THE END OF JOBS
In 1932, the United States faced the greatest crisis in its history short of war. The American industrial powerhouse that had emerged at the end of the Great War in Europe had fallen still. The stillness had progressed from the stock market, which had lost almost 90 percent of its value since the awful crash of October 1929, to the nation's factories, and from the factories to city avenues, small-town streets, and out across the countryside, where it reached farmers who were mired in a crisis of their own, caused by debt and drought. Workers from every walk of life were idle, one-quarter of the workforce—13 million men and women, though some estimates ranged to 15 million and above. As their resources dwindled, they descended a spiral from belt-tightening to despair to destitution. Millions lost their homes, wore their clothes into rags, and had to forage like animals for food: city dwellers fought for scraps in garbage cans and dumps, while in the country, the hungry scratched for roots and weeds.
For all of the physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, despair; the suicide rate soared, and the nation trembled at the prospect of a dark, uncertain future. The optimism that Americans had distilled from the promise of the Constitution and learned to take as their birthright—their dreams—had disappeared with their access to work.
This did not have to happen. That it did was dictated by a revered American political philosophy that denied the central government a role in addressing social problems. In the so-called New Era, which began in 1921 and spanned the Republican presidencies of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and now Herbert Hoover, business interests effectively ran the country with some friendly advice from Washington, primarily in the form of useful information. The right data, gathered by the government, would allow banks to adjust their loan portfolios and manufacturers their production schedules, thereby achieving greater efficiencies than they had attained on their own. Labor was a commodity, like iron ore or cotton, to be purchased on the open market at the cheapest price. It was outlandish to think that employers would have any interest in their employees beyond their productive capacity, and even odder to think that the federal government would interfere by telling them how to treat their workers. As for human health and welfare, these were private matters. Society understood that there would always be a few unfortunates who could not—or chose not to—work and take care of themselves, and for these stragglers local governments and private charities were expected to lend a helping hand. It was certainly not Washington's job to feed and clothe people or give them employment. The government had an interest in promoting social goals, since a healthy, well-fed, stable nation provided a good business climate, but that was all.
"The sole function of government," Hoover had said in the fall of 1931, two years after the crash, "is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise." His predecessor, Coolidge, had put it more succinctly (a practice for which he was famous; his nickname was "Silent Cal"): "The chief business of the American people is business."
But the New Era had failed, and Hoover's efforts to revive it had been fruitless. Babe Ruth had put the president's performance into harsh perspective. Early in 1930, the New York Yankees slugger was holding out for a contract that would pay him $80,000 a year. When sportswriters reminded him that the president made $75,000, Ruth responded, "What's Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did."
And conditions were not improving. Businesses continued to fail at an unprecedented rate, more than 50,000 since the crash, and the pace of these failures was accelerating. By 1932, more than 3,600 banks had closed, robbing millions of depositors of their life's savings. Every time a bank or business shut its doors, men and women lost their jobs and their buying power, which meant more business failures. As a result, industry was operating at a fraction of capacity, with production lines slowed or shut down entirely. In Birmingham, Alabama, 25,000 of the steel town's 108,000 salaried workers had no jobs at all, and another 75,000 were working reduced hours, for an average pay of $1.50 a day. Thirty percent of workers were jobless in Detroit, 40 percent in Chicago, 50 percent across the state of Colorado. New York City had 800,000 workers without jobs. Skilled laborers in the construction industry—carpenters, plumbers, and electricians—saw their jobs disappear as new construction vanished. White-collar professions were equally hard hit. Only half the nation's engineers had work. With few new homes, or commercial or public buildings, to design, architects' practices were decimated; only one in seven had jobs.
Nationally, unemployment had doubled in a year.
After the prosperity of the late 1920s, the widening epidemic of joblessness sent shock waves through the nation. Before the crash, almost every non-farmer who could work and wanted a job had one. The unemployment rate in 1929 had been just 3.2 percent. Flush times had begun to seem permanent, a notion supported by the nation's leaders.
Hoover, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in June 1928, said, "Unemployment in the sense of distress is widely disappearing.... We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us."
