Politics & Policy

What’s the Frequency?

New Deal narcissism and what FDR wrought.

The New Deal celebrates its 75th anniversary this week. National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez checked in with New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes, to mark the occasion.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How are you celebrating the New Deal’s 75th?

Amity Shlaes: I’m participating in the Roosevelt Reading Festival at Hyde Park Saturday! One of the people I will see there is Nick Taylor, author of his own book, American Made, on the Works Progress Administration.

Anyone who hasn’t used the archive at Hyde Park: It’s fabulous. Cynthia Koch’s shop there is great. They have a virtual FDR calendar created out of multiple sources. So you can check how often FDR saw someone and when, down to what hour of the day. He almost never saw John Maynard Keynes.

The best object: FDR’s car. A mechanic in Dutchess County retrofitted it to accommodate his weak legs. But the mechanic also set up the car so it supplied him with cigarettes while he drove — lit cigarettes. So that is fun to see and I recommend a Hyde Park visit to even the most ferocious anti-Rooseveltians.

Lopez: What was the most enduring New Deal program?

Shlaes: Social Security, Social Security, Social Security.

Lopez: What did FDR do for radio as a medium?

Shlaes: Two things: The first is: He contributed enormously to its popularity. We all know about the Fireside Chats. What I didn’t know, at least until I did this research, was that the relationship was reciprocal. The medium worked hard to please FDR.

Columbia Broadcasting System published a memo for private distribution timed for the 1933 inaugural. Titled “We Think a Point has been Missed,” their doc argued that the claim that radio had made Roosevelt was misleading. On the contrary, said CBS. Roosevelt had made radio. Columbia thanked FDR for helping the medium win “public faith in its name” by using its “microphone to sell American sanity.”

As for the Academic Left, it wasn’t merely biased. It was beyond biased. On May 16, 1935, for example, a Columbia Teacher’s College prof “surveyed” tapes of 1,000 radio speakers to determine who had the best voice. Her criterion was pronunciation of words such as “government” and “capitalism.” She awarded FDR first prize out of all 1,000. (Father Coughlin, among her losers, lost because he had a “pulpit” voice that made him sound unnatural. Huey Long, she said, could be “ineffective and poor.”) The professor, Jane Zimmerman, said of FDR that “there is a sense of security in his voice.” The papers then reported Zimmerman’s findings as though they were objective and significant.

FDR’s radio is relevant to today for the following reason: These days there really is a salon. The salon says — right wingers can come in, but only if they are loud and mockable. Think of the right-winger on The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. When Michelle Obama came on the show, Elisabeth was wearing a top with only one shoulder. Hasselbeck is supposed to be representing conservatism, including social conservatism, but she’s dressed in a way that undermines her seriousness. That happens a lot.

That salon was created by FDR through the radio. The Columbia prof was right in one thing: He mastered his medium by understanding that performance skill mattered — he spoke in a low voice because he figured out that the mike was doing the work. His opponents by contrast shouted. So they seemed… unsalonworthy.

It’s not too Machiavellian to say that the Fairness Doctrine, which sprang up later, post-FDR, was Washington’s institutionalization of the exclusive salon.

Lopez: Was the FCC, created 74 years ago this month, a New Deal mouthpiece?

Shlaes: No. But there were many who were immediately concerned that through its licensing power it was advancing a political agenda. New York Herald Tribune editor Ogden Mills Reid called the radio “Spokesman of the New Deal.” The authority to revoke a license did indeed have a chilling effect. Remember: licenses were reviewed twice a year. That’s a frequency that all by itself generates anxiety.

By election year 1936 the media were speaking frequently about political abuse by the young FCC. At the American Newspaper Publishers Association, a spokesman noted that the FCC had “assumed dictatorial powers” generally, in a unanimous resolution the publishers condemned FCC for intervening in wire traffic. The publishers worried that the FCC was so mighty it might suppress print freedom along with that of radio freedom. Many Americans believed that Roosevelt’s critics, even the sane ones, were not getting sufficient airtime.

