FDR Didn't Govern from 'the Center' -- Neither Should Obama

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wasted no time cautioning Americans that they should not let their hopes run away with them just because the Democrats scored an electoral landslide. Calling herself a "proud progressive," Pelosi advised president-elect Obama's supporters to exercise the diminished expectations of political prudence: "The country must be governed from the middle," she said a day after his victory.

November marked the 75th anniversary of one of the least known relief agencies to come out of the New Deal -- the Civil Works Administration. At a time when the press regularly fuses FDR's jaunty image with that of Barack Obama's -- and when the president-elect himself vows to create 2.5 million new jobs within two years as "a plan big enough to meet the challenges we face" -- we should remember how much more one short-lived agency accomplished through the winter of another economic crisis.

The Speaker, whose father represented Baltimore as a New Deal Democrat, must know that Franklin Roosevelt did not govern from the middle. He chose a Midwestern social worker steeped in the Social Gospel movement at Iowa's Grinnell College to run his relief programs, Harry Hopkins knew that legions of impoverished Americans could not wait for the cautious policies of Harold Ickes' Public Works Administration to provide them with jobs. Neither could his boss.

On November 9, 1933 President Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the Civil Works Administration. He did so by moving $400 million ($6.4 billion in today's dollars) previously allocated to the PWA into the CWA account. A meeting of governors, mayors and other public officials six days later at Washington's Mayflower Hotel effectively launched the agency.

Five days later, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a White House gathering to organize women's participation in the program. Three days after that -- with the Government Printing Office working round the clock to cut checks -- CWA workers shared wages of almost $8 million. On November 28, Hopkins created a Civil Works Service to employ white collar workers as teachers, surveyors, artists, nurses, librarians, musicians, and other public servants.

By December 7 -- less than a month after Roosevelt's executive order -- the CWA had two million Americans working on a vast array of socially beneficial projects. By January 18, employment had doubled to more than four million. U.S. population was then less than half of today's.

Hopkins likened the CWA workers to foot soldiers with the difference that, "The results achieved have been the reverse of those usually brought about by old-style wars." The CWA's work was, like the title of a famous William James essay, "the moral equivalent of war." As such Hopkins noted that "Hardly a community but can show some lasting benefit derived from Civil Works activities: a street paved, a school-house reconditioned, a nursery school installed, a new playground."

CWA workers toiled through a hard winter building and repairing 244,000 miles or roads, laying water and sewage mains, constructing 350 swimming pools and 4000 athletic fields. Their jackhammers broke frozen ground to make Newark's airport, one of a thousand built around the country. New York Park Commissioner Robert Moses set three shifts of CWA crews working around the clock to renovate Central and Prospect Parks. A team of artists painted frescos in San Francisco's Coit Tower while CWA orchestras and bands performed concerts free to the public. The agency employed as many as 50,000 teachers and built or refurbished 4000 schools to revive the nation's dying public education system. CWA workers restored historic buildings and launched the Historic American Building Survey which continues to meticulously record historic structures for the Library of Congress 75 years later.

Hopkins and Roosevelt intended the CWA only to bridge an emergency. It was terminated on March 31, but the Depression, unfortunately, was not. A year later, the more famous Works Progress Administration picked up where the CWA had left off, employing 8.5 million people in its seven productive years. Harry Hopkins ran that as well.

Hopkins hoped that "Long after the workers of the CWA are dead and gone and these hard times are forgotten, their effort will be remembered by permanent useful works in every county of every state." Alas, he was wrong, though as he predicted we "ride over bridges they made, travel on their highways, attend schools they built, navigate waterways they improved, do [our] public business in courthouses and state capitols which workers from CWA rescued from disrepair."

Unlike the WPA, the CWA left almost no markers to commemorate the achievements of four and a half months of heroic activity. We unwittingly take the achievements of the CWA -- like so much else of the New Deal -- for granted while the New Deal's eternal enemies echo the fable that federal workers did little but lean on their shovels. But as winter approaches, the CWA's record reminds us of what bold and ingenious leadership can accomplish against the caution of low expectations in harsh economic times. Indeed, it must.

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