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  Brother, Can You Spare A Billion? The Story of Jesse Jones  


Jesse Jones and FDRAN INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN FENBERG (cont.)
Executive Producer and Co-Writer

Q: Why do you think it has taken so long for historians to give Jones his due for the role he played in ending the Great Depression?

I have been trying to figure that out. Jones did not seek the limelight, even though he did receive a lot of press coverage throughout his thirteen years of government service. All the major news magazines ran cover stories on him. In fact, he was on the cover of TIME magazine twice. But, when you think about it, how many of us know about the figures of the New Deal and World War II outside of Franklin Roosevelt? Who can tell you who Harold Ickes or Harry Hopkins were? They also played very important roles and are a little more familiar than Jesse Jones, but basically they have also been forgotten.

Q: Why was Jesse Jones driven to make so much money, when he already had so much? Was it, in fact, like a game to him?

I believe that it was just part of his nature to build, create and contribute. There was probably an element of his personality that drove him to amass wealth and to use that wealth as a marker of his success. I think that when it came to his fellow capitalists, he was very competitive and a true wheeler-dealer who always made sure he made the very best deal possible. But he also used that approach to make the very best deals for the American people when he was in public service. He did everything he could to make sure that people could keep their homes, their farms and their businesses, and he also made sure he negotiated sharp deals on their behalf.

Q: In 1914, Jones was involved in the remarkable venture that internationalized Houston overnight -- the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel. What was his interest in this endeavor and how did it affect his success as a businessman and politician?

Jones raised Houston's half of the funds to build the Houston Ship Channel. This was one of the first, if not the first, private/public partnerships between the Federal government and a local community. Jones realized that the ship channel would be good for the community and also good business for him. The channel internationalized the city almost overnight, providing jobs and elevating the economy of the whole region. It also filled up all of the buildings Jones had built in anticipation of the channel's opening, including three ten floor office buildings on Main Street and the Rice Hotel, which was one of the largest and most luxurious hotels in the South. Jones knew he would prosper if his community thrived. The ship channel is a great example of his use of capitalism for the common good.

Q: What was Jones' greatest contribution during the time that he served as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an agency that was the central pillar of Roosevelt's New Deal?

Saving the banking system was probably the most important contribution Jesse Jones made during the Great Depression. After President Roosevelt closed all the banks, it was Jones who decided which ones could reopen and for those that could not, he determined what they needed so they could get back in business. He realized those banks didn't need loans, which would have to be repaid. Instead, Jones realized the banks needed working capital so they could make loans and get the wheels of the economy turning again. So Jones did a very radical thing. He had the Federal government buy stock in those banks so they would have capital to lend to consumers. This meant that the Federal government became part owner of the nation's banks. Jones also decided who the directors of some of those banks should be and in some cases, placed his own RFC people in them. It was a very radical thing for a conservative banker to do, especially in those days when there was such opposition to government intervention in the private sector. To Jones, it was simply good business.