Voters in the 1932 presidential election, shell-shocked by economic disaster, were “fed up with Washington, with government, and with both parties,’’ writes Sally Denton. “The way most people feel, they would like to vote against all of them if possible,’’ humorist Will Rogers said. Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a change, but, as Denton writes, before he took office “it was difficult to get a fix on Roosevelt’s platform for the presidency.’’ Just in case the parallels to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory weren’t clear enough, she adds that FDR’s eloquent oratory, if at times vague, inspired “an outbreak of infectious optimism.’’
Denton’s “The Plots Against the President’’ details in a brisk, cogent narrative what Roosevelt faced after he won election against Herbert Hoover that November. As with Obama, the president-elect seemed to infuriate many on the right, whose criticisms often contradicted one another. Roosevelt was (in turn): socialist? communist? fascist? His enemies painted him as either an intellectual lightweight, incapable of addressing the nation’s financial emergency, or an evil mastermind, a traitor to his class, a tool of foreign interests. Much like today’s birthers, a hard core of Roosevelt-haters saw the New Deal as “a Jewish conspiracy,’’ and Denton writes of the propaganda campaign launched by those “determined to prove that Jewish blood coursed through Roosevelt’s veins.’’
The long interregnum between Roosevelt’s election and inauguration in March 1933 proved to be among the worst periods of the Depression. Joblessness rose and public confidence in the banks fell to an all-time low, leading to cash hoarding and a panicked rush among the wealthy to stockpile gold. Charismatic figures like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin transformed radio from an infant technology to a tool of mass political and social influence. Outgoing President Hoover insisted that the only solution was for Roosevelt to endorse and follow all Hoover’s policies, including vigorously defending the gold standard (on that point, Denton writes that “Roosevelt repeatedly joked that he didn’t even know what it was - a remark that unhinged the humorless Hoover’’). Hoover’s response to the snowballing bank failures was to call a national bank moratorium - in effect, blocking Americans from withdrawing all their cash by simply closing all the banks.
In the midst of these pressures, Roosevelt huddled with his “Brain Trust’’ of advisers, mapping plans for restoring the country’s economy and morale. At the conclusion of his own morale-buoying cruise on Vincent Astor’s 263-foot yacht (FDR was still, after all, a member of his class), the president-elect disembarked to speak to a rally in Miami along with Chicago’s Mayor Anton Cermack. That evening, Feb. 15, 1933, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara fired shots at the politicians, missing Roosevelt but hitting Cermack (who later died) and several bystanders. Roosevelt’s bravery under fire - he sheltered the wounded Cermack with his own body as the car sped off to the hospital - inspired the public, and by the time of his inauguration two weeks later he had won over many skeptics. He closed the banks as Hoover had suggested, but dubbed it a bank holiday rather than moratorium, demonstrating the astute political and human instincts that would help him rally a demoralized country.
A far less tangible but perhaps more ominous threat - and one many historians, Denton claims, have unjustly understated - was posed by a shadowy plot to effect a bloodless coup, bankrolled by millionaires and carried out by veterans. The man allegedly recruited to step in as Roosevelt’s replacement, General Smedley Darlington Butler, stymied the plan when he alerted the FBI’s new head, J. Edgar Hoover. Although congressional hearings confirmed some of the plot’s details, the so-called Wall Street Putsch was mocked by major newspapers and has been “mostly marginalized or ridiculed by historians,’’ Denton writes. From the vantage point of 2012, she makes a pretty convincing case about the dangers of alliances among big business, populist propaganda, and a lazy media.