Keeping the Faith

San Francisco Chronicle, January 27, 2005 | view article on

Seventy-two years after it first emerged from Franklin Roosevelt’s post-inaugural Hundred Days of epochal legislation, the New Deal rises from the grave to haunt those who hoped they had buried it for good. Its eternal foes ironically resurrected “that man’s” memory by attempting to privatize his most popular and enduring legacy. Social Security — a program whose very name invokes the communitarian ethos that makes the New Deal Satanic for those who would privatize risk along with everything else in the public domain — still easily has enough voting friends that Republicans backed off tampering with it before next year’s midterm elections.

But nothing did so much to freshen the fading memory of the New Deal as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In their ruinous wake, liberal commentators called for similar federal activism to rebuild the South while conservatives sought to tamp its dreaded specter back into the tomb of forgetfulness.

Among the latter, New York Times columnist John Tierney predicted (“Losing the Faith,” September 24) that the “1930s nostalgia craze” would quickly founder on the rocks of a public cynicism to which he added his own weighty boulders. Tierney related how he had lost faith in government after working with a federal antipoverty program in the 1970s. There he witnessed bored teenagers paid to do little or nothing. Tierney gratifyingly cited a Pew research poll that found 56 percent of Americans after Katrina thought government almost always wasteful and inefficient.

The Bush administration’s catastrophic bungling of a natural catastrophe, according to conservatives such as Tierney, only buttressed their own ideological antipathy to the shared risks and responsibilities inherent in New Deal programs A Louisiana laborer told the columnist that government’s unresponsiveness taught him that “The lesson is to save money and be self-reliant.”  John Wayne rides again.

A 1939 Dorothea Lange photograph reminded me that Tierney’s tale of redundant teens was as stale as those of FDR’s enemies who flayed the Works Progress Administration for useless make-work projects. Lange’s camera captured a 1939 parade of WPA laborers in San Francisco protesting Congressional funding cutbacks. One carried a sign asking “Was the Cow Palace Built Leaning on Shovels?” — referring to the enormous city-owned exhibition building that has been paying dividends since it opened in 1941 by hosting everything from Republican Party conventions to Billy Graham revivals, rodeos, and the Beatles. Few know that federal workers and grants built the Cow Palace, and that they did so with not a whiff of graft.

As a tsunami of corruption and mismanagement charges engulf the present administration, those who have lost faith in government cannot conceive of a regime notable for little scandal even as it employed millions of men and women on public works projects. For most Americans, the ubiquitous public landscape of the New Deal is as invisible as it is essential for the functioning of a modern nation.

One of the New Deal’s first alphabet soup agencies —the Civil Works Administration — lasted only for the dire winter of 1933-4. Within three weeks, CWA director Harry Hopkins put two million people to work, a number which soon doubled as legions of laborers built or repaired over 800 airports, 3700 athletic fields, and 255,000 miles of roads. Demonstrating a commitment to public education characteristic of subsequent New Deal programs, the CWA built or modernized 4000 school buildings, hired 50,000 teachers for rural schools, and controversially employed about 3000 artists and writers who, Hopkins insisted, “had to eat, too.”

In the coming years, Hopkins’ WPA and the Public Works Administration under “Honest” Harold Ickes put millions more to work building a network of levees, roads, airports, military bases, schools and community colleges, civic auditoriums, water delivery systems and sewers, hospitals, zoos, and parks still in use today. New Deal workers restored the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument, built the Triborough and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges, the Lincoln Tunnel, TVA dams, Treasure Island, and the spectacular Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood Without WPA flood control projects, last winter’s storms would have devastated Southern California at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers and insurance companies. 

Civilian Conservation Corps “boys” stationed in thousands of rural camps meanwhile reforested the nation and clocked in 6.5 million days fighting forest fires. They built 204 museums, restored almost 4000 historic buildings, built 3116 fire towers, and over 46,000 bridges. While saving families and individuals from destitution, the CCC made the nation’s proliferating parklands so gracefully accessible that few who use them are aware of the peacetime “tree army’s” heroic contributions to our collective well being.

FDR called upon Americans to overcome their fear even as his works programs vastly enlarged the public domain, providing them with a multitude of spaces in which to come together both as citizens and as a national community. By remembering the optimism, the wit, and the demonstrable compassion with which he led the nation through the twin calamities of depression and world war, we can better measure what recent administrations lack, as well as the quality we have forgotten to demand. Thow who — like Tierney — have lost their faith in what government can accomplish for the common good have but to look around themselves to regain it. The evidence of intelligent design is everywhere; it bears the name of Roosevelt, and it points to the future we could have if we but remember that we once had it.


Dr. Gray Brechin is project scholar and writer of the New Deal Legacy Project which is documenting the physical legacy of the New Deal in California under the aegis of the California Historical Society.

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