The President-elect rode the rails to his Inauguration, his normally buoyant spirits muted by a passing landscape of shuttered factories and municipalities in default. A quarter of the nation's workforce was unemployed; what remained of its credit system was on life support. By the time Franklin Roosevelt reached Washington on the evening of March 2, local hotels were refusing to accept out-of-state checks. Eleanor Roosevelt wondered how her family would pay its tab at the Mayflower.
If he succeeded in reversing the economic death spiral, a friend told F.D.R., he would be remembered as America's greatest President. "And if I fail," replied Roosevelt, "I will be remembered as the last one." (See pictures of Barack Obama's nation of hope.)
Historical comparisons can be treacherous. Notwithstanding our current fears about the future and our corresponding eagerness to turn the page, 2009 is not 1933. Yet there are echoes. At F.D.R.'s request, a simple prayer service was added to the Inaugural program, conducted by a clergyman who had voted for his opponent. Endicott Peabody's support of Herbert Hoover did not, however, preclude him from asking the Lord to bless his former Groton pupil. Across Lafayette Square from St. John's Church, a bone-weary Hoover seethed with resentment over his successor's refusal to cooperate during the dreary four-month interregnum stretching back to Election Day.
The two men had a history. They were once mutual admirers in Woodrow Wilson's war cabinet, and in 1920 Roosevelt backed Hoover for the presidency--as a Democrat. Hoover's status as the Great Humanitarian, a title bestowed for his heroic Belgian food relief during World War I, had long since been tarnished by his refusal as President to countenance direct government assistance to victims of his own country's Depression. After the Inauguration, Hoover and Roosevelt would never meet again. Their shared ride down Pennsylvania Avenue traversed an endless mile in awkward silence. At the Capitol, 100,000 onlookers had assembled under pewter skies, their numbers swelled by millions of expectant radio listeners.
Roosevelt did more than raise their spirits in his 15-minute Inaugural Address. He told them a story--a morality play, actually--wherein a "generation of self-seekers" on the "mad chase of evanescent profits" had disproved the existence of a benignly self-correcting business cycle. "The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," said F.D.R., whose genius for selecting his enemies would make him as popular as he was polarizing.
Everything he did that March 4 conveyed confidence and a break from what he called foolish tradition. Following a hot-dog lunch at the White House, the new President, in holiday mood, beamed indiscriminately as Al Smith, cowboy star Tom Mix and six miles of jubilant Democrats paraded past his reviewing stand. Just a day after a decidedly unpleasant Red Room tea with the Hoovers, Roosevelt returned to the same room to greet 13 children on crutches, emissaries of hope from Warm Springs, Ga. Declaring, "It is my intention to inaugurate precedents like this from time to time," he looked on as his full Cabinet was sworn in en masse--another first.
Barack Obama appears to share F.D.R.'s instinctive grasp of crisis not as something to be managed but as an opportunity to forge an emotional bond with those he will lead. Will he denounce Bernard Madoff and the modern money changers? Confident enough to be gracious, the President-elect has been much more forthcoming about his economic agenda than the deliberately opaque F.D.R. As for the outgoing President, George W. Bush has no wish to be the Herbert Hoover of the CNBC generation. Accordingly, his Administration will have spent several hundred billion dollars to unfreeze the credit markets. (Indeed, has anything of late so recalled Roosevelt's devotion to "bold, persistent experimentation" as the frantic improvisations of Hank Paulson?)
The result has been a transition unlike any other, a virtual co-presidency whose continuities include a shared commitment to fiscal stimulus on an unprecedented scale. Obama's tacit collaboration with an unpopular predecessor offers the strongest evidence yet of his sincerity in wanting to change the brutish tone of official Washington. It's a safe bet his ride to Capitol Hill will be far more civil than the ghastly Hoover-Roosevelt procession. And that's change we can all believe in.
A historian and biographer who has headed five presidential libraries, Smith is now a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University