Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office are famous for the remarkable whirl of activity that launched the New Deal, starting with his exhortation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In his new book,Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circleand the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, Adam Cohen, a member of the New York Times's editorial board, focuses on five key aides who helped Roosevelt shape that critical period. Cohen chatted with U.S. News about how the lessons of FDR and his first 100 days apply to the Obama administration. Excerpts:
If you could tell Barack Obama why he should read your book, what would you say?
The "Hundred Days" really are a moment with extraordinary parallel to today: the dire state of the economy, the fact that unemployment is such a large concern, the weakness of the banking industry, the essential pessimism among the people. And then FDR's response, as I describe in the book, was such an effective one. He promised in his inaugural address "action and action now," and he came through on that with 15 major bills that really created a whole system for dealing with the Great Depression. So it's a parallel situation, and FDR came up with some very good answers to it.
What lessons can Obama draw from the 100 days?
A very important part of FDR's response was boldness. He really was willing to throw caution to the wind to deal with the problem. And I think that's a very important thing right now because, as Obama tries to figure out how big a stimulus package and how to spend the money there's a debate among those who say be a little cautious and incredibly bold. I think FDR's message out of the Hundred Days would be to go for boldness.
What will surprise readers about this book?
One, that people think of the Hundred Days and of the New Deal as being FDR's program and being a well-planned-out idea. What's interesting to know is that FDR did not come into office with the New Deal described in any way. It was undefined. And he didn't support a lot of those things in the beginning. He came into office actually opposing public works on any large scale. So FDR felt his way to what we now think of as the New Deal. It wasn't something he came into office with. The second thing is that if people do think of the New Deal as Roosevelt's, one of the important pieces of my book is the degree to which it is really developed by his inner circle and he often had to be pulled reluctantly in the direction that some of these people wanted to go.
You paint nice portraits of them. Could that kind of inner circle function the same today?
It's harder now. One thing one is struck by reading about the 1930s in Washington is just what a small world it was and what a small world it was even in the White House. Washington's become so much more complicated now. The simplicity of what happened in the Hundred Days was one of its many charms.
If it had emerged that FDR Treasury Secretary William Woodin had failed to pay taxes, would it have been a problem?
No. That's part of the big change in the Washington culture—the degree to which the media and everyone else just go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. The hungry beast of cable news has to be fed every minute. It leads to a sort of hyperinspection of everything. If William Woodin hadn't paid taxes—God knows, maybe he didn't pay taxes—no one would have known.
How fair are FDR-Obama comparisons?
There are some very powerful analogies and similarities between the two men. They both ran against an unpopular Republican Party and, as times got hard, promised to be much more interventionist than activist. They were both incredibly charismatic figures; they ran on a promise of hope and taking bold action; they're both great communicators; and also they have similar skills of reaching out to a broad coalition. Neither one ran as ideologues. They were each trying to bring Republicans and other stray elements into the coalition they were building. And I think as Obama takes office, there's also a sense that he intends to be very pragmatic, almost to follow FDR's edict of experimentation—try something and, if it doesn't work, try something else. So I think it's a very apt analogy between the two men and a good one because we sort of need an FDR figure right now.
What's your favorite moment in the book?
There's a great story that I think is very important, which is how we ended up with the $3.3 billion in public works. FDR didn't really support public works; [Labor Secretary] Frances Perkins and some of the progressive senators persuaded him. It ended up getting into the National Industrial Recovery Act, the big bill which passes at the end of the 100 days. But Frances Perkins is looking at the bill a couple of days before it's going to be introduced, and she notices that it has been taken out. It's been removed by Lewis Douglas, the very conservative budget director. And Perkins goes personally to FDR and talks him into putting it back in. So it was really that direct intervention, keeping an eye on things, that ensured that public works were in the NIRA and that led to all the public works that followed, including, most famously, the [Works Progress Administration]. So I like that story because it shows how it was very important for members of the inner circle to keep standing up for what was right, keep their eye on the ball, and major, major programs that changed people's lives resulted from that.