The Forgotten Man to His President

VOLUME 151 NUMBER 3

MARCH 1933

WE have given you what you asked for — our votes. In unprecedented millions we have sanctioned your aspiration to the office which you now assume. Thousands of us who never before cast a ballot for any nominee of your party have cast our ballots for you. Other thousands who never before participated in a national election at all, because they never detected in national politics a contest of principles worth a trip to the polls, have helped swell your majority. Many of the sound, disinterested, incorruptible men of the party lately in power worked against their nominal affiliations to procure your triumph, and brought to your cause the support of all who value the judgment and trust the motives of these leaders. You go to your inauguration bearing the ostensible mandate of all parties, all social classes, all occupations, all sections of the country, in a way and to a degree never granted to any man since America came into her full stature as a nation.

You might pardonably look upon yourself, therefore, as having won, by either the arithmetical or the moral scale of measurement, every plaudit and every tribute within the power of your fellow countrymen to bestow. Nevertheless, we beg of you not to see yourself in that light. It would be natural enough, human enough, for you to surrender yourself to the elation of the victor in a partisan contest; but we want you to be a little more than human in this one respect, and to feel something less than elation. The glow of triumph, the gusto of an overwhelming and merited vindication — that might excusably be the mood in which you contemplate your success and approach the responsibilities of your office; but to us it seems desperately important that you attain a mood for which no excuse need be framed.

Superficially considered, the circumstances invite you to take your oath of office as a victorious general, the resplendent conquering hero who leads a triumphal procession in his plumed and gilded coach. We can perhaps forgive you if you so feel and act, for are we not human and ordinary folk ourselves, capable of petty exultations and gloatings, fond of a bit of pageantry or dramatic retribution now and then, prone to imagine ourselves with a foot on the necks of fallen enemies, and touched with humorous charity for our own average weaknesses made manifest in the conduct of other men?

Copyright 1933, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

At the same time, we should far prefer not to be obliged to forgive you for being even as we are; we have seen enough and to spare of arrogant fatuity in office. We should like to be satisfied with you, satisfied with the choice we have made. And satisfied we shall never be until we have seen you go to your task, not arrayed in self-confidence and pride, not vestured in the illusion of power, glory, and importance to which one of us might succumb in your place, but rather clothed in the sackcloth of an invulnerable humility.

II

We have given you the votes you asked for; but is there not one other thing, even more important, which you require from us along with them? It seems to us that there ought to be, and that without this other thing your handsome majority will turn out to be worthless to you and to us. We hope you want what goes with the votes; but, whether you do or not, we want you to have it. We have a moral right to demand that you accept it, and even to force it upon you if we can find the way.

What is it that we are so insistent upon your having? Simply an understanding of what we meant by all those ballots cast for your electors.

To whom can you turn for this urgently necessary understanding? Who is going to challenge you with a truthful interpretation of your victory? Not your late campaign workers and managers and backers and their astute lieutenants. These men’s game is not truth, but flattery; not wisdom, but tactics. Up to the eve of the election they were busy flattering us, the electorate, in what they thought to be your interest. Precisely at that point, their usefulness ended.

An hour after the result was known, most of them had turned to flattery of you. They began with one consent to inform you that we voters had just given a stupendous and crushing demonstration of our confidence in you. There you have the measure of their hopeless remoteness from us plain, non-political folk and our mental posture. It was perhaps an inevitable bit of comedy that they should make you that hollow declaration; but if by clamor and repetition they get you to believe a word of it, then you will have become the victim of tragedy, and we the spectators of tragi-comedy.

The underlying truth of what the country meant by its behavior on election day is not to be had, then, from those interested ones who have the readiest access to your ear. It is not to be had, save in vestiges and glimmerings, from even the most disinterested of political specialists and regionalists. These can help you to some extent with techniques and devices — admitted. But for a knowledge of what has really been happening of late in the mind of America, for trustworthy counsel as to the actual basic obligations and policies of your administration, there is only one quarter to which you can afford to turn, and that is the quarter occupied by the inarticulate forgotten man made memorable in the phrase which you borrowed from Sumner for your campaign.

