The Remembered Man to His President

AUGUST 1933

BY WILSON FOLLETT

‘WE must learn to do our Hero-worship better.’ — CARLYLE,Past and Present

MR. PRESIDENT, it is high time for the voice of the country to make articulate, or as articulate as it can, what the conscience of the country has now been feeling with more and more intensity for these many weeks. Your forgotten man has come a long way since last November. He has come, if you will overlook the paradox for the sake of the truth in it, an even longer way since March 4. A lot of water has passed under all the bridges which represent his bonded indebtedness. And about many important matters his composite mood has changed more rapidly, and perhaps more radically, than it was ever before known to do in so brief a stretch of months. Suppose that a single mind could possess the common element in all our views. Suppose that it could shut out at the same time all but that common element. Suppose that a single voice could then express the result. What that voice would endeavor first of all to convey to you to-day would amount to a plea for forgiveness, a tribute of gratitude, and a declaration of faith.

‘ A plea for forgiveness ’ — is that perhaps stating the case a little too strongly? Name it, then, a simple explanation of our minds’ failure to have done you instant justice — an excusable failure which can hardly be called our fault, since we are not seers, and which was certainly not your fault, since what you told us from the beginning was truth. The words chosen matter little to us and will matter as little to you, as long as it is understood that what we offer is from the heart and is in some sort reparation and atonement. The point is that you have taken us into a relationship in which we can profoundly believe, and we must try to keep our side of it not less sensitive, not less candid, than you seem to be keeping yours. You have promised to retract your mistakes, and that imposes upon us a readiness to admit and retract ours. We do not know how otherwise to go about the payment of our threefold debt. The plea for forgiveness comes before all: it represents the past. Our tribute of gratitude — that is for the present. And our declaration of faith — what does that stand for if not the future you and we can make, working together?

First, then, the past.

I

In the March Atlantic, on the eve of your inauguration, the author of these paragraphs addressed you in a vein of hope combined with — shall we say admonitory skepticism? The only imaginable importance to be claimed for that very sincere appeal was that it tried to state the pre-inauguration hopes and fears of an uncountable swarm of your forgotten people — the very folk to whom you had made your campaign promises. From any one person or pen, that friendly warning would have been grossly officious and impertinent. As a painstaking record of what was then felt by multitudes, including many of those to whom you owed your popular mandate, it was not impertinent, not officious. Whose pen happened to be used did not matter.

That the article was indeed more than a personal expression, that it described the November-to-March posture of innumerable Americans, was proved by the bombardment of mail which followed. That amazingly goodnatured bombardment was sustained without an intermission from your proclamation of the banking holiday until after passage of the farm relief bill. It represented all sorts and conditions of forgotten men and women from coast to coast. The well-to-do and the poor said their say, the idle and the busy, the lettered and the illiterate — in fact, about every class of Americans except the cranks who account for nine tenths of a writer’s year-in-andyear-out correspondence with strangers. What all that mail bore witness to, in short, was the immense number of adults in this country who might as reasonably have composed the original article themselves, and who, if I am as right about them to-day as then, might well be composing this one.

All those letters said in effect the same thing, posed one question, issued a single challenge. There was not an exception from beginning to end. ‘Yes, yes,’ they admitted in substance, ‘we, too, cast our votes with more hope than faith, and perhaps with more fear than hope. We, too, went through the stage of wondering how long after Inauguration Day we should continue able to believe in the choice we had made. But what do you think of our President now? How do those last winter’s doubts and reservations about our chief executive look this spring, since we have had a chance to study him in actions of his own choosing?’ Every one of those writers meant that, so far as he was concerned, the November doubts had begun to look singularly hollow, misapplied, uncalled for.

And so, to be sure, they do look. All that energy of the popular intelligence which we expended in bracing ourselves against disillusionment seems now to have been so much energy wasted. You were elected by the ballots of people who misrated you, and who to-day stand convicted of error by the history which you have made since March 4. It was a mistake to judge the future by the past, as encouraged by proverb, so far as that process involved judging you by other men.

