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FDR’s Real Defining Moment


Jonathan Alter writes for Newsweek and is a frequent guest of Keith Olbermann’s.  He’s one of those liberals we appreciate when the rightwingers are in control but who lose their critical edge when their crowd is in.

It’s easy to imagine Alter pitching the idea for his book FDR’s Defining Moment to a publisher as the prospect of a liberal Democrat in the White House became a likelihood, and easy to picture the president-elect reading it as he prepared to take office. What would it have taught or reminded Barack Obama about Franklin Delano Roose-velt’s decision to end alcohol Prohibition? What lessons might Obama apply in dealing with marijuana Prohibition? (And why does the ominous word require a capital P?)

Like millions of other Americans, FDR, personally, never abided by the ban on alcohol. It had taken effect in January, 1920 after Congress passed and 45 states ratified a Constitutional Amendment (the 18th) banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Congress also passed the Volstead Act, which defined “intoxicating liquors” as any drink more than 0.5% alcohol by weight.

Alter first mentions Prohibition in describing a period in the mid-1920s when FDR, stricken with polio, was spending a lot of time aboard a yacht with his secretary, Missy LeHand: “Missy and Franklin entertained a stream of visitors with plenty of drinking (during Prohibition)…”

Running for the governorship of New York in 1928 Roosevelt distanced himself from then-governor Al Smith, the Democratic candidate for President, a “wet” who forthrightly opposed Prohibition. FDR didn’t want to risk alienating “dry” voters in upstate New York, so he took the “damp” middle position —leave it up to the states. Roosevelt won by a slim margin while Smith lost to Herbert Hoover and failed to carry New York. There was a heavy overlap between Smith’s “dry” adversaries and anti-Catholic voters. On election night Smith reportedly said, “Well, the time just hasn’t come yet when a man can say his beads in the White House.”

By 1932, when Roosevelt was running for President, a pledge to repeal the Volstead Act and legalize 3.2 beer was the key distinction between his platform and Herbert Hoover’s. Their stated plans to revive the economy were not that different. After two years of relying on the private sector to voluntarily respond to the depression, Hoover had launched versions of many reforms we associate with the New Deal. “Public works, agricultural price stabilization, bank restructuring, and even a bit of federally supported relief were begun under Hoover,” according to Alter.

Alter doesn’t tell us why FDR’s line on Prohibition shifted between 1928 and ’32, but James MacGregor Burns did in a biography called “Roosevelt: the Lion and the Fox.” In those days the New York governor’s term was two years, so Roosevelt had to run for re-election in 1930. “Two possible danger areas loomed for the Democrats,” Burns recounts.“One of these was prohibition. Roosevelt had long hedged on this issue. He had expressed the fervent hope that it would disappear from politics. It did not, but it changed in a direction favorable to the Democrats. By the end of the 1920s —a decade of speakeasies, raids by Treasury men, gang wars, and intemperance— New York Republicans were finding prohibition to be a political liability. Roosevelt had no intention of running as a wet. But when he heard that the probable Republican nominee was about to come out for repeal, the governor moved fast to outflank him on the wet side. In a letter to Senator Wagner in September 1930 he favored outright repeal [of the 18th Amendment] and the restoring of liquor control to the states. It was a potent move. The Republicans failed to pick up much wet support, yet they outraged the drys upstate…

“Time for Beer”

Roosevelt was sworn in on March 4. On Sunday evening March 12 he addressed the nation on the radio. The memorable intro was drafted by a CBS station manager: “The president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat.”

FDR had written his speech with a worker in mind —a man he had been watching take down the inaugural scaffolding. Roosevelt’s voice had a calm tone, which Alter describes lyrically: “The voice conjured memories of a lost world, before the bitterness of economic ruin, a world where the well-liked scion of the well-to-do family on the hill went off to college, then returned to preside over the community with an easy benevolence.” Will Rogers ­—the Stephen Colbert of his day— said of the speech, “He made everyone understand it, even the bankers.”