Let us not be technical about whether by ‘the forgotten man’ you mean precisely what Sumner meant. We know what you mean, or think we do; and it is something real. You mean us, the forgotten people of forgotten America, the country nobody knows — us, the plain folk, distrustful congenitally of politics and politicians, us whose votes put the rungs in your ladder. As well as we knew how, we said by those votes, ‘See here, all you officeholders and interest servers and blind mouths generally, we live in America, too. It is high time someone thought of us for a change; and, mark you, we mean sooner or later to be remembered.'

If, having once really understood that we exist, you are resolved to keep us in mind, to work for the advancement of our legitimate hopes, and to ignore all expert advice to the contrary, then you possess the first and greatest qualification for becoming the President of all the people, and you can have any degree of support from us that you will ever require. If, on the other hand, you lose touch with us among the intricacies of bureaucratic manipulation; if you rest content with the conventional executive ideal of being merely a plausible party leader and industrious fence builder; if you let politicians sell you their political interpretations of our extremely nonpolitical state of mind — then you are primed for exactly the disaster which overtook your predecessor in office. You will find yourself the marshal of an army with a pretentious plan of campaign, an elaborately organized staff, and not a corporal’s guard of privates in the ranks.

III

In the long interval between your election and your inauguration, we hope that you have devoted your time to measuring and collecting your merely human powers against the appalling demands ahead, studying to make yourself a better man than the one your party convention nominated and we elected. We hope especially that you have spent some of it in feeling out the new spirit of the country, striving to penetrate the smoke screen of mere party strategy to the realities of your forgotten man.

Believe, if you can, that the very voice and spirit of that naïve fellow are trying to speak to you from these pages. They have no panacea to offer, no sure cure for the ills which beset us, for the forgotten man has not been educated to the point of believing in the magic of his own words. The intellectual ones will bedevil you more than enough with their pat little formulas of salvation. These paragraphs, then, contain not a hint of anything that could be called a political programme. They are merely an attempt to suggest to you, in the most general way, how the masses of us feel about you, our President, and what we meant by that overpowering majority in November, and what manner of service we shall have to receive from you to escape the conviction that once more we have been sold, made to waste our votes.

You will find nothing here which does not faithfully represent, the thoughts of unnumbered Americans — clerks and sales persons trying to get along on a third of a job apiece; foreclosed ranchers in the high plains, ruined farmers and planters in the Mississippi belt; newspaper men who privately revile the policies of their managing editors; mechanics in garages, attendants at filling stations, waiters in restaurants; the bankrupt clients of city and country lawyers who cannot collect one fee in seven due; mill operatives and bench hands in towns built on a single industry now idle; fishermen the length of both coasts; folk who have come to the pass of accepting public aid for their children, and other folk who have pawned belongings to help the children of neighbors; tenants struggling to pay rent, landlords struggling to collect rent or to meet their necessities without collecting it; movie extras and librarians and teachers and writers and the mining engineers of mines two years closed down — in fine, us.

You cannot say that it is officious of us to wish that we might make you feel and hear us. After all, we hired you, and you ought not to object to knowing what we expect of you. You cannot very well say that our opinion of you has ceased to be worth your hearing since we recorded it en masse in November, when you were so gracefully deferring to it. The fact is, we are about the only ones from whom you have much chance of hearing the astringent truth; for we are about the only ones who ask nothing for themselves individually and expect nothing save in terms of the common good. It seems to us that you must care to know what we think.

Here you have what we think, or some of it. Believe it if you can. Our greatest hope for ourselves politically is that you may have discovered for yourself that the account here given is, in its spirit and essence, true.

IV

To go back for a moment to the beginning: —

You must not let your advisers tell you, or believe if they do tell you, that the statistics of the election demonstrate an overwhelming popular confidence in either your party or yourself. The campaign oratory is over now, and all may gratefully forget it and the moods in which it was delivered and heard — heard as often as not, by the way, with a wry skepticism which might have disconcerted the speakers and given them some new ideas about the general acumen of the American people. We have come to the time and the place for a friendly sort of candor; and you will have lost the most salutary part of your self-preparation for office if you do not let us tell you candidly that you must not mistake the vote for a vote of confidence. It was not that, for the simple reason that confidence was not what we voters felt in you.