We dreaded another merely political administration with nothing but, perhaps, its superior dexterity to commend it. We hoped, but against hope, for a good long moratorium on timidity, partisan manœuvring, and the more ignoble uses of the spoils of victory. When, between qualms, we dreamed our dream of the highest personal courage in the highest office, we told ourselves that it was a fabulous dream, beyond the utmost scope of to-day’s practical politics, and not seriously to be cherished by sensible, realistic folk who had been taught all the lessons of the lower expediency by the world’s most expert tutors. And we were wrong — on every count, wrong. Voting for you, making what seemed at the moment a choice of evils, we somehow elected a man for the time — perhaps the man. Your hour struck; and soon we knew, and the world knew.

About all we can say for ourselves is that, as an American master of epigram once put it, we had not the outcome to guide us. Or shall we believe that there was something effective, salutary, and bracing in our very skepticism? Could you have done as much for us if we had counted on more? Some men, we know, have been most trustworthy when most distrusted, and many a home-town lad has been helped to his place in the world by the blindness of those who could see nothing in him. From a hundred sources and by a thousand channels the honest misgivings of fellow Americans must have reached so sensitive a mind as yours, and, for all we can tell, they may have come as a challenge to powers latent in yourself which you had not yet realized. Have we, once unbelieving, helped make a great leader by doubting his stature, his leadership? These are mysteries reserved for the historian, the biographer, of a future day — who may, after all, pronounce upon them as one having authority, yet possessing the truth no more than we.

If we are to speak by the present seeming, the truth is that up to a certain point you very successfully concealed the existence among us of a first-rate American — one whom history, intent on the personal force which seizes opportunity or makes it, will perhaps know as a great man. And the question rises, ‘How did it come about that his existence was so long concealed from all save a handful of those nearest him?’ Why, Mr. President, had your pre-nomination and pre-election campaigns to be so reticent? Why, meaning so much more than your platform said, did you feel obliged to tell us so little of what you meant?

The answer to such questions must be looked for in the cynicism which progressively dominated our political life for the inglorious decade past, until the very man in the street, traditionally the most gullible of God’s creatures, found himself disbelieving all promises, jeering at all idealism, and interpreting all programmes of betterment as so many ingenious new springes to catch woodcocks.

We were clamoring for action; we bless any number of the actions you have taken, seeing them after the fact as the only tenable alternatives to disaster; but could you have got our votes before the fact by promising or threatening to take those very actions in our interest? You did not believe it for a moment; and who can blame you? What would have happened to you if, for instance, at any time before November 8 you had breathed an intimation to the country at large that in certain exigencies you were prepared to take the United States off the gold standard? It would have been your political death warrant, and well you knew it.

Nearly every one of the staggering measures to which you have resorted would have struck the country a little in advance as conceivable only by the maddest of revolutionaries. One after another, they would have produced a swelling chorus of ‘unconstitutional,’ ‘rampant radicalism,’ ‘irresponsible schemer,’ ‘visionary,’ ‘betrayal of the American ideal,’ and so on. Yet nearly every one of those same measures has come about with hardly a voice raised, as if in recognition of accomplished facts so obvious that even a practical politician has to face them. The speed with which you acted proves that you foresaw; but would you or any man in your place have dared also to foretell?

It looks as if the only way on earth for an honest man to get himself into a position to help the American people were first to deceive them as to his intentions. We thank heaven that you knew what had to be done. But we are also obliged to thank heaven that you knew better than to let us suspect anything of the sort. Your former secrecy has come to seem an indispensable part of your present greatness.

If that is not cynicism and the fruit of cynicism, pray tell us where to look for the definition.

II

Thus much for that confession of past frailties which is said to be so good for the soul. Next, our tribute of gratitude for the present. For what consummation of these times are we to be half so grateful as for the headway you are enabling us to make through the morass of that very cynicism?

