Patrick Maney: The legend of FDR's first 100 days in office





[Patrick Maney, a professor of history at Boston College, is the author of "The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR."]

HISTORICAL myth always has an advantage over truth by virtue of its head start. But the legend of Franklin Roosevelt's famous first 100 days has become so overblown that it may be crippling the ability of leaders to be effective, let alone achieve the instantaneous greatness for which millions are now pining. This may be a case when bad history makes for bad politics, to paraphrase the English historian Christopher Hill.

The problem with the 100 days paradigm is that it obscures the vital role played by Congress - Republicans as well as Democrats - in crafting the First New Deal. It's too FDR-centric, what with Roosevelt and his brain trust bending a pliant Congress to their will within months of taking power. No less an authority than Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess proclaimed that FDR had "everything ready to go and Congress was perfectly happy to pass it before they had even read it."

The real 100 days - March 9 to June 16, 1933 - bear little resemblance to the legend. True, Roosevelt inspired a nation as perhaps no president ever has, and yes, the early months of his administration produced an outpouring of constructive legislation unequaled in the nation's history. But the early New Deal was hardly a one-man operation. As often as not, Congress, not Roosevelt, forced the action. Of the 15 major bills that constitute the First New Deal, most originated in Congress and many had legislative histories predating Roosevelt's assumption of power. There were even some key measures FDR initially opposed.

Few New Deal agencies are more closely identified with Roosevelt than the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But when the idea of insuring bank deposits first came up, Roosevelt was opposed. To guarantee the savings of all depositors, no matter how good or bad their banks might be, he insisted, would encourage sloppy and dishonest banking practices. When it became clear Congress would act with or without his support, Roosevelt endorsed the measure, and for three-quarters of a century the FDIC has served as the backbone of the banking system.

But what about lawmakers acting so fast they never bothered reading the measures they were enacting into law? It is true that most measures passed in record time and with a minimum of debate. But that's because most legislators, having debated the issues for so long, had already made up their minds. No early New Deal measure touched the lives of more hungry and jobless Americans than the Federal Emergency Relief Act. But an almost identical measure had been under almost continuous consideration since 193l, when a bipartisan group, led by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette Jr., first introduced it. By the time FDR assumed office, federal relief to the unemployed was a forgone conclusion.

The famous Tennessee Valley Authority had an even longer pedigree, dating back to the years just following World War I. That's when congressional progressives, led by Nebraska Senator George Norris, launched a campaign to convert a federally owned dam at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, into a facility to provide cheap electricity and flood control to hundreds of thousands of residents along the Tennessee River. Six times Norris and his supporters proposed measures to create a TVA and six times they met defeat, twice by presidential veto. Finally, in 1933, supporters of public power found an ally in the White House, and their dream became a reality.

Roosevelt's first Congress was not only eager to act but also was infused with a remarkable spirit of bipartisanship. Some of the most ardent New Dealers were Republicans like La Follette and Norris. They have no counterparts in today's GOP, which helps explain why President Obama's bipartisan outreach is meeting such a chilly reception.

Of course, Roosevelt was a presidential giant. But his real genius lay in inspiration, not legislation. He was a kind of Wizard of Oz, infusing Congress and the public with the confidence to do what they had been capable of doing all along.

This is no small achievement. But it's a different achievement than history usually gives him credit for.

Obama needs to be free of a legend that practically guarantees eventual disillusionment when new presidents fall short of Rooseveltian goals that not even their namesake was capable of achieving.

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