A Michigan man poles apart from Coughlin, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, created a new kind of broadcast when, using a phonograph, he went through a Roosevelt speech with the audience, halting the player at various points to provide a rebuttal. But the power of the mock-debate format terrified CBS. The network blocked the scheduled program on many affiliates.

It all led to modern radio as we knew it in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties — bland. Along with the voice of the bigot Father Coughlin, many relevant radio voices were suppressed by Hoover’s regime and then Roosevelt’s. Jurisprudential confirmation of FCC power was supplied by the Supreme Court decision in 1943 in which Felix Frankfurter wrote that the FCC was no mere traffic cop: “the act does not restrict the commission merely to supervision of the traffic. It puts upon the commission the burden of determining the composition of that traffic.”

Lopez: What would FDR do today about the Fairness Doctrine today?

Shlaes: FDR would view Fairness Doctrine reinstatement as an important political goal. But he wouldn’t be battling publicly for reinstatement in an election year. He was too clever to wage controversial battles pre-November. From 1935, he knew he wanted to pack the Supreme Court, but he didn’t make that goal large and public until 1937.

At this point in the political cycle FDR would be having off the record meetings with Apple about the Iphone to talk about the Doctrine, playlists, and podcasts. He would have his hands all over SIRIUS and the internet to ensure the Doctrine applied in those newer technological arenas. FDR had a wonderful way of figuring out where growth was going to happen in future and then competing effectively to capture a share of that growth for the public sector.

Lopez: How deeply did the Civilian Conservation Corps change the face of America?

Shlaes: CCC workers planted three billion trees. As summer comes, many Americans think of the CCC. The CCC operated 28 camps alone in Maine, where I go in the summer. A new CCC would not be the end of the world if it just meant clearing brush and laying park paths. But somehow you get the impression a new CCC would not be like that.

Lopez: What else was going on legislatively?

Shlaes: FDR was just finishing off his Hundred Days in June, 1933. Deposit insurance has its 75th anniversary this month. The FDIC is celebrating that. I’m wondering how many readers noticed that recent legislation expanded that insurance on bank accounts to $250,000 from the old $100,000.

Lopez: What was the best thing to come out of the New Deal?

Shlaes: Three things:

A) The SEC. It made our markets transparent and so pulled in foreign capital.

B) A sense of national community. But we could have had that without all the perverse policy.

C) A culture of freer trade in the White House. Cordell Hull of Tennessee led Roosevelt on a 15 year journey on trade. The Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934 compensated for some of the errors FDR had made the year before when he trashed an international conference in London.

Lopez: Does Barack Obama sound like someone who appreciates the New Deal’s shortcomings?

Shlaes: Hardly. The New Deal exists principally on an emotional plane for Obama. To him the New Deal is something you play like a song, to make you or your constituents feel better. Let me be clear: It’s too early to judge Obama on economics. But he does seem unaware of the economic consequences of government expansion that happens under the New Deal name.

Politicians generally act as if there is no cost to reconnecting with voters by building new New Deals. But the whole exercise of writing law out of New Deal nostalgia is a form of national narcissism. Call it New Deal narcissism.

We could afford to burnish our social contracts if there were no competition from abroad. But there is.

Lopez: Does John McCain appreciate the New Deal shortcomings?

Shlaes: If he thinks about FDR at all …

TR is the president who goes with McCain, not FDR. McCain likes strong defense, and he’s viscerally suspicious of big companies. So he’s more a Square Deal guy than a New Deal guy. Nonetheless any President has to deal with the New Deal legacy. As John Marini of the University of Nevada said in a great speech for Hillsdale College, it’s time to choose between Reagan and Roosevelt. Reagan himself didn’t have to choose, because he had time on his side. We don’t — entitlements have to reform now. McCain shown he has guts to cut by talking about taboo topics such as reindexing Social Security to make it solvent.

Lopez: If you could write “a call to arms” for the next president, what would it be?

Shlaes: Palecons, be proud!

Or: Property rights, property rights, property rights.

Lopez: What would The Forgotten Man want us to never forget as we mark this anniversary?

Shlaes: That New Deal nostalgia is expensive. Too expensive for younger Americans to afford.

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