When it was jobs, not unemployment, that vanished, people found it impossible to believe at first. They never thought it could happen to them. Office workers who got pink slips went home and circled newspaper want ads at the kitchen table, then went out the next morning with the paper tucked under their arms, full of expectation, only to return at night disappointed. Factory men gathered day after day in union halls, in employment offices, and at the gates of the factories where they used to work. Bulletin boards bristled with "No Help Wanted" signs. Barkers bellowed "No jobs today, men" over bullhorns at the factory gates. Each day hope flaked away like layers of old paint. And when the reality that there were no jobs finally sank in, the job seekers continued to leave their homes each morning, but now sat on park benches and in the reading rooms of public libraries. They haunted the counters of cheap coffee shops and stood in sheltered doorways. Anything was better than returning home and admitting defeat to a wife whose eager hope shone on her face as she opened the door—and to children who sensed the desperation in their parents' whispered conversations.
The hardships that followed came on slowly. Those who hadn't lost their savings when a bank failed spent them down to nothing. Then they borrowed. They put off paying rent, bought on credit at the grocery store, skipped the installment payments on their furniture. When their credit was gone, they leaned on relatives and friends. When their clothes wore out, they darned and patched until the fabric couldn't hold new thread. When the soles of their shoes wore through, they stuffed them with cotton, cardboard, or old newspapers. When they couldn't pay for electricity or coal and suppliers cut them off, they huddled together in the dark and chased coal trucks down the street to pick up the odd lumps that fell onto the pavement. When they found the eviction notice nailed to their front door, they tore it down and hoped the sheriff would forget them.
Food was the last necessity to go. Parents skipped meals so their children could eat. Siblings ate on alternate days. Teachers watched skinny, ill-clothed, malnourished children nodding at their desks until the day came when they dropped out of school and vanished. Foster homes and orphanages swelled with youngsters whose parents could not afford to feed them, 20,000 in New York alone. At night people lurked behind restaurants and grocery stores waiting for the refuse cans to be set out, and fought others for the chance to claw through the garbage. They followed sanitation trucks to city dumps. They stared at the food displayed in grocery store and bakery windows and wished they had the nerve to hurl the brick that might let them satisfy their children's hunger for a night.
By 1932, the situation of city dwellers had finally fallen to a par with the nation's farmers, who for the past ten years had not been able to sell their crops and livestock for what these cost to grow. The farm troubles had started in the aftermath of the world war. Food from America had sustained Europe when its own farms were idled by the war, but once those farms regained their productivity America's export markets disappeared, and suddenly its farmers were producing more food than the domestic market could absorb. Protective tariffs, which sheltered American manufacturers from inexpensive imports, had never been erected on behalf of farmers. While the nation's overall economy recovered from the brief postwar Depression of 1920-21, when manufacturing output fell 25 percent, the farmers never regained their buying power. Subsequent years of drought had made matters even worse. Eleven million farm families continued to live in unremitting poverty, and the banks' hold on their mortgaged land grew ever tighter.
And no matter where they lived, those who had a roof at all were lucky, because the sheriff could not forget those struggling in arrears, even if he wanted to. When the eviction notice was hammered to the door a second and a third time, the dispossessed were likely to steal away in the middle of the night to find space where they could, sometimes in apartments where landlords who were also desperate were offering terms of free rent to fill their empty space, sometimes doubling up with the same relatives and friends they had already pressed for loans, sometimes even in their cars. But for many who lost their homes through eviction or foreclosure, including farmers who had been turned out or simply walked away from barren and unproductive land, there was no place to go. Following rumors or blind hope that jobs waited at the next crossroad or rail junction, thousands upon thousands became nomads. Old farm trucks driven by grim men plied the roads, overloaded with mattresses and furniture, pots and pans, suitcases and chests, wives and children and sometimes parents crowded together in the cab or huddled under canvas in the back.
Others rode in—or under—empty freight cars or hitchhiked, wandering between hobo jungles where they might find a crude meal and temporary shelter. Most though not all of them were men. Women and even children were also on the roads and rails, their days spent in a twilight world of fear and want. The homeless numbered as many as 2 million. They collected in city doorways, in railway freight yards, under bridges. They lived in squalid migrant camps and shantytowns cobbled together from abandoned cars, discarded tarpaper, sheets of tin, scraps of wood.
