Before Franklin Delano Roosevelt even took the oath of office, a paranoia-driven Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara shot at the president-elect while at a rally in Miami, narrowly missing him and fatally wounding Chicago Mayor Anton "Tony" Cermak. Sally Denton's The Plots Against the President: FDR, a Nation in Crisis, and the Rise of the American Right examines the critical time around the beginning of Roosevelt's tenure, during which fear and hate threatened both his life and the very existence of American democracy. Denton, a Guggenheim fellow and public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, focuses on two little-known events—the assassination attempt and, subsequently, a conspiracy to stage a coup against the federal government. She spoke recently with U.S. News about the plots and what President Obama can learn from FDR's experience. Excerpts:
How would you say your book differs from some of the other books out there about FDR?
Initially this book was going to be about the year 1933. I saw that as a pivotal year—the beginning of a new kind of democracy, a new role that government was going to play. It wasn't until I started doing the research that I decided to really focus on these two events—the assassination attempt and this sort of wing-nut crazy, zany purported plot to overtake the president.
What can we learn about FDR and his times by looking at these two plots?
What I found fascinating was how precarious the nation was at that moment. I had never realized that. The country wasn't even that old yet and here was a moment of absolute economic crisis, and there was a lot at play. It wasn't obvious that America was going to remain a democracy or capitalist. There were a lot of European impulses towards fascism and socialism and communism that were all being flirted with by various forces. That was one aspect that was very interesting to me. Another was the fact that he was really making it up as he went along. This was not some grand design. It was a nation in crisis and he was trying to figure out as quickly as possible how to save the banks, how to get Americans back to work, how to restart a really devastated economy. There are so many parallels to today. You can almost see a model for how to go forward.
What's similar about the assassination attempt and the conspiracy plot?
They both found their impulses in Italy and Italian fascism. The assassin was an anti-fascist, anti-Mussolini, anti-capitalist named Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant who saw Roosevelt as the quintessential capitalist, an uber-capitalist at a moment in the interregnum—he hadn't even taken office yet, and so no one knew what Roosevelt was going to do. The coup plot was really conceived by some reactionary financiers. This was months later, after Roosevelt had already initiated his monetary policy, and they really looked to Italy and Mussolini and fascism as a better form of government for the United States.
How was Roosevelt able to expand the executive branch while not crossing the line into a dictatorship?
I don't think that Roosevelt ever really saw Mussolini or Hitler as role models for America. I think he saw them both as dangerous men from the beginning. But this is early. Hitler came to power almost exactly the same time as Roosevelt. Mussolini meanwhile had been running a country pretty effectively, one of the only [such] countries in Europe during a global economic crisis. And it was really an extreme capitalism, but I don't think Roosevelt ever saw either of those models as something workable for the United States.
What was different about FDR from other presidents who had assassination plots against them?
What the Secret Service said that was so difficult about protecting him was that he was an invalid in a wheelchair, and he also insisted on being out in the public and not being surrounded by a phalanx of security or bulletproof glass or anything. He was so affable and gregarious and just wanted to be in the crowds all the time.