In 1936 I was a fourteen-year-old volunteer working at the Massachusetts Democratic campaign headquarters in Springfield’s Kimball Hotel; my immediate superior was nineteen-year-old Lawrence F. O’Brien. On the last day of October I wanted to hitchhike to New York and hear the President speak in Madison Square Garden, but Larry couldn’t spare me, so I missed FDR’s greatest political philippic. He had put up with a lot from the Republicans during that campaign. The voters had been told that he was a diseased tyrant out to destroy private property, the Constitution, even civilization itself; the chairman of the Republican National Committee had gone on the air to charge that under Social Security every American would be required to wear round his neck a steel dog tag (“like the one I’m now holding”) stamped with his Social Security number. Until October 31 either Ray Moley or Louis Howe had been on hand to discourage or soften wrathful presidential replies, but they were elsewhere that Saturday evening, and if I could be passed back through a kind of time warp, I would like to be right by the platform as FDR entered the Garden.
Nearly fifteen minutes passed before he could say a word. The band was playing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and the sound of the audience—packed to the roof of the huge hall—was earsplitting. Roosevelt finally raised his arms, like a biblical patriarch, and a hush fell. He turned up that great organ of a voice, identifying his “old enemies”: “Business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism,” and “organized money,” adding “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. ” The crowd, on its feet throughout, ringing cowbells, howled its approval. In an edged voice he said: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” The New York Times compared the applause to “roars which rose and fell like the sound of waves pounding in the surf.” The President declared: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness met their match.” Now his voice swelled: “I should like to have it said—.” He had to pause, the ovation had begun; he raised his arms again and the din abated: “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master . ” The cheering surged and continued long after his departure.
Demagoguery? Of course. So were Tom Paine’s pamphlets. So were Churchill’s speeches in 1940. But imagine a President of the United States, who presided in our times, fighting the right adversaries on the right issues, using powerful language as a weapon to drive them into eternal obscurity! Even the recollection of it makes you proud.