A sweeping, lively survey of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to restart the American economy nearly 80 years ago.
With panache and skill, Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times journalist Hiltzik (Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century, 2010, etc.) chronicles the rise and decline of the New Deal, from the desperate improvisation of the Hundred Days through the more carefully considered passage of such landmark legislation as the Securities Exchange Act and the Social Security Act. The author concludes with judicial and legislative reaction against some elements of the program. In addition to the obvious high points, he makes room for coverage of “Federal One,” the relief program for workers in the arts, and of the deplorable condition of black urban and agricultural workers. The New Deal was a huge enterprise driven by a large cast of characters who held widely differing views on how to cure the nation’s ills, including the thundering Gen. Hugh Johnson at the National Recovery Administration, the prickly Harold Ickes at the Interior Department and the long-suffering Frances Perkins at the Labor Department. These and many of the other colorful personalities this history; while FDR was “the glue holding these disparate pieces together,” he does not appear here as the heroic figure of political legend. Hiltzik presents him instead in more humanized form, sympathetically but with many faults clearly on display, including indecisiveness, aversion to conflict and a measure of hubris that brought him into an ill-fated collision with the Supreme Court in the “court-packing” fiasco of 1937. The author suggests that it was FDR’s ebullient confidence more than his economic competence that sustained the nation through this devastating period. Though he disagrees with the revisionist school of historians who argue that the New Deal prolonged the Depression, Hiltzik writes with no obvious agenda in mind.
A timely, well-executed overview of the program that laid the foundation for the modern progressive state.