What we felt, and all we felt, was hope; and the only way for any holder of a national office to capture our confidence is to justify a reasonable fraction of our hope by his conduct in the office itself. The head of the ticket, in this of all presidential years, is no exception. What we have given you is an opportunity to earn our confidence hereafter.

Your opponents elected you. We did not so much accept you as reject them; and we rejected them, not because their campaign suffered by comparison with yours, but because their acts in the preceding twelve years suffered by comparison with any tolerable standard. As one of them, an ostensible liberal, has lately declared, they had taken advantage of every major opportunity to be wrong since the year 1919. Our cumulative realization of that wrongness eventually defeated them. They had conducted the national administration in a way to make it almost a test of patriotic endurance, concentrating at Washington more than were ever seen in one place of the forces which one who loves his country must love it in spite of.

They devoted their campaign to showing that the nation’s plight might have been worse. It might; but not, we told ourselves, in any way which the Federal Government could conceivably have affected. We turned them out of office; and with them we got rid of their local counterparts almost to a man. No such general sweeping of political dead leaves and cobwebs has ever been seen on this continent. That it was not, as charged, the outcome of an insensate rage against all present incumbents, a mere mania for change at any price, we showed in a number of scattered instances by retaining in office persons of notable integrity and ability, regardless of their party connections.

You became the beneficiary of our conviction, rightly or wrongly held, that a change of administration might just possibly improve our condition, and could not sensibly be expected to make it worse. You were elected by our almost universal belief that the worst calamity overhanging us in the political sky was four years more of what we had been having.

V

About you, personally, we have never as yet felt that our knowledge went very deep.

We realize that you arc what is called a good fellow; and we are inclined to believe that you are also a good man — one whose heart is in the right place. We can easily imagine that you would go to almost any length of personal sacrifice to relieve misery or promote happiness among your fellow men. And we are utterly unable to imagine that you would ever use your office for any of the cruder forms of self-interest or class interest. There will be no scandal connected with your discharge of your executive functions — we understand that.

Also, we count upon you to select your advisers from among men of admitted probity, breadth of outlook, and public spirit. If you have judicial appointments to make, your nominations will be beyond challenge. We admire you as a man of really civilized and urbane qualities — a man who confronts his work with the healthy gusto which a good many persons devote only to their play, and who does his work all the better for finding in it an enjoyable excitement.

If you had had the destitute veterans of the bonus army on your hands last summer, we suspect that you would have gone to the Anacostia flats very informally in a White House limousine, talked companionably with leaders and men, had a grand time yourself, and left the whole outfit feeling that you were their personal friend. You would never have put them out of Washington for a reason or by a method that would not stand examination; and if it had become necessary for you to put them out, we conjecture that you would have made it your business to go and tell them why. Your tact and candor would have made them see it, too, and the vast majority — all who were not there expressly to make trouble — would have gone cheering you.

You have, we think, a really fine gift of making it easy for all sorts of persons to like you, to feel your color and reality as a man, office or no office. That is in itself a great gift. It will constantly enable you to profit by doing the thing which is at once politically advantageous and morally genuine. We shall never begrudge you an ounce of that sort of profit. Being nobody’s fool, you will probably enjoy a private chuckle whenever the ideally right thing for you to do is also the commandingly popular thing; and, being nobody’s fools ourselves, we shall chuckle with you.

Your detractors tried to make us feel last summer that your little cruise in New England waters was a hollow and rather childish bid for publicity; but those of us who are coast dwellers understood perfectly why you chartered that yawl. It was because, loving the sea and sail exactly as so many of us do, you had a sapient little premonition that for the next eight or nine years you might not be allowed to be at close quarters with the sea again except with a good part of the United States Navy in attendance. We American people may be a little thick-witted at times, but when a man is genuinely keen about doing a certain thing we are not so dull as to forbid him because he knows that his doing it may catch him a few headlines and some votes. Such a cruise is an admirable way to spend time, even if people admire it; and you will never alienate our regard by collecting the applause which is due to your qualities.

