Jonathan Alter is a national affairs columnist at Newsweek and MSNBC analyst. He is the author of the book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. He spoke with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on July 30, 2009.

Jonathan Alter

Why did you first become interested in the 1930s and FDR and decide to write a book on the topic?

I moonlight on television and was doing a piece in 1999 for The Today Show about some of the great events of the 20th century and one of the pieces in the series was on the great 'what ifs’ of the 20th century. One of them was this: Guiseppe Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer, got off five shots at FDR in February of 1933 from only 25 feet away. What if the assassin had killed FDR just before he took office in the depths of the Depression? What kind of country would we be living in?

I noticed that there had been very, very little written about the assassination attempt — some of my friends didn’t even know it had happened. So I got interested in that 1932/33 period. I submitted my book proposal on September 10, 2001 and the next day set it aside and said, you know, what relevance is Franklin Roosevelt? A few months later when President Bush started to have problems, in my mind, I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and realized that the issue in the country was leadership. That took me back to Roosevelt and his great leadership and I resumed work on the book, which didn’t come out until 2006.

Why is this a relevant era?

I think the big question then and the big question now is whether the government can do anything to help us solve our problems. The 1930s are an example of time when Americans felt like their government was looking out for them. Even if the Depression wasn’t ended for several years, FDR provided jobs and hope. So, the subtitle of my book is FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, because at the center of this moment was this notion of hope at a difficult time. I didn’t have a magic crystal ball, but I did know that there would be other huge national challenges and that this idea that we should all be left to what FDR called the hurricanes of chance, that we should be subjected to the not so tender mercies of the free market, would be once again debated. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know that it would be so soon. But I did know that it was an important tension in American history between the unfettered marketplace of the 1920s or the 1990s and the last ten years, and a government that people saw as being on their side.

President Obama has made reference to reading your book, The Defining Moment, and he said that he’d hoped to apply some of FDR’s strategies to his own administration. Do you think Obama has been successful in doing this? And is it something he should do?

That was a nice thing for me, I have to say.

I think he applied exactly the right lessons from FDR. In his famous first inaugural address, FDR said not just “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He said that we needed “action and action now.” He used that word, action, six times. And he recognized that the American public demanded a response to the Depression. Obama recognized that immediately as well, and so he began a very ambitious recovery program that was even more ambitious than what FDR undertook in his first hundred days. Roosevelt was operating in a more conservative climate than Obama in terms of government investment in the economy. But FDR actually first moved to balance the budget and cut government spending; he was doing one thing with his left hand and one thing with his right hand. He was simultaneously starting the Civilian Conservation Corps and he was balancing the budget—moving both left and right. Obama hasn’t been forced to move right too much. He’s talked about fiscal responsibility but more as a long-term objective. In the short term, he’s intervening aggressively.

There is still a very similar philosophical split, though. Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush believed that if your home was about to be foreclosed on, that it was not really any of the government’s concern. FDR and Obama take a different view. So even though Bush intervened in the economy with TARP, he still has more in common with Hoover than with Roosevelt. Obama is pursuing an FDR strategy with one important exception that relates to the CCC. FDR used direct hiring by the government to get hundreds of thousands of people to work immediately. Through the CCC, he got 250,000 young men working for a dollar a day within three months of taking office — it was the fastest mobilization in American history. Today, because the government is out of the habit of direct hiring, because contracting is now the way that government services are provided, and because everything is more complicated, Obama has not been able to put people to work as quickly. It may cost him politically.

As someone who has both studied the 1930s and is an observer of today’s social and political climate, can you compare and contrast both society’s openness to and need for broad government intervention in the 1930s and today?

The two periods have a lot in common in that we are debating anew the role of government. In the current crisis, we’ve seen not just President Obama but also President Bush recognize that when a country is in deep trouble, the government needs to step in to keep things from getting worse. I think that that’s generally accepted now. But the devil is in the details. There will be stops and starts in how responsive government is and how far the people and their representatives will go. But the basic question of government’s responsibility has once more been resolved in favor of activist government. Whatever happens with health care, we’ve already seen trillions of dollars invested by the federal government in the economy. The number of people who think that the government shouldn’t have done anything in response to the crisis of 2008 is very small.

You often reference FDR’s commitment to “bold persistent experimentation” as a hallmark of his administration. Experimentation has a risk attached to it — a potential for big payoff or great loss. Given the current economic environment and the shaken confidence of the American people, do you think there’s an appetite today and room for “bold persistent experimentation”? In what areas?

No. I think things were so much worse in 1933 that people were willing to experiment more. Remember, Roosevelt was trying to get us out of a depression; Obama is trying to keep us from slipping into a depression. So, the former gives you more latitude to experiment than the latter. And that’s why Obama cannot go out now and say, “Well, I’m going to experiment on the patient.” He has to say — in a somewhat disingenuous way — that he knows exactly what his health care reform package will bring. Nobody knows what it will bring. But if he admits to experimenting, he will shake confidence.

In your book, you write the following about when Roosevelt took office in 1933: “Exactly what was 'necessary’? No one knew, including Roosevelt.” The crisis of the time required a certain amount of creativity and Roosevelt was allowed that creativity because he was working with a clean slate. Is that same creativity required today? And are we seeing it?

The same level of creativity might be needed, but it’s not being provided. And necessity is the mother of invention. If things are really bad and the old order has really been discredited, then you have more freedom to experiment. In this case, Obama has some creative ideas, like a consumer financial protection agency. But it’s not clear it’s going to go through because the appetite for creative effort might be less than the strength of the special interests. But I think that creativity and experimentation are very relevant.

To a great extent, both FDR and Barack Obama have attempted to cut out the middleman, so to speak, when it comes to communicating with the American public. Can you discuss the role of the news media in the 1930s and today and how it is used or not used by the respective presidents? Has that relationship evolved?

Well, FDR pioneered the new medium of his day, which was radio. And Obama is pioneering the new medium of our day, which is the Internet. And they are both doing so in creative ways. I’m not one of those people who wrings my hands about the future of media. I’m worried about the future of print journalism in particular, but not the news business in a larger sense. It will just evolve into a different form. Both Roosevelt and Obama hold a lot of press conferences. The journalists are important not for just breaking stories and holding them to account. The journalists are also very important in providing context for what is happening. So the mission of Washington journalism is more vital than ever. But I think the big comparison between Obama and Roosevelt is that both are masters of seeming calm amid the storm. And they convey that calm and sense of confidence to the American people. So Obama’s popularity will go up and down, but he continues to have a basic connection with the public that Roosevelt also had.

I know that your father lived through the Great Depression and served in WWII. Do you ever talk with your father about the 1930s and today?

I talk to my father about these types of things all the time. In fact, I just did another piece for The Today Show, it aired this Memorial Day, where I went with my father to the World War II Memorial. They took a group of World War II veterans back there and it was a very moving and evocative experience. Both my father and my mentor in journalism, a guy named Charlie Peters, the founder of the Washington Monthly, understand, intuitively, the importance of the CCC and other New Deal ideas. And they conveyed them to me over the years. I’ve been very lucky in that the people I’ve been exposed to have helped nurture in me an appreciation of what the 1930s contributed to America. I’m in the habit of, if I’m on a highway or going through a tunnel or in a school, or taking a hike, of recognizing that all of those things were likely built by the New Deal.