Yet even the most impoverished families were slow to turn to charity. Americans' deep-rooted belief in work came with a catch: failing to find it, it was not in their blood to ask for help. Campaigning in 1928, Hoover had extolled "the American system of rugged individualism," a system, he said, that "has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want, than humanity has ever reached before." But even when the system failed in 1929, bringing them face-to-face with poverty and want—and fear itself—Americans clung to its assumptions. If they couldn't make their own way in the world, the fault must be with them.
"Oh, don't bother," a laid-off Texas teacher who had been forced to seek assistance told a social worker who was trying to cheer her up.
"If, with all the advantages I've had, I can't make a living, I'm just no good, I guess."
The growing evidence of suffering brought no change in the philosophy that ruled government and business. The United States clung to a tradition of poor laws that harked back 350 years to Elizabethan England. The burden of caring for the poor fell on local governments and private charities. In recent years a few state governments, led by New York, had set up formal systems to administer what was called "relief," as in relief of want by way of cash payments, vouchers for necessities such as food and rent, and—where work could be created—paying jobs. But Washington remained aloof. Business and banking interests insisted on maintaining this alignment of responsibilities, which had been in place under the Republican administrations that with few exceptions had been in power since the Civil War. When the United States Chamber of Commerce polled its members in December 1931, they responded 2,534 to 197 that "needed relief should be provided through private contributions and by state and local governments."
But these governments were now as broke as the people who needed their help, and as the Depression deepened they were unequal to the task. City tax collections had shrunk with the contraction of the economy. Many local governments were on the verge of bankruptcy.
Charitable donations had also shriveled, and with them the ability to provide relief to families in need.
Those charged with the burden of the poor sought solutions with growing desperation. Winslow Township, New Jersey, an area of small farm communities with about 5,000 people, mirrored the country as a whole. One worker in five was out of work. On January 2, 1932, the eight members of the Winslow Township Committee convened in Blue Anchor, a crossroads halfway between Philadelphia and then-sleepy Atlantic City. The committee voted to dismiss the five member police force it no longer could afford to pay. Then, led by its aptly named chairman, Herman Priestley, the committee called for a week of prayer to ask God's help in solving the township's unemployment crisis.
Prayer was all many jobless Americans had left in 1932.
THE PEOPLE ON THEIR OWN
The lack of jobs created desperate carnivals of stunts and pleading.
With the government refusing to address the crisis, Americans were left to their own considerable ingenuity. In New York City, a thirty-one-year-old mechanic asked a judge to let him break the law to work. Thomas Bell said he had been offered a job tending bar in a speakeasy, illegal in those days of Prohibition. "The missus and kids ain't had a decent thing to eat in a week, only scraps of garbage," Bell told the judge.
"I'm sorry for you," said Judge Alfred C. Coxe, "but I cannot promise you immunity if you violate the law."
In Los Angeles, a philanthropist named Louis Byrens mounted a "slave market" to auction off the services of jobless Angelenos. Bidders bought the services of a law student, a waitress, a truck driver, an electrician, a cook, a mason, a garage worker, and a stenographer for prices ranging from 33 1/3 cents to 50 cents an hour. But efforts like these were the exception; while eight workers were landing jobs at Byrens's auction, hundreds of out-of-work men jammed the counter of the American Legion Employment Bureau in downtown Los Angeles, shouting and waving for attention when an occasional job opening was announced. The scene repeated itself daily: too many people scuffling and shouting in pursuit of too few jobs. Los Angeles, which was preparing to host the 1932 Olympic Summer Games, had—if the statewide rate was any guide—unemployment close to 28 percent. One woman wrote the New York Times to suggest that homeowners should spruce up their houses to give decorators and tradespeople badly needed jobs. Another proposed that people who had steady jobs give their clothes away and buy new ones. In a similar vein, Hoover urged new-car buyers to place their orders early. "There is nothing that provides widespread employment more than automobile construction," he said.
A Tudor sedan with Ford's new V-8 engine cost about $450 in 1932. The nation's per capita income was $400, and not a single state boasted a per capita income over $1,000. The per capita income of the District of Columbia, however, was $1,061, which perhaps accounted for the president's difficulty in recognizing the hardship that gripped the nation.