The question is, not how much support you win by doing the right thing, but rather how many wrong, dubious, or evasive things you are capable of doing to win support. And here, we must admit, is the point at which our actual knowledge of you breaks off and gives place to the high hopes already referred to.

VI

We see clearly that it will take a very great President indeed to bring about any positive betterment in the state of the Union during the next few years. The merely shrewd administrator, the expert party leader with talents for getting himself liked and putting the opposition at a disadvantage, can help us only in the obvious negative ways. That is, such a one can make it fairly hard for government to waste our diminished substance, further dishearten our morale, and interfere with the slender existing impulses toward health and recovery. Frankly, we have not dared count upon much more than that from our next Chief Executive.

Regardless of what anybody has said, we never believed either that the party in power produced the depression or that the party just coming into power could end it. We made the depression ourselves, without even as much help from Europe as some of the bad consciences among us insist ; and we fully expect to cure it ourselves in the long run, by revaluation and relocation of the various misunderstood, misplaced things in our civilization.

About all we can really demand of the political system is that it shall stand out of our sunlight. To make sunlight for us, our President would have to be of altogether uncommon stature both intellectually and morally. There would have to be a good deal of the seer in him, something of saint and stoic, and possibly a touch of the martyr, all over and above the clever politician and good fellow. He would have to be both the man of the hour and a man for the ages. We have hoped to find that paragon in you. (One of the great things about the American political scheme is the way it can keep hope alive by just the perpetual dim possibility of miracles.) But we have certainly not had the hardihood to count on anything of the kind. We do not know enough about you to justify such expectations; and some of what we do know rather tends to discourage them.

Surely you will see how events have worked together to unsettle our minds and muddle them with doubt.

For months before your party convention, it appeared that to get the nomination you were ready to go to any length within the canon of political decency. That appearance dismayed, even staggered us. A man, obviously not insane, who wanted to become President of the United States at such a time — that struck us as a bizarre phenomenon indeed, hardly accountable at all save on the hypothesis of a well-nigh pathologic personal ambition. There are plenty of us ordinary forgotten men who, if we had a bear by the tail, would hang on as long as we could (which is why the obstinate campaign of your rival seemed intelligible and human), but not many of us would go about gratuitously seeking a grizzly to tackle barehanded.

Your insistence upon assuming the man-killing task was so prolonged and became so passionate that at last we began to entertain the speculation that there must be in it something quasireligious and dedicated, something of the inspired major prophet. Did you possess a secret fanatical conviction of being the man uniquely provided for the great emergency? That was a thought pretty difficult to reconcile with your suavity, your level-headedness, and your twenty-two years’ practice in playing the game. Nevertheless, whenever you opened your lips in the campaign we half expected them to give forth flames and lightnings. It was somehow an anticlimax when, every time, they yielded only the restrained, polished, conciliatory, sometimes slightly evasive utterances of a well-bred candidate who had made up his mind to run no avoidable risks.

We made allowances for you on tactical grounds. We admired your discretion as a master of loyal party team play. We told ourselves — with less and less conviction as time went on — that just as soon as the votes were counted you would dare show us the real calibre of your mind. Now we wait with the same hopeful expectancy for your inaugural message. Sometimes we ask a little wistfully: ‘Will 1936 find your official spokesmen assuring us that, whereas you have had to spend your first four years subtly working for reëlection, in your second term you can afford really to let yourself go?’ We are in a comparatively realistic and skeptical frame of mind this year, and less given than of old to counting chickens unhatched.

You see how it is. With all the will in the world to expect of you the great things for which the exigency itself cries out, — greater things, we suppose, than have been required of any President since Lincoln, — we have been led by the march of events to wonder if there is quite enough sheer power in your composition to meet with inspired energy the stupendous demands of the time. More than we have ever wanted anything from public life, we want to find in you a leader enduringly great by the standards of world history. Only let us see that you are that leader, or even that you comprehend the necessity which calls for him, and there is no length to which we will not follow you and support you. But if, as President, you try too urbanely to please everybody, if you substitute even the highest grade of practical politics and diplomacy for uncompromising courage, if you lose our realities among the plausible and convenient misrepresentations which always so loudly outshout them in Washington — what, then, can we do but heave the same old familiar sigh over our wasted votes?

