Review: The Defining Moment

The Defining Moment, by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, is a fizzy pop-history hagiography of Franklin D. Roosevelt – but for all that, it’s admirably evenhanded. Alter is prepared to acknowledge Roosevelt’s faults and mistakes, and give credit where due (e.g. to Sara Roosevelt or to Hoover) without detracting from Roosevelt’s enormous personality. 1933 called for charisma, not technical genius. The book includes sketches of early life and later presidency but focuses on the 1933 campaign and especially on the first 100 days of the new administration, when Roosevelt used that personality to restore confidence like a magician.

Best of all, Mr. Alter includes the texts of the Inaugural Address and the first Fireside Chat, on the banking crisis (all the Fireside Chats are available here.) Here are the first paragraphs of the banking crisis chat.

I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking — with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking but more particularly with the overwhelming majority who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be. I recognize that the many proclamations from State Capitols and from Washington, the legislation, the Treasury regulations, etc., couched for the most part in banking and legal terms should be explained for the benefit of the average citizen. I owe this in particular because of the fortitude and good temper with which everybody has accepted the inconvenience and hardships of the banking holiday. I know that when you understand what we in Washington have been about I shall continue to have your cooperation as fully as I have had your sympathy and help during the past week.

First of all let me state the simple fact that when you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money into a safe deposit vault. It invests your money in many different forms of credit — bonds, commercial paper, mortgages and many other kinds of loans. In other words, the bank puts your money to work to keep the wheels of industry and of agriculture turning around. A comparatively small part of the money you put into the bank is kept in currency — an amount which in normal times is wholly sufficient to cover the cash needs of the average citizen. In other words the total amount of all the currency in the country is only a small fraction of the total deposits in all of the banks.

Who in American politics today has a touch this light? What medium could reach the 60 million people that Mr. Alter says listened on March 12, 1933? Before this short speech, people were stuffing cash in socks and working themselves up to murder bankers. Afterwards, “the same people… were now waiting patiently to put their remaining money where their new confidence was.” The Defining Moment is a timely reminder of the power of political communication.

MORE on Zeal and Activity: A comment on John Updike’s review of The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shales.

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One Response to “Review: The Defining Moment”

  1. The Great Depression in Memory « Zeal and Activity Says:

    […] retreating a little from my review of Mr. Alter’s book, when I wrote “1933 called for charisma, not technical genius.” Roosevelt’s […]

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