Hoover's willingness to ignore reality could be genuinely startling. In the fall of 1930, an apple surplus in the Pacific Northwest had prompted apple distributors to try a new marketing technique: they would offer apples by the box on credit to individuals who would sell them by hand, apple by apple, on city streets around the country. As if by magic, a desperate new profession bloomed. In New York alone, 6,000 men trudged to fruit distributors each morning, picked up boxes of apples on credit, and made for street corners with signs that advertised both their plight and their goods: "Unemployed. Apples 5c." At best, given a box of perfect apples, a man could pay the $1.75 they had cost him and take home $1.85 for the day. Then the International Apple Shippers Association, which had devised the program, raised the price per box to $2.25, reducing the potential profit by 50 cents. Some years later, Hoover wrote in the volume of his memoirs that dealt with the Depression that the sudden appearance of the apple sellers had nothing to do with unemployment. Rather, it was the apple growers who used public sympathy for the unemployed to inflate their prices. "Many persons," he contended, "left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." He appears to have actually believed it.
Shoeshine boys—and men—appeared by the thousands with the same unnerving suddenness. So did door-to-door salesmen, with the result that the Fuller Brush Company was one of the few business models to improve during the Depression.
The efforts of local governments to create jobs were equally haphazard. The suburban village of Larchmont, New York, in Westchester County, north of New York City, was accustomed to seeing businessmen board the commuter trains for city office jobs each morning. Now the crowds on the train platforms were sparse, and Larchmont put some of its unemployed to work clearing woods and vacant lots, burning brush, and sawing logs into cordwood. The outdoor work was considered healthy, and citizens with fireplaces could warm themselves with inexpensive firewood.
In nearby White Plains, the emergency work bureau arranged with local country clubs to have unemployed men work as caddies. At the exclusive Century Country Club, however, this arrangement lasted only as long as it took the club's women golfers to realize that the elderly men and laborers carrying their golf clubs had no idea of the rules of the game. They talked at the tees and on the greens, tossed balls from the rough back onto the fairway, and didn't know which clubs to offer. The women protested, and the system was suspended until the men had been properly trained in golf rules and etiquette. Golfers as a class were not ungenerous, however. St. Louis golfers donated so many of their out-of-fashion plus-four trousers, bloused at the knee, that the Citizens' Committee Clothing Bureau appealed for donations of knee-high golf socks to complete the outfits.
Arizona revived gold prospecting as a job-creation tool. With dude ranch tourism dead in the Depression, cowboys traded their ten-gallon hats and woolly chaps for working gear, loaded burros with picks, spades, and pup tents, and headed for the hills along with old-time prospectors hoping to find gold. California planned its own gold-mining revival. The mining committee of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce predicted jobs for 50,000 men once the mining process was refined to prevent hydraulic mine tailings from damaging farms. In the state of Washington, according to testimony before a House labor subcommittee, farmers and unemployed loggers had created jobs for themselves as firefighters by setting forest fires.
Hay fever sufferers in Illinois could thank the unemployment crisis for relief. Officials there deployed 8,000 men on highway roadsides to pull up ragweed as the August pollen season approached. Weed pullers in East St. Louis objected to the average $2 weekly they were being paid, and went on strike. In Missouri, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company took back 650 employees it had laid off, gave them four hours' work a week, and paid them in food and movie tickets. Miami, Florida, imposed a $1 tax on the city's auto drivers in order to assist the unemployed, a measure expected to raise $100,000 a year. "All of it will go into the pockets of Miami's six thousand unemployed," said Mayor R. B. Gautier, failing to add that the money involved would amount to less than $1.40 per man per month.