We shall have asked for the bread of wisdom and leadership, only to be given, not perhaps exactly a stone, but the cut glass of some graceful forensic diction. Is it, after all our hopes, to end so? We are ready, heart and ear, for a savior. Have we him? Or have we, instead, an attractive and facile man, an able politician, a fluent compromiser, whose importance to history in the long run will be that he once called attention to the neglected works of William Graham Sumner?

VII

Probably you have no idea how many substantive errors in policy we common forgotten people could forgive you, or how easily we could forgive you them, if only we might find you cherishing some broad general convictions akin to our own and fighting with the courage of those convictions. Few errors of policy are irreparable, and we had rather see you arrive at all the wrong answers in the right spirit than at all the right answers in the wrong spirit.

We do not primarily demand to be convinced by the details of what you do about the tariff, or the bonus, or prohibition, or the foreign debts, or farm mortgages, or even the relief of hunger. We quite appreciate the insoluble element in all such problems, and, unlike professional politicians and lobbyists, we do not make your circumstantial agreement with our view a first condition of supporting you. We concede you a really handsome margin for experiment and the making of mistakes — especially if, against all political usage, the mistakes be admitted and, as far as may be, corrected.

The thing that we need from you is not infallibility in practice, but unquestionable generosity and candor in motive. The fact is, we ordinary folk have always understood that the world is not going to be saved by holding the right ideas about political and economic questions. That is where we differ from the intellectual liberals and radicals; and that is why we read their weekly manifestoes rather seldom, and then ordinarily to smile with indulgent irony.

The important consideration about a man, a horse, a dog, or a President, is how he is disposed. Man is, it seems, an animal who can be saved, not by great truths about things in general, but by his affections, his desires. Now, the masses of us love our America and desire to see her become in certain ways a better land to live in. It is your privilege as our elected leader to clarify, to crystallize that love and that desire — to reveal to us the essential unity of purpose underlying the apparent diversity of our clamorings, and to hearten us for acceptance of the fundamental lessons which we are beginning to learn and must sooner or later master.

You cannot give us prosperity, but you can help create the atmosphere in which real prosperity breeds. You can lay the basis for a new and tenable definition of prosperity, which is the first desideratum. Nine tenths of all discussion of American prosperity is tacitly based on a premise which we do not accept: the premise that everything will be right-side-up as soon as those who were making money four years ago can make it again as fast and as easily, by the same methods.

We not only do not believe that that sort of prosperity is just around the corner, but we do not want to believe that it is. Half of this so-called depression is débris from the inevitable explosion of that so-called prosperity. The other half is our open-eyed repudiation of prosperity on those illusory terms — our discovery, better late than never, that we really prefer security, continuity, thrift, and more modest values that will stay put longer. Presumably you share our preference; but we are waiting for the day when everyone in North America will be dead certain that you share it, including all bankers, financiers, wildcat promoters, members of the New York Stock Exchange, and every vendor of insecurities.

Why should the American people be miles ahead of their nominal guides in these matters? Why should it be imagined that the last thing we can bear is the harsh truth about what lies just ahead? We are a patient, a philosophical people, — witness the unprecedented good nature and forbearance with which we have stood the pinch of want in the midst of a mocking surplus, — and we can go through almost any passage, however long, if shown a chance of coming out at the right end. What we cannot stand much more of is false encouragement. If there is ever a social revolution in this country, — which may God forbid, for what we really believe in is individual choice and chance and a lot less government, not mass efficiency and more government, — it will not be the product of exhausted fortitude in the national character. It will be the product of unfulfillable reactionary promises made to keep us quiet.

