The Magazine

Nothing to Fear But FDR

Jimmy Walker and Roosevelt's other enemies

Mar 6, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 24 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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Once Upon a Time in New York

Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age

by Herbert Mitgang

Free Press, 259 pp., $ 25


FDR and His Enemies

by Albert Fried

St. Martin's, 288 pp., $ 27.95

By coincidence or design, here in the midst of our latest presidential election are two books about the battles of a previous president. The ways in which he prevailed will interest all who study the presidency and may even entice us to speculate how our present candidates would confront similar-challenges -- for the president in question is Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the shrewdest politicians in American history.

In Once Upon a Time in New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age, Herbert Mitgang tells the story of Roosevelt's resolution of a threat to his 1932 Democratic presidential nomination: the charges of corruption leveled against the popular New York City mayor, Jimmy Walker. Each of Roosevelt's options entailed risk. As governor, he had the authority to remove Walker from office. If he did, he would certainly anger Walker's Tammany Hall allies, ruining his ability to lead a united New York delegation to the Democratic National Convention. If he did not, he risked alienating western progressives and southern agrarians who detested all Tammany symbolized.

In FDR and His Enemies, Albert Fried discusses five other men who put obstacles in Roosevelt's path. These were Alfred E. Smith, his predecessor both as governor of New York and Democratic presidential nominee; Father Charles E. Coughlin, the popular radio priest; Huey Long, governor of Louisiana and erstwhile populist; John L. Lewis, president of the mineworkers' union and founder of the CIO; and Charles A. Lindbergh, aviator and national hero. Each of these men represented an alternative to Roosevelt's policies. The potential damage to him came from their popularity, their special appeal to significant elements of Roosevelt's constituencies, and their ability to exploit the communication tools at which Roosevelt had proved a master, primarily radio.

Unlike the avowed enemies, however, Jimmy Walker never intended to block Roosevelt's path. The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court triggered that turn in 1930, when it named retired Court of Appeals judge Samuel Seabury to investigate irregularities in the city's courts. Seabury insisted on and received permission to carry his probe into "any and all dark corners." After he demonstrated that a sheriff had accumulated $ 500,000 over six years on an annual salary of $ 8,500, Roosevelt removed the sheriff from office. When the Manhattan district attorney came under fire for his office's cavalier attitude toward racketeering, graft, and kickbacks, Roosevelt invited Seabury to investigate as his personal "commissioner." Before long, the Republican State Legislature granted Seabury permission to examine the activities of every official in New York City's government.

Seabury's investigation invites comparison with Kenneth Starr's more than sixty years later. Jimmy Walker and his henchmen could have written the playbook followed by James Carville, Lanny Davis, and the rest of Clinton's team. (Courtesy of the sixty lawyers and researchers in Clinton's White House Counsel's office, perhaps they did.) Seabury understood at the outset that, given the notoriety and popularity of his target, he had to win his case in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion. He said at the first gathering of his staff, "The public will not be aroused to an awareness of conditions . . . through a series of graphs, charts, and reports. We must divorce this investigation, as far as is possible, from legalistic machinery."

Mindful that he would present his findings to an elected official, Seabury kept Roosevelt abreast of his progress. He retained as his consultant Columbia professor Raymond Moley, who was simultaneously assembling the "brain trust" that would follow Roosevelt to Washington. Seabury proved especially adept at cultivating the press to assist his investigation. His staff provided "special treatment" to reporters who located missing witnesses and leaked information to favored columnists and broadcasters.

Seabury also anticipated the kind of defense Tammany Hall would mount. Walker moved quickly to besmirch the prosecutor, to accuse his opponents of partisan motives, to draw attention to the cost and duration of the publicly financed inquiry, to castigate the probe as a thinly veiled attempt to overturn the results of an election, and to insist that the prosecutor was prying into private life rather than public deeds.