A Needham, Massachusetts, woman divided her estate into garden plots so those without jobs could raise their own food. In Illinois, the International Harvester Company marked off some of its property into half-acre "farms" for its unemployed. An appeal to New Yorkers to "adopt" needy families resulted in 550 adoptions, reducing the number of families on the rolls of the city's Home Relief Bureau to 132,513. The Savannah, Georgia, welfare association asked fishermen who caught more fish than they could eat to donate the excess to feed people without jobs. A speaker at the garden meeting of the Women's National Republican Club announced a plan to place baskets at Grand Central and Pennsylvania Stations in New York so that commuters with gardens could contribute vegetables and fruit to the city's soup kitchens. Before his conviction for tax evasion the previous fall, gangster Al Capone had sponsored a soup kitchen in Chicago that fed 3,000 men a day. A jobless airplane mechanic who turned in a lost watch at the West 47th Street police station in New York was rewarded with a permanent place at the head of a charity food line. This was no small reward; the soup kitchen sponsored by William Randolph Hearst's New York American at the north end of Times Square—one of eighty-two soup kitchens throughout the city—had a line that was regularly two blocks long, even though there was another Hearst-sponsored kitchen nearby, at the south end of the square.
Obviously, none of these sincere but paltry efforts stemmed the tide of unemployment or relieved the general suffering. The numbers of the jobless continued to rise. Almost 1.3 million Pennsylvanians were out of work in August 1932. St. Louis, with a population just over 800,000, had 125,000 on relief. Almost 200,000 New Yorkers lost jobs between January and October, putting the rolls of the jobless in the city at 985,034; one in seven city residents was on relief. On nationwide radio, nurse and social worker Lillian Wald pleaded for young women thinking of seeking their fortune in the city to stay home. Girls are "nearly starving here," she said, blaming rosy scenarios in novels and movies for bringing a stream of hopeful young people to a city where a million of its own residents could not find work. Labor forecasters predicted that 13 million Americans would be out of work by winter.
Even those who had work had too little of it. With American industry operating at a fraction of its capacity—in 1932 U.S. Steel was producing 19.1 percent of the steel it was capable of making—many employees were working two days a week or less and were paid accordingly, as was the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Even at plants that were relatively busy, a share-the-work movement, conceived of by Hoover and business leaders that August, promised added deprivation to workers who were lucky enough to still have jobs. The plan, headed by Standard Oil of New Jersey president Walter C. Teagle, was supposed to create 1 million new jobs by cutting hours for those who were employed and giving those hours to workers who had been laid off. Sharing their jobs meant that workers shared poverty as well, all of them working and earning less, while employers were unaffected. But some work was better than none—and none was more and more the case. One 1932 estimate placed the number of men, women, and children with no income whatsoever at 34 million, a figure amounting to almost 28 percent of the United States population.
ROOSEVELT ONTO THE STAGE
The Democrats were talking about jobs. Prominent among them, in addition to House Speaker Garner, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the governor of New York. He had announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 21, 1932, after a year or more of work by his team of political operatives, raising money, making new contacts, and wooing the party regulars who controlled wards in major cities. As he approached the Democrats' nominating convention, scheduled for Chicago in late June, Roosevelt was campaigning as the anti-Hoover. He advocated a federally funded program of public works jobs and federal relief for the unemployed, while at the same time courting conservatives by distancing himself from the League of Nations.
Now fifty-three, Roosevelt had been a politician most of his adult life. He had won his first elective office, a seat in the New York State Senate, when he was twenty-eight, in 1910. Reelected two years later, he soon resigned to accept an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the administration of the new president, Woodrow Wilson, the New Jersey governor and former head of Princeton University whose candidacy he had vigorously supported in the 1912 election. Family wealth had eased Roosevelt's journey into politics and shaped his profile: he was a patrician with a common touch, a reformer, a conservationist, and a pragmatist given to testing the political winds to see where opportunities might lie. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece Eleanor had married Franklin in 1905, was a distant cousin, but where "Teddy" was direct and blustery, Franklin was oblique and rhetorically eloquent. Wilson was reelected in 1916, and again Roosevelt made a significant contribution. After helping manage naval affairs through the United States' eighteen-month involvement in the world war in Europe, he was rewarded with the Democratic vice presidential nomination in the campaign of 1920. Although he and Ohio's James M. Cox, the presidential nominee, lost badly to the Republican ticket of Harding and Coolidge, Roosevelt proved an enthusiastic and able campaigner, laying the groundwork and whetting his ambition for another bid at national office.