VIII

If you want to lead us in 1936, lead us now. Support our morale by justifying the best hopes we have placed in you. Grasp and use the elements of unity, of serenity, underlying the troubled surface of American life today. Keep in touch with us nonpolitical folk who elected you for non-political reasons. Forget all about the Presidency as a drum major’s job of beating time to hold the party band together so that it can drown out the rival band. Perhaps someone says that the Democratic Party has a right to count upon you for this and that, Has the Democratic Party (if there is such an entity to-day) a right to count upon you for anything of doubtful value to the American people?

What a magnificent, what an altogether unparalleled opportunity is yours to be the President of all the people! Elected by the votes of all parlies and classes throughout the country, you take office without damaging commitments or entanglements. No President of modern times has been more free to respond to the changing demands of current facts and the fixed demands of his own principles. None has been in a better position to take the country into his confidence, or to talk honest talk to the plain citizen over the heads of political obstructionists. There is not a legislator or a lobbyist whom you could not place in a withering light before his constituency if he were to take the wrong side of a question touching the public interest. In short, everything invites and even commands you to solidify your political position by the ideal method of transcending party politics.

You probably realize that there is a disastrous tendency to over-professionalization in American life to-day. No doubt you see it operating in phases of life remote from your own. Many professions have become so large that they constitute within their own ranks a body of opinion, the force of which gradually substitutes itself for the opinion of the actual public. You have perhaps observed writers and publishers unconsciously producing books for the impression they will make on critics and other writers. The motionpicture people are industriously imitating each other’s dreariest work, on the naïve assumption that it must be what the public wants. Metropolitan journalism has become so exclusively an expression of journalists that you might about as well go to a burlesque show for a true picture of American life and taste as to open your morning paper. Almost any ordinary driver of an automobile could tell the motorcar manufacturer some startling things about his present unsuspected opportunities to serve the public better, to his own incalculable profit, but the manufacturer would not believe a word of it, because he has so largely lost touch with his market. Out of his own technique he has evolved a convenient but fictitious notion of what the public is and wants, and that idea designs his product and tries to sell it.

The man in political life is assuredly not immune from this lamentable tendency. Plenty of Washington politicians do not even see a normal private citizen of the United States from year’s beginning to year’s end, and they forget that there is any such animal. When they do see one they dread his approach as a potential embarrassment and nuisance. During campaigns they confront him only en masse, not to find out what he wants, but to tell him. In short, they breathe, think, and exist for the approbation and support of other officeholders. The higher the office, the higher the fence separating its holder from the people and their realities. The Presidency itself can easily become a mere catch-as-catch-can bout with the desk work of day-to-day administrative routine. Even a pretty capable executive, unsustained by a broad conception of the trust committed to him, can become snarled hand and foot in festoons of innocent-looking official red tape, like a kitten in a ball of yarn.

You cannot eliminate this tendency, to be sure. But you can resist it. When the knowing ones suggest to you, as they will, that the Presidency is not social philosophy or homiletics or generalizations, however inspiring, but simply the oiling and adjusting of an incredibly complicated machine; when they try to convince you that any appeal to us against them will be disloyalty and cheap demagoguery on your part — why, we hope that you will then remember certain things out of the past. You might remember Theodore Roosevelt, who lives in history just in so far as he crystallized the non-political sentiments of millions by very much that sort of disloyalty and demagoguery. You might perhaps think of Woodrow Wilson, who asserted the non-political moral sense of mankind against all the narrowly political motives, and whose thought is a conserving force in the world today, while the expediencies which he denied are wrecking the world.

And we hope you will think of that immense popular and electoral majority which we gave you. That is to say, we hope you will think continually of us. We shall not bother you very much. We are not conspicuously articulate. We do not clamor at our officials or hound them. We shall be so quiet that you may be tempted to wonder sometimes whether we do, after all, exist. We do; we have eyes, ears, hearts, even if we do but little shouting and self-asserting; and, as you have seen, we have votes. We shall be here when you have need of us; we will answer when called upon.

Work for us, and we will stand by you. Let us feel that you believe in us, and nothing can undo our belief in you. Remember the forgotten man, and he will make you a remembered President.