We realize that you are answerable for prodigious, almost undreamed-of accomplishments, remarkable in themselves and more far-reaching in their implications than we can as yet entirely make out. For them, too, we shall have a word, though in only the most general way. But your all-important gift to us is not in the domain of policies, programmes, economies, strategies, or concrete doings. It is not to be described in terms of your material triumphs, nor shall it be wiped out if material disasters should follow them. For it is essentially a matter of the attitudes, motives, and morals underlying all achievements. The important and stirring changes which you have wrought in the political consciousness of your country you have brought to pass by reading us a terrific lesson in the necessity, the simple possibility,of faith.

Few of us may agree as to the ultimate meaning of all you have done and tried, but none save a handful of the over-educated (who are superior to everything on earth) can have escaped the moral leverage of the fearless candor with which you have met the issues as they came. All of us feel the cleaner to-day for a common admiration of something which exacts admiration; yes, and for this renewed pride of ours in the motive force at the centre of our national government. It is no mean thing for all from the highest to the lowest to be feeling once again, and feeling with passion, the true significance of the sentiment, ‘My country, right or wrong!’ — which true significance, we take it, is that we do not have to be dead sure whether the methods we support are ideally perfect so long as we know that the motives are.

As we have just been seeing, great numbers of Americans have, since March 4, been compelled by their moral sense to make a sort of apology to an elected candidate for whom they voted, because their votes turn out to have expressed only an ignorant and grudging recognition of his just claims. What a quickening of our lethargic public consciousness that simple fact denotes! Often enough in the past we have regretted votes cast on the wrong side. But when within living memory have any great number of us felt something resembling contrition for a timorous or mean-spirited attitude behind votes cast on the right side? And when have we seen a candidate who could be conceived of as caring at all how much or how little we meant by our votes so long as he got them? You, by showing that you do care, create a new category in our political experience. You take us at a stride into a promised land of public moral values which we disillusioned ones hardly dared expect to live long enough to set foot in.

Last November 9, on one of those waves of wildfire which can turn a community maudlin overnight, the word swept through a city of two million inhabitants that your mysterious ‘New Deal’ was nothing other than Technocracy. Specifically, rumor had it that Mr. Howard Scott would be your Secretary of State and vice-dictator. All heard; some who should have known better believed. But the New Deal was something much simpler than that — something better and, as it happened, a good deal older. It was an application to the handling of a hundred and thirty million people’s affairs of the same standard of personal rectitude which alone makes tolerable our everyday relationships between man and individual man. The New Deal was, in fine, just the decency which keeps life livable on Main Street or at Amity Four Corners.

The bearable human relationship, as all of us have always known it, is one in which A trusts B somewhat as B trusts A. Either will do for the other any mortal thing which it is at all reasonable to ask, at least up to the point where it involves unwarranted damage to C. Above everything, each knows all the time what he is entitled to rely upon the other for. It is a reciprocal, a mutual connection, depending upon kept engagements and promises receivable at par. And it is simple, The participants do not befool each other with double meanings or deal out words behind which they can later hide their shame.

Now, how does this familiar type of relationship compare with that which has existed more often than not between electorate and officeholder? In that less personal relationship, A, the citizen, is called upon to trust B, the candidate, and honor his word. But what does B do? He uses A — makes him promises intended only in a Pickwickian sense, sells out his interests the moment they threaten to become embarrassing or costly, and from beginning to end hocuses A with politically allowable, humanly contemptible excuses and no-excuses which, as between one neighbor and another, would make daily life unbearable.

We naïve non-political folk have always held among ourselves that just the lay world’s simple, everyday code of decency, if it were to be tried on a broad scale by a level-headed man of first-rate courage, would turn out to be the most spectacularly efficient political technique ever devised. At the same time, we were hardly so naïve as to expect anyone to try it in this day and age. We had been too well schooled in the difference between an honest man and what is called an ‘honest politician.’ The latter’s honesty exists, to be sure, but not for us. It is dedicated to his party interests, his party’s managers and manipulators. His partisan loyalty is often a magnificent thing to see, considered purely as an exhibit in human tenacity; but you cannot exactly call it a demonstration of noble candor, because all his disregarded promises were made to us, in consideration of our votes. To us plain people he is rigidly economical with his honesty, as if it were a luxury not to be squandered on the inferior. A surface film of honesty — just enough to lubricate a career and make it run without friction — is about all we can sensibly look to him for. What he obviously believes about people is that in the long run they are there to be climbed on; and which of all our faces has not at one time or another felt his boot heel?