Those ambitions came to a grievous halt the following summer when Roosevelt, now thirty-nine, was stricken with polio at his family's summer home at Campobello, an island in Canadian waters off the northern coast of Maine. Severely crippled, he began his lengthy rehabilitation in the magnesium-salted thermal baths of Warm Springs, Georgia. There he learned to walk again, and he stepped back onto the national stage in the summer of 1924, using two canes and braces on his legs to walk fifteen perilous feet before a crowd at Madison Square Garden to nominate Alfred E. Smith, then the governor of New York, as the Democratic candidate for president. The hall burst into a standing ovation when he reached the podium and gripped its edges for support. Although Smith lost the nomination to John W. Davis (and Republican Calvin Coolidge was to win the presidency in November), Roosevelt had rekindled his own political career. Four years later, in 1928, he won his first two-year term as New York's governor, succeeding Smith, and during his second term launched a series of measures to combat the Depression in New York.
Roosevelt had always been a natural politician. He was gregarious, laughed easily, and was quick to smile. And after his rebound from polio, he had acquired a deeper and more subtle quality of confidence: nothing seemed to faze him. He communicated a forceful serenity, an attitude that no crisis was too great to overcome. One pose in particular would become iconic—his head thrown back, face creased in a grin, cigarette holder jutting at a jaunty angle from his teeth; it imparted a joy of combat and the certainty of winning. Here was a man who believed in himself, it said, and if you took his side in a fight, he would reward your belief in him.
It was this quality that resonated with Americans whose radios were tuned to the National Broadcasting Corporation on the night of April 7, 1932, when Roosevelt made the first nationwide broadcast of his campaign from the state capital in Albany. In his speech, listeners heard what many had not heard for a long time: that America's people and their problems mattered as much as the difficulties faced by bankers and industrialists.
"It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry," he said. "He staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.
"These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power; for plans . . . that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid."
"The forgotten man" was the memorable phrase. Its powerful impact and populist overtones struck fear in Roosevelt's rivals for the nomination. They accused him of firing the first salvo in a class war. Al Smith, his former ally, was the loudest.
Nominating Smith in 1924, Roosevelt had called him the "Happy Warrior," and the nickname stuck. Smith was to finally win the nomination in 1928 but go on to lose to Hoover in a general election landslide that he attributed in part to prejudice against him as a Roman Catholic. In that same election year, Roosevelt had succeeded Smith as New York's governor, and afterward, Smith, a charismatic figure in New York, could never understand Roosevelt's failure to ask him for advice, accept his suggestions on appointments, or include him in his political calculations. Over the next four years, he came to resent Roosevelt's swift rise to national prominence.
Smith, the grandson of Irish immigrants, had grown up poor on New York's Lower East Side. After his father died when he was thirteen, he dropped out of parochial school to help support his mother and his younger sister by working at various menial jobs. But he had one notable skill, a gift for public speaking, and this gave him his entry into politics, by way of the Tammany Hall organization that pulled the strings of New York City's government. Tammany was corrupt but effective; voters got favors and Thanksgiving turkeys for their loyalty, and the politicians who benefited sealed the bargain by parceling out public jobs.
Smith's base was the Fourth Ward, an irregular patch of lower Manhattan squeezed between the East River piers and Chatham Square, overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge, and so full of saloons and bars that it was also known as the Whiskey Ward. Its tenements were packed with immigrants: Irish and Italians, Germans, Russian and eastern European Jews, and assorted other nationalities. Some had fled tyranny; all sought work. They baked, they pickled, they picked rags, they worked in factories, and they heaved cargo, and when they were tired and broken, like Smith's father when he died, there were few options open to them. Widows who could not support their children placed them in foster homes and orphanages, as Smith's mother almost did. The reformer Jacob Riis had focused on the Fourth Ward in his famous expose, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, when Smith was seventeen. It still remained an area where children as young as seven worked in factories, teenagers walked the streets as prostitutes, and charity workers tried to keep the elderly and disabled who couldn't work from starving. Smith used his wit and charm to solve small problems Tammany leaders delegated to him, and his public speaking skills came to their attention. With a reputation for being incorruptible, he rose through the organization until he won a seat in the State Assembly in Albany, where he emerged as a leader among the minority Democrats. Assembly members of both parties gathered for his speeches, roared at his jokes, and deferred to his sharp eye for spotting bills whose fine print rewarded special interests.
When the Democrats won the majority in 1911 they chose Smith, eight years after he was first elected, as majority leader.
