In early 1932, Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were divided about how he should approach the fall election even before he won the Democratic nomination. Fresh off re-election as New York’s governor, Roosevelt had the inside track for it; and the president, Herbert Hoover, at the end of his first term, presiding over the Great Depression like Humpty-Dumpty and claiming it had come from abroad, looked like easy pickings. There was a case to be made for saying as little as possible. Louis Howe, FDR’s chief political adviser, was making it.
On April 7, however, FDR gave a short radio address that became known as the “forgotten man” speech. “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power,” he said, “for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
Howe was unhappy. For 1932, to his ears, this was radicalism.
FDR mostly kept his mouth shut for the next six weeks.
The year before, Oglethorpe, a small Georgia college, awarded FDR an honorary doctorate degree. He was forced to cancel his commencement appearance because his mother, Sara, with whom he and his wife lived in New York City, was ill. He rescheduled the next year, for May 22.
Roosevelt had been traveling to Georgia frequently since 1924, when he went to Bullochville, about 70 miles south of Atlanta, for polio treatment in the waters. In 1927, he bought the town and renamed it Warm Springs, making him practically a Peach Stater. He was there in May of ’32 with three reporters, who were teasing him about how inconsequential his speeches had been since the “forgotten man.”
Well, he said, he had the commencement at Oglethorpe coming up and no speech for it yet. “Why don’t you take a hand in drafting one yourselves?” Ernest Lindly of the New York Herald Tribune said he would.
When Roosevelt was helped to the stage at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on May 22, before an audience of Oglethorpe graduates and their families, he carried Lindly’s last draft, the speech that would show he was fighting for the nomination without committing himself to a plan of action.
It was nearly 3,000 words.
He blamed the Depression on a lack of central planning (“In the state of New York alone ... there are at least seven thousand qualified teachers who are out of work ... just because nobody had the wit or the forethought to tell them in their younger days that the profession of teaching was gravely oversupplied.”). He faulted the plutocrats (“We cannot allow our economic life to be controlled by that small group of men whose chief outlook upon the social welfare is tinctured by the fact that they can make huge profits from the lending of money and the marketing of securities.”).
The nation could not simply wait for a cyclical upturn. And then came the peroration, which practically would become the motto of the New Deal: “The country needs ... bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
The New York Times panned the speech, calling it bland and vague (“try something”). Howe was furious, phoning Warm Springs from New York to tell FDR to deep-six the leftist stuff if he wanted to be president. But FDR sensed Hoover’s inaction had left him an open field. Richard Hofstadter observed that the New Deal at its heart was more a temperament than a philosophy – and the temperament was, try everything.