“After the first Fireside Chat,” writes Alter, “Roosevelt relaxed in his office with Howe and Rosenman [two top aides]. About 11:30 p.m. he said: ‘I think it’s time for beer.’ Preparations for a bill to speed the end of Prohibition began that night.”

The Myth of the First 100 Days

Alter’s book could have been structured as a debunking of the First-Hundred-Days myth. “The hundred days themselves have been so mythologized that the real ones are barely recognizable,” he observes. “Most of the landmark New Deal accomplishments that endure to this day ­­—the Securities and Exchange Commission (1934), Social Security (1935) and the pro-union legislation like the Wagner Act (1935)— date from later in the decade.  The opening act of the Roosevelt administration brought fewer structural changes than is assumed… Some of the new laws simply extended Hoover’s efforts…

“For all of the liberal reveries of later years, the first thrust of the Hundred Days was fiscal prudence… The original centerpiece of the Roosevelt program was the so-called Economy Bill, which… slashed federal outlays by an astonishing 31 percent, by far the largest reduction in government spending before or since.

“Three quarters of the cuts came from veterans’ benefits, the first of what are now called ‘entitlement’ programs and the largest source of federal spending at the time.”

So how did it come to pass that Roosevelt’s first months in office are remembered so fondly by the American people? You already know the answer.  Alter provides the details:

“Immediately after delivering his first Fireside Chat on March 12, he reviewed the 1932 Democratic Party platform, which called for amending the Volstead Act to legalize 3.2 beer.* The 18th Amendment, which launched Prohibition in 1918, was aimed at hard liquor and permitted the legalization of beverages with less alcohol. So  FDR issued a three-sentence message to Congress on legalizing beer. The next day, March 13, the House was preparing to recess when it received FDR’s message. It stayed in session, immediately passed the bill on beer, and sent it to the Senate. As FDR knew, under Senate rules, senators could not consider modifying the Volstead Act until they voted on the Economy Bill, which was on the floor first. So they swallowed the bitter budget pill that afternoon and chased it down with a beer vote the next day, effective immediately.

“The quick amendment of the Volstead Act is one of the least appreciated elements of how FDR changed the country’s psyche during the Hundred Days. Although formal repeal of Prohibition would not come until the end of the year, beer parties were held all over the country starting in March. At 12:01 a.m. on the first day of legal beer, Hawaiian guitarists drew a crowd as a truck from Washington’s Abner Drury Brewery pulled up at the White House with a sign: PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT, THE FIRST BEER IS FOR YOU. In Times Square, bands played ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.” H.L. Mencken, tipping a few in Baltimore, decided that maybe Roosevelt wasn’t so bad after all. ‘Something was happening immediately! Bars were opening overnight, with every other beer on the house!” recalled author Studs Terkel, explaining how the news played for a young man growing up in Chicago. ‘In the midst of the Depression it was a note of hope that something would be better.”

Whether or not Barack Obama has read, “The Defining Moment,” he is ceretainly aware of the analogies to FDR ending alcohol prohibition as he considers how to deal with marijuana. Evidently, to our disappointment and shame, the new president is not going to bring the troops home swiftly or enact single-payer healthcare or push through pro-union legislation. And yet he could win the enduring respect and affection of the masses, and there’ll be dancing in the streets, if only he would legalize marijuana for medical use.

Our demands are so meager it’s pathetic.

*3.2 beer is about half strength. At a campaign event one Sunday in October, 1996, Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) advised patrons of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club that if Proposition 215 passed, the Vatican was planning to assign jurisdiction over marijuana to “the twin sisters, Saintsa Maureen and Doreen, the patron saints of 3.2 beer.”  It got a knowing laugh from a crowd that considered marijuana to be a relatively benign intoxicant.

FRED GARDNER can be reached at:

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at

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