In March of that year, 146 young immigrant women, most between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Many were trapped behind locked or inward-opening doors. Others jumped down the elevator shaft, and more than sixty were driven by the heat to jump from the ninth floor to the sidewalk. The only safety measures in the factory had been twenty-seven buckets of water and a fire escape that collapsed.
The disregard for workers' safety angered Smith, and he lobbied for a place on the factory investigation commission that was formed in the wake of the fire. The rest of his time in the Assembly was marked by his eloquence on behalf of exploited workers. He fought for state pensions for widows, disability insurance, and workers' compensation, and against child labor. Tammany steered him to election as New York County sheriff and later as president of the city's governing body, the Board of Aldermen, and in 1918, he became the first Tammany candidate to be elected governor of New York. He lost a 1920 bid for reelection but won again in 1922, and began three consecutive two-year terms that were marked by an avid populism on behalf of ordinary people and against entrenched interests.
But after leaving the governorship following his unsuccessful presidential campaign, Smith found that he missed the perks and authority of office. He had relished knowing men with money and power, chief among them John J. Raskob, a former General Motors executive who, after running Smith's failed campaign, had built the Empire State Building and made him its president with a $50,000-a-year salary.
Smith now seemed blind to the tenement dwellers for whom he once had fought. He bragged of the lease on his Fifth Avenue apartment, rode in a chauffeured limousine, and served as a corporate director. After his defeat, Smith had vowed not to run for president again. But seeing Hoover vulnerable to any Democrat, even a Catholic, probably wishing for revenge, and judging Roosevelt's populism a threat to his new patrons' interests, he jumped into the race for the Democratic nomination just two weeks after Roosevelt declared his candidacy. Now, at the Democrats' traditional Jefferson Day dinner in April, held a week after Roosevelt's radio address and attended by all the party's candidates for the nomination except Roosevelt, Smith accused him of demagoguery. "At a time like this," he said, "when millions of men and women and children are starving throughout the land, there is always the temptation to stir up class prejudice, to stir up the bitterness of the rich against the poor, and of the poor against the rich." "It would delude and ruin the poor," he said, sounding very much like Herbert Hoover, "to make them believe that they can get employment before the people who would ordinarily employ them are also again restored to conditions of normal prosperity."
But Roosevelt had found the people receptive to his talk of change. On May 22, he reached another rhetorical high. It came in Atlanta, where he had stopped after a visit to Warm Springs to accept an honorary degree from Oglethorpe University and speak at its commencement.
Standing on the stage of the Moorish-themed Fox Theatre under a ceiling of winking lights designed to imitate a starry night, he began with familiar commencement greetings but quickly found his campaign voice. Again speaking in populist themes, he addressed the irony of America's unaffordable abundance, caused not "by any natural calamity—by drought or floods or earthquakes or by the destruction of our productive machine or our manpower. Indeed," he said, "we have a superabundance of raw materials, a more than ample supply of equipment for manufacturing these materials into the goods which we need, and transportation and commercial facilities for making them available to all who need them. But raw materials stand unused, factories stand idle, railroad traffic continues to dwindle, merchants sell less and less, while millions of able-bodied men and women, in dire need, are clamoring for the opportunity to work."
To address what he called this "awful paradox," Roosevelt said, some preached that the business cycle would eventually return the country to prosperity, while others found the problems confronting society so complex that people who shared common goals could not agree on how to reach them. In each case, he said, the result was inaction—doing nothing, drifting.
Then came the words that Americans were to seize on as they had "the forgotten man": "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
This call to action was not broadcast, so reaction was delayed. But it generated newspaper headlines the next day, and the New York Times and the Atlanta Constitution ran the text in its entirety. Some of his advisors worried that the speech would be perceived as radical, since he had called for "a wiser, more equitable distribution of the national income" in which "the reward for a day's work will have to be greater . . . and the reward to capital . . . will have to be less." The Times criticized its failure to lay out a specific plan. But as news of the speech spread, its message struck home. Americans were ready to experiment, were ready for actions that would break the stranglehold of inaction that had left them helpless.
Excerpted from AMERICAN-MADE by Nick Taylor Copyright © 2008 by Nick Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.