Déjà vu all over again: Rightwing attacks on presidents

Déjà vu all over again: Rightwing attacks on Franklin Roosevelt


There are few better ways to get a handle on the current political scene than to re-read The Age of Roosevelt, the historical trilogy on the New Deal by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Volume 3 is titled The Politics of Upheaval. During the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the struggles of American labor to survive, the United States had to try to conserve fiscal and social health in the face of continuing assaults from nut-right politicians and media figures. Then as now, there was an unholy alliance between the distorted faux-populists doing the vocalizing and their funders; to some extent the self-described representatives of the people—or of religion, or of morality—represented the limited short-term interests of the very wealthy and of Wall Street.

Side note: Admittedly, the term ‘nut right’ is anachronism. Back in the 1930s the destructors were called other names, often more elegant though equally negative. There is little use in trying to quantify the ugliness of the personal attacks, to compare then and now. Obviously the anti-Rooseveltians did not have race to use against their president. But they did make fun of–for example–his being disabled and in a wheelchair. A political-social occasion described by Schlesinger gets the idea across: Republican business chiefs, gathered for a dinner meeting, all rose for a ‘toast’ to the absent president, laughing as a group at the fact that he would not be able to do the same.



A rose by any other name . . .

The thumbnails below should seem familiar. Let’s take, for example, the unholy alliance between the rightwing super-rich and racist-demagogue politicians not typically featured in Town and Country magazine:

“ . . . the du Ponts in particular were prepared to support almost anyone who promised to stir the masses—even, it developed, Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia.

Nothing better demonstrated the naivete—or the desperation—of the American right than this decision. Since his election as governor in 1933, Talmadge had become a strident figure on the national scene. He seemed a character out of Erskine Caldwell, with black rumpled hair, suspicious eyes glaring behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, a black cigar jutting out of his wide fleshy mouth, and a collection of poor-white prejudices ejaculated with restless and rabid intensity. Talmadge, who held a law degree from the University of Georgia, was actually much less the uncouth backwoodsman from Sugar Creek than he pretended.” (520)


Eugene Talmadge

But Talmadge had his uses. As Georgia’s governor,


“Talmadge spat at the New Deal with contempt. Little riled him more than [National Recovery Act] standards of wages and hours, unless possibly it was the [Works Progress Administration] standards of relief. When Ben Stolberg asked him what  he would do for the unemployed, Talmadge roared back, “Let ‘em starve.” The Governor then added, “What you need in New York is not La Guardia but Mussolini. A little castor oil would go a long ways toward starting the wheels of industry goin’ again.” (Stolberg concluded he was talking to Buzz Windrip.)” (521)

Note: The topical allusion to Mussolini here refers to one of Mussolini’s milder forms of torture, forcing political prisoners to drink the strong laxative castor oil. The offense was memorialized in Sinclair Lewis’s darkly sardonic novel It Can’t Happen Here. Buzz Windrip is a character in the novel. The Sinclair Lewis Society, of which I am a member, can and does find Lewis all over the map. Nowadays it is hard not to see him everywhere.


Sinclair Lewis, avatar Steve Buschemi

Back to then Gov. Talmadge,

“A Texas lumberman named John Henry Kirby presently waited on [Talmadge] as chairman of the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution. Kirby and Talmadge soon conceived the idea of a convention of grass-roots Democrats to denounce the New Deal and (though this was less advertised0 to launch the Talmadge presidential boom.

Talmadge’s retrenchment policies—especially the across-the-board reduction of the property tax, which gave immense benefits to the Georgia Power Company while saving the average Georgia farmer 53 cents a year—had won him a good name among businessmen.”


How time doesn’t change things:

“Late in January 1936 the forces gathered at Macon, Georgia, to save the republic—Thomas L. Dixon, the author of The Klansman, Gerald L. K. Smith, an assortment of other politicians, and Talmadge himself . . . Above the platform hung the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy. On every seat lay a copy of the Georgia Woman’s World with a two-column photograph splashed across the page [showing Eleanor Roosevelt in the company of African-Americans; offensive description].” (522)

Shades of Citizens for a Working America PAC. Grass roots? Not so much:

“Even in Georgia the grass-roots convention played only to a half-filled auditorium . . . What gave the episode significance was the readiness of northern businessmen—who presumably knew by 1936 all that it was necessary to know about Gene Talmadge—to give him money to advance his ideas and ambitions. Some of them—Sloan and Henry du Pont, for example—actually sent along their contributions after the [racist] revelations of Macon. Arthur Krock ascribed it not to malice but to gullibility, and he was doubtless right. The frightened rich were evidently at the mercy of every fast-talking political adventurer who came down the street.”

But fancily named organizations, like hope, spring eternal:

“Other attempts on the part of the Liberty Leaguers, du Pont section, to break through to the masses were even more ludicrous. One shrewd promoter sold them the idea of establishing something called the Farmers’ Independence Council. The only known address of the organization was the Liberty League office in Washington. “The biggest contributor,” remarked the Philadelphia Record, “was that old hayseed, Lammot du Pont, who kicked in $5000. (Crops pretty good this year, ain’t they Lammot!)” Other interested agriculturists were Sloan, Ogden Mills, Winthrop Aldrich, and Pew of Sun Oil. Relentless congressional investigation failed to disclose a single working farmer in the membership.”

On the other hand–here is a congressional committee whose time has come again:

“In the spring of 1936 Hugo Black’s Special Committee to Investigate Lobbying Activities got around to looking at the du Pont political subsidiaries—the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution, the Farmers’ Independence Council, the Crusaders, the Sentinels of the Republic. The result of the unfeeling exposure of rich men as political suckers was merriment in the press and a permanent conviction that the American Liberty League was a political bust. By midsummer, in the cruelest blow of all, the Republican party begged the Liberty League to stay away from its presidential ticket.” (523)

By the way, this chapter from Schlesinger’s book is titled “Dissidence among the Democrats.” This week, the major media outlets gave big play to theories that President Obama’s support of marriage equality would generate dissidence among minorities, and thus loss of votes for the Democrats. The Washington Post, a newspaper with a contingent actively campaigning against President Obama, has run this kind of line at frequent intervals since November 2008, although more feebly and dispiritedly lately. As regards the 2012 election, opinion polls indicate the same-sex-marriage issue less than a game changer. Meanwhile, now as ever some of the largest media outlets continue hand-wringing over the loss of ‘moderates’ in both parties blahblahblah.


Once again, a question for those still literate, factual, and practical: What is the ‘moderate’ number of exotic failures on Wall Street? What is the ‘moderate’ number of oil spills? What is the ‘moderate’ amount of mortgage fraud?

The methods, like the aims—money to get position, position to get money and status—are perennial. The power and will in some sectors of corporate America to push back against the interests of the general public should not be under-estimated.


Note: The above is re-posted, with revisions, from an earlier piece, regrettably still relevant.

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