This painfully acquired disillusionment of ours, this natural aftermath of the nearly universal cynicism in politics, is what you, Mr. President, have scattered upon the winds. Every intelligent adult in the United States to-day knows that a President of the United States is keeping, is more than keeping, his campaign promises; that he is working heart and hand in the sole interest of those to whom he made them; that he has forgotten himself, his party, all special classes and interests, every selfish claim upon him, to give all there is of him to nothing on this footstool but the common good of his people. Over the heads of party strategists and obstructionists he is talking to us who elected him — telling us the truth in language we can understand. That is precisely what we asked of him, but dared not expect. So doing, he is rapidly restoring the atmosphere of confidence in which prosperity can breed — which, again, is what we asked of him. So far from throwing our requirements to the hungry wolf of party expediency, he has actually made party solidarity and the standard brand of tactics get out of our way and his — thereby, if our breed of political wisdom has any virtue, creating a strategy worth two of the other.

The thing has happened, and therefore it can happen, and therefore it can be believed in — especially by folk as starved as we for something in which to believe. That permanent possibility of faith, over and above the astounding sequence of definite achievements, is your great gift to your people, Mr. President. We may differ in the pitch of our enthusiasm for the achievements, but in this matter we can find no room for differences. Is it not cause for gratitude, and shall we not be grateful?

It is manifestly incumbent on us, as time goes on, to see that you gain more than you lose by your plucky and steadfast defiance of what have hitherto been regarded as the necessary amenities of party coöperation. Well, we expect to take care of that.

Woe, say we, to the next national politician who essays to unteach us our newly regained pride in our government, or to trade too far on the assumption that nothing has happened to the ingrained political cynicism of yesteryear. For we are taking our political reëducation these days from a leader whose ultimate objective it is simply to save our poor, ravished, plundered country and give it back as whole as may be to the mass of us who have to live in it.

III

And there you have our declaration of faith in the future. It is what you particularly want to hear from us, is it not?

Some of the politicians of both parties with whom you are having to cope in Washington have taken violent issue with you over various specific items in your programme. Passionately convinced that they are right, they state their case within the hearing of the nation; and with what result? In practically every instance, amazed and staggered by the feebleness of the popular support they are able to muster against you, they are obliged to accept either your solution or a merely nominal modification of it. Why is it that with such telling uniformity they are unable to get any appreciable number of us to take their side against you? Is it because we are so convinced of the unassailable economic wisdom of everything you propose? Do we really feel ourselves competent to take sides in a contention over a matter of purely fiscal policy between you and, say, Senator Glass?

Of course, we claim no such competence. About all we can make out with certainty is that many of those who do claim it do not have it. Some human being somewhere may know whether there is any such possibility as a controlled currency, and whether the right degree of inflation will enable debtors to pay 1929 debts in the kind of dollar they borrowed, and whether international coöperation can ever revive international trade on the scale of the 1920’s and whether legal tender in redemption of government bonds is wanton repudiation or humanly unavoidable salvage; but we do not pretend to know those things, and we do not believe that anything short of the outcome can ever teach us the answers. Thus, when we who admittedly do not know support you on purely technical issues against those who insist that they do know, the rationale of our support is certainly not technical. Where, then, are we to seek it, and how define it?

The answer is that we, seemingly unlike a great many politicians, have caught a glimpse of how all your plans fit together, and for practical purposes stand or fall together. It seems to us that your whole programme is a unit, not a collection of brilliant improvisations or ingenious devices; that it is the expression not so much of a mere executive talent as of a social philosophy stamped with an ideal that is our ideal.

