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The Great Depression
Question of the Day
Noting that the 1920s produced “true economic gains,” she faults Hoover and FDR for the same basic economic follies. And quotes Calvin Coolidge on Hoover's flaws: “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”
With no coherenet political philosophy and his celebrated wit and charm, FDR was opportunistic and given to slogans, cliches, demagoguery. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He believed that “constitutional niceties blocked progress,” and his “remedies were often inspired by socialist or fascist models abroad” though few New Dealers were socialists or communists.
He was heavily dependent on his “brain trust,” a coterie of bright lawyers, several of whom were favorably influenced by Mussolini’s fascism and Stalin’s Marxism. In 1929, some 2,500 American intellectuals visited the Soviet Union to see if any of its social achievements might be applicable to America.
Among them was Rexford Tugwell, who had a six-hour chat with Joseph Stalin (foreshadowing in a bizarre way Hubert Humphrey’s eight-hour marathon with Khrushchev in the Kremlin in 1959).
Later Tugwell joined FDR’s brain trust, but neither he nor other FDR advisers who had seen merit in some of Stalin’s or Mussolini’s social accomplishments had much influence on the New Deal. The NRA (National Recovery Administration), whose ubiquitous symbol was the blue spread eagle, an ostentatious effort at central planning, was inspired in part by Mussolini’s fascist model.
Ms. Shlaes notes that the NRA bureaucracy “generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.”
As it turned out, she concludes, the New Deal’s policy of helping the poor and soaking the rich became the precursor of the “entitlement challenge that bedevils both parties today.”
With respect to the underclass, it may may seem odd that Ms. Shlaes regards Father Divine, a black Depression cult leader, a positive symbol of self-help, along with Booker T. Washington, who urged blacks to improve themselves in the years after slavery.
By preaching personal responsibility and property ownership, the charismatic Divine established himself as a major Depression figure along with better-known men such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin.
All three spoke up for the little guy, had political aspirations and sought FDR’s ear. Ms. Shlaes says that Divine’s belief in “a future of plenty” was in direct conflict with FDR, who assumed “a future of scarcity.”
Divine, with his thousands of followers, attempted to be a race-blind leader, but he became increasingly interested in civil rights.
After establishing his headquarters at 20 W. 15th St. he became so famous that a letter addressed simply “God, Harlem, USA” would reach him.
As the Depression eased, Divine’s empire shrank, but his New York “heavens” (low-cost housing) and his Father Divine restaurants persisted into the mid-1940s.
It was then that I ran into him. Occasionally when in New York, I would stop by one of his restaurants for a 25-cent lunch. There was always a fully set table reserved for Divine.
One Sunday evening I took a half-dozen fellow Yale Divinity School students to his chief heaven in Harlem to observe an opulent Love Feast over which he presided. The huge table was set with no fewer than 50 different dishes, each of which Divine blessed as one of his followers brought it to his table. Above him was a large neon sign, “God’s Holy Communion Table,” and behind him a large interracial choir. Brother John Lamb, a white man, announced our presence.
By Michael P. Orsi
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