual labor.
So there were years of legislative and legal hurdles ahead before the system would work more or less fairly. These the administration quietly began to clear, one by one, fighting legal challenges and expanding coverage to include more and more classes of work. The first monthly Social Security retirement check was not disbursed until January 1940, and it was 1950 before the system looked something like the one we have now.
But wait, you say. Roosevelt enjoyed a congressional supermajority! Well, yes… in 1933, Roosevelt had fifty-nine Democrats in the Senate, and by 1935 that number had swelled to sixty-nine, sixty of whom voted for passage of Social Security; there was one vote against and eight abstentions on the Democratic side. In those days, the Republican party was not what it is now. Sixteen Republican senators and eighty-one Republican representatives voted for passage of Social Security, the Democratic President’s signature program. Imagine that.
Republicans Attempt to Stem the Communist Fascist Free-Spending Totalitarian Tide (of 1936)
In October of 1936, the Los Angeles Times described the California campaign visit of Roosevelt’s opponent Alf Landon as “highly encouraging to the Republicans and the real Democrats of this State,” which State, they went on to say, “must pay for New Deal prodigality and folly.” On the radio, they noted, C.C. Teague, president of Sunkist, had “pointed out the choice before the voters in November. They can vote for Roosevelt, and continue a regime tending inevitably to a Fascist or Communist government and the destruction of liberty; or they can vote for Landon and keep America American.”
Just by the way, this Teague was a great pal of Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times; the two had joined with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to smear Upton Sinclair and prevent him from becoming governor of California in 1934, if you can believe. Sinclair actually had quite a good shot at winning the election until this gang got to work on him. They hired an ad agency, made fake newsreels, etc., in the first and maybe filthiest negative political media campaign ever paid for by U.S. corporate interests.
Anyway, back to 1936, where unemployment is still near 20%, and Chandler’s Times denounced the “continued attempts of the President to stir up class hatred and set the “have nots” against the “haves,” claiming that “a division of the wealth of the nation would merely result in nobody having anything above a bare subsistence.” Oh golly, to think that the fatcats could be simultaneously so ludicrous and so transparent, right in the “newspaper.” But I guess that is the same, too; the uneasy marriage of crackpot populism with the naked greed and entitlement of the rich, broadcast far and wide using their very own instruments.
The Times really went to town on behalf of Landon in the last days of the 1936 campaign, concluding with a long report on his election eve radio broadcast, which was a humdinger. The Landon crew had got hold of a Rabbi, a Union Leader, a Woman Educator and Others to complain about the President. These people hardly got a word in about Landon, they were so mad. The Union Leader started by saying that Roosevelt hadn’t solved the unemployment problem. Roosevelt’s distant cousin Alice Roosevelt Longworth (a Republican, of course, and long a fierce opponent,) accused him of “experiments with the Constitution” and making “a farce of democratic government,” and of “using humanitarian agencies for purely partisan ends.” A Boston Attorney railed against “the beginnings of dictatorship,” by which he meant Social Security.
They eventually managed to get a Housewife, Mrs. Arnold Sayer, to mention Landon. “I would feel safer with Gov. Landon in the White House. I think he would run the government the way I run my home — within our means.” (She didn’t say whether or not she could see Russia from her porch.)
Then came a dirt farmer, then the President of Bethany College, and finally “Roscoe Conkling Simmons, Negro orator,” who said, “We are engaged in a contest to determine whether the slave master be returned or whether sons of the establishers of this people shall continue in the way of their fathers. On one side are Landon and Liberty, on the other side are Roosevelt and ruin.”
Faced with this sort of thing — bombarded with it, even, in a manner that some Americans may be able to identify with, nearly seventy-five years later — Molly Dewson wrote another letter to Eleanor Roosevelt just before the election, again rather downcast, and signing herself “Your Gloomy Gus.”
Roosevelt won 60.8% of the 1936 popular vote to Landon’s 36.54%, and 523 electoral votes to Landon’s eight.