Monday, December 05, 2016

December 5, 2016--Breakfast With FDR

After a half-hour attempting to talk about the results of the recent election, our friend slammed her fists on the table and, starting to get up, said, "We can't talk about this anymore. Ever."

I said, as calmly as I could, "If it's come to that, for the sake of our friendship, we need to try to keep talking, because, if we don't, it's possible that we'll never again speak with each other."

She had been saying, hotter and hotter, that I was being naive insisting it is too soon to be drawing conclusions about what kind of president Donald Trump will be. "All he's been doing thus far," she quoted me as saying, is appoint people. He hasn't at yet actually done anything."

"But," she had been insisting, "all his appointments are either rightwing racist ideologues like Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, a bunch of hawkish has-been generals or," much worse to her, "Goldman Sachs billionaires with no governmental experience. Talk about draining the swamp. And what about that white-supremacist Bannon?"

"Who do you expect him to appoint? While campaigning he said these are the kind of people he'd select. Successful people and people not tainted by government experience. His criticism included claiming that the messes we find ourselves in are largely because we've been governed by professional politicians and government workers who are incompetent."

"That's quite an overstatement, don't you think?" she pressed, "I know some government officials and they're hardworking and pretty good considering the problems we face."

"So you expected Trump to appoint Bernie Sanders secretary of the treasury? As Obama said, elections have consequences. But, again, I am not drawing any conclusions. Not for a few months after he's inaugurated. To see what he and his people do. Could be a disaster, who knows, but they could shake things up in a few good ways."

She banged the table again but sat back down. So I pushed on, "I know your favorite president is Franklin Roosevelt, FDR." Sullenly, she nodded. "One of mine too, but I found while reading Listen, Liberal, that many of his major appointments were quite unconventional. Not right out of the elite leaders most presidents then and now draw upon."

"There you go again with that book," she muttered.

"It just so happens that I have the book with me. Let me read a bit to you, here on page 39, about some of FDR's appointments--
Look back to the days when government actually worked and you will notice an astonishing thing. Unlike the Obama administration's roster of well-graduated mugwumps, the talented people surrounding Franklin Roosevelt stood very definitely outside the era's main academic currents. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's closest confident, was a social worker from Iowa. Robert Jackson, the U.S. Attorney General whom Roosevelt appointed to the Supreme Court, was a lawyer who had no law degree. Jessie Jones, who ran Roosevelt's bailout program, was a businessman from Texas with no qualms about putting the nation's most prominent financial institutions into receivership. Marriner Eccles, the visionary whom Roosevelt appointed to run the Federal Reserve, was a small-town banker from Utah with no advanced degree. Henry Wallace, who was probably the nation's greatest agriculture secretary, studied at Iowa State and came to government after running a magazine for farmers. Harry Truman, FDR's last Vice President, had been a successful U.S. senator but had no college degree at all. 
I looked up to see her reaction.

"He also had the famous Brain Trust with plenty of people from Harvard and Columbia."

"Your point?"

"That he also turned to well educated and experienced people to help guide his thinking and legislative agenda."

"True, including appointing the richest man in America, Wall Street insider, Joseph Kennedy, to serve as first head of the SEC, saying he was the best choice because he knew how the system was rigged and where the skeletons were hidden. To drain the swamp you need people who know the swamp. Which brings me to my final point."

"Thankfully," my friend said under her breath.

"Then there was small-town lawyer Cordell Hull, his Secretary of State, who did not always get FDR to do the right thing. For example, he pressed Roosevelt to authorize during the Second World War the internment of Japanese Americans. More than 120,000 of them."

She looked away. "A lot of people, you included, are worried that Trump will do a version of the same thing to Muslims in this country. That banning them selectively from entering this country is not that far a stretch from internment. Whatever Trump might be thinking about that--and I doubt it will come to that--unlike FDR he hasn't made any moves to do so whereas the progressive Democrat Roosevelt did what he did. And further, because of his anti-Semitism, or minimally indifference to the plight of European Jews, with pressure from key members of the State Department, including Hull, how many Jews did he relegate to horrific deaths in Germany's concentration camps? How many could Roosevelt have saved?"

"I have no idea," she said, still not looking at me.

"My point--how presidents act is not always predictable. And before condemning them I continue to contend we have to wait until they act. Becoming president history shows can change candidates and president-elects. Until they get those extra-top-secret briefings and have time to contemplate the world situation and the immensity of their power, all bets are off."

She said nothing and began to slip into her coat.

"My real point is that things are usually more nuanced and complicated than they seem. Thus, the comparison to Franklin Roosevelt. We both think very highly of him, but . . ."

With that, my friend left.

That was two weeks ago. I haven't heard from her since. This is very unusual when we're in town.

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