If we read your mind at all correctly, you are doing something more than meeting situations as they come up. You seem to be working all the time for one thing. Whether you try to conserve a remnant of our investments, or to make the indispensable dollar a little easier to get, or to dam a river and save a forest, or to keep a particular breed of cormorants from flapping and wheeling around the treasury which represents our flattened pockets, or to give people inducements to get out of those great solitudes called cities, or to deflate an anachronistic tradition of snobbery in a naval training institution, or to relieve the destitution which stares us in the face on every hand — whatever you do, whether or not it is just what we might think of in a like emergency, whether or not it has the unreserved blessing of this Senator and that banker and yonder major general of industry, we have a clear and steady conviction of what you are really working for. And it is what we want — a better America, more free, more friendly, more secure for the great general average of its inhabitants, more ours.

And that is why we in our ignorance are so ready to take your side against the knowing politicians. It is because we feel that in all your central motives and visions you have already taken our side against them.

There are two mutually exclusive philosophies contending for mastery in the national life to-day, and sometimes it comes over us that this very presidential administration may be the hour of their death struggle. One of them — that which we are used to seeing regnant in all three branches of the Federal Government, and which is often styled ‘the American ideal,’ especially by those who stand to gain most by it — rests on the assumption that the good of everyone is best secured by all possible favors to a few. Specifically and concretely, the nation is best off, according to this philosophy, when certain classes of persons find it easiest to make money—the more money and the faster made, the better. For some years the government has taken pride and pleasure in being as helpful as it could to these classes of persons, headed by the twelve or fifty or five hundred men who are said to rule the country; and the theory was that prosperity would filter downward from them until it showered blessings upon us all. Sometimes, to be sure, the arrangement has suggested a series of descending sieves, with the holes so graduated that all the double eagles stay at the top and only a thin scattering of pennies finds its way to the bottom; but let that go.

This conception of the national wellbeing has found itself placed in a somewhat withering light since 1929, not only before the revolutionaries and malcontents who have always fought it, but also before the conservatives who have always lived by it and in so doing thrived and flourished. For, behold, it has been proved with a cogency which even stockbrokers cannot miss that the highest conceivable peak of that sort of prosperity leads straight to the lowest conceivable abyss of want, and can lead nowhere else. All of us are where we are to-day precisely because a few found it easy to make so much money so fast in 1928; and even those who made the money can see it now.

The inevitable consequence, in government as everywhere else, is a swing to the alternative philosophy of less sensational profits, controlled production, steadier consumption, more coordination and coöperation all round, a broader and more equal sharing of both opportunities and responsibilities — in short, the planned economy about which we have lately heard so much, with governmental compulsion to encourage the planning and the economy wherever private initiative falters in well-doing.

Your words as President have, to be sure, been all of coöperation, not compulsion. But we are weighing you by your acts; and we find them to be acts which, at the very least that can be said, acknowledge the compulsion inherent in events themselves and which use its leverage. ‘Revolution’ is, of course, a word which we neither expect nor require to hear from Presidential lips. Yet something amounting to a social revolution is being produced among us to-day by the brute facts of a situation which all have helped produce and must face together. The only question is whether we shall go with the facts of the time and save ourselves, or deny the facts and be broken upon them. It seems to us that you have decided to go with the facts — to align the functions and objectives of government squarely behind the second of our two philosophies and as squarely against the old anarchic individualism.

Nor can we escape the conviction that, so far as that is true, you represent the time to come, while those who are opposing you represent the past. In any event, we think you represent us, which is perhaps another way of saying that you have dedicated yourself to the future. For we are folk who have long ago accepted our losses, settled down to a fresh start, and reorganized our lives on a basis which will stand examination better than the flimsy old one ever did; whereas we notice with dismay that nine in ten of your enemies are precisely the unteachables who still consume their force in chaffering over scraps and remnants of hypothetical assets which, for all anyone knows, can never be salvaged anyhow. Certainly our collective mind is made up to follow you and not them. And, yes, we shall follow with all the more steady loyalty now because once it took us so long to find your measure and respond to your deep kinship with all that we can best tolerate in ourselves.

We give you back, Mr. President, syllable for syllable, the last words which you spoke directly to and for us before this writing: ‘In the present spirit of mutual confidence and mutual encouragement we go forward.’