Friday, June 1, 2012

FDR in Jersey City

Blogging about the 1972 McGovern Rally in JerseyCity– which indulged my love of microfiche – inspired me to start a new Dislocations series: Presidential (or would be Presidential) visits to Jersey City.

Newspapers differed on the size of the crowd, but when FDR came to Jersey City in 1936, the vast majority of the town turned out to welcome him.

These scans from print outs of microfilm copies of period newspapers are not the best quality, but the point is still made: Mayor Frank Hague and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt are in solidarity and Mayor Hague was able to get a huge crowd for this photo opportunity. One wonders if there’s newsreel footage of this event.

In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the greatest president of the 20th century – came to lay the cornerstone to what eventually became the brown skyscrapers in our southwestern corner, the old Jersey City Medical Center. The J.C. Medical Center renamed itself Liberty Medical Center and moved to Grand Street, and the original buildings are now residential and known as the Beacon, and I kid you not, some people believe those condos are haunted by ghosts of patients from the former bone factory.

But I’m writing about Presidents not the paranormal.

350,000– That’s the number in the headline, setting what is likely a record for a presidential visit and maybe for any sort of public gathering in our fair city. One of the sub-head Headlines in the Hudson-Dispatch Account proclaims:“Greatest Demonstration in Jersey City History.” Another says: “70,000 Screaming Children Line Four Mile Route.” A motorcade carried FDR from the Holland Tunnel and Up Montgomery Street.

The Hudson Dispatch: “President Roosevelt wrote chapter of thanksgiving into the history of Jersey City – thanks to Frank Hague for Developing a Medical Center which bespeaks humanitarianism and thanks for the New Deal’s ability to help in its growth.”

The Jersey Journal (The Star Ledger Microfiche does not date back far at the JC Main Branch) agrees with the number of the children: “70,000 Pupils Line Up and Give Vociferous Greeting to President, “We Want Roosevelt” Is Cry”

Note how odd this writing sounds today, “vociferous” and “Is Cry,” Today’s editors would call this too wordy, but newspaper writing tended to be wordy back then. Jersey City had four major dailies (NYC about twice that amount). The Jersey Journal account was an evening edition, its Roosevelt in J.C. story appeared on Friday, The Hudson County Dispatch on Saturday. Media sources were limited to newspapers and radio, both which are verbal. Hearing is just another way of reading the news, so there was a real competition among the writing and a real connoisseurship of writing among the audience. Readers appreciated wordy because they had no television to distract them from enjoying a sentence. The love of language seems mutual between news providers and readers.

Apparently though the crowd estimates changed as well, the J.J. estimated 250,000. The Dispatch, where the crowd did not merely “Greet,” but “Honor” FDR, grew the number by 100,000. Estimating a crowd is not exactly easy of course, and an approximation is just that, but a difference of that magnitude – how can two counts differ by 100,000? – suggests that the Dispatch was using some Hague mandated poetic license. 

250,000 welcome FDR, according to the Jersey Journal; The Hudson Dispatch had 350,000. There’s no clear answer to why this descrepnancy, but perhaps the higher number pleased Mayor Hague, to whom the Disptach shows a brazen bias.
 FDR in his convertible. Notice the other pictures at the grandstand show him from the chest up. FDR had polio of course, but no one would see his braces or him in his wheel chair because of public relations subterfuge.

 Another poor scan, but you get the idea of the crowd. “Vast Throng,” I love that. Remember that writers back then did not simply highlight a word and press shift F; they actually had to lift a book and go through the pages if they needed a better word choice. Kids, go ask your parents what a thesaurus used to be.

The sight of even a (conservative) tens of thousands on Montgomery Street must have been astonishing. I don’t believe another event since then has attracted such a public outpouring of the actual public. The entire city had to be there. Perhaps had is the key word here.

A full page Ad two days prior – in the Dispatch, not the Journal – had an official proclamation by Mayor Hague. He declared the day a holiday!

“I herewith proclaim the coming visit of the President of the United States on Friday October 2, 1936 and declare a holiday that day. I shall call upon all the people to aid the Mayor and City Commissioners to make this occasion a memorable one in the history of the city and his visit an even that will by large attendance and cordiality of the welcome, impress upon the President a substantial measure of the warmth and appreciation in which he is held by the majority of the people of the nation.”

The Dispatch: “The President Rode through a populace that was solidly with him, from the tiniest school pupil to the burliest cop, from the obscurest committeemen to the highest lieutenant in the rank and file of Mayor Hague’s Democratic organization and from the weakest human voice to the loudest – all were with him… the President heard his name on thousands of lips and saw his face repeated in the monotonous uniformity on thousands of windows, saw it flashed on railroad trestles, on tenement houses and apartment houses, on every conceivable spot he laid his eyes. “In the faces of men and women I see God,”said Walt Whitman. In the faces of men and women you saw Roosevelt, and he came as if in the nature of a god to many who hailed him”

When was the last time a reporter – this was the actual account, not an editorial – read Whitman much less quoted him in a story. The Dispatch seemed to be the publicity arm of the Hague administration. Hague not only show gratitude to the president – and titular head of the Democratic Party – for a new city hospital, but proved that his political machine could bring out a vote. The reporter’s repetition on the phrase “with him,” reads like someone writing under the order of editors to leave no doubt that the people of Jersey City supported FDR and the New Deal, and that Frank Hague was responsible for that support. But given that, the reporter not only paints a vivid picture of the city at the time – “railroad trestles” – and reinforces that Roosevelt signs were everywhere, when he brings in the Whitman quote and makes the analogy – “in the faces of men and women you saw Roosevelt” – which is so wonderfully hyperbolic, also shows how Roosevelt was genuinely beloved. As the news media reminds us we live in the worst economy since the Great Depression. By October 1936, the Great Depression had entered its seventh year. Jersey City was working class, most of those people in the crowd were born to immigrant parents or immigrants themselves, and struggling to survive in an era of economic insecurity. Roosevelt brought people together, gave them hope and alleviated their feeling like strangers in a strange land. Yes we can criticize aspects of his administration, but regardless of the Dispatch’s agenda to glorify Hague, the reporter shows the feeling of the time – a genuine love for a commander and chief.

For reasons– bad and good – even when we support a president, all subsequent generations are incapable of feeling that kind of esteem – it’s LOVE! – For a president. The very idea seems absurd to our cynical times. We seem to love only irony. We may be more realistic, but we’ve also lost something, perhaps some of our capacity for hope.

 The Hudson Dispatch seen unashamed of being a propaganda tool of the Hague administration, implying that FDR called the Mayor “great.” Franklin and Frank, what headline writer could resist the alliteration opportunity?

Slightly more objective, the Jersey Journal ran these three pictures but take particular note of the headline above the bottom shot: “Crippled Children Hail Their Friend.” I take that to mean two things – the children were students at the A. Moore School for Crippled Children, built just a few years earlier, under FDR and with WPA funds. But also, although it was kept out of sight, FDR’s polio was well known and the newspaper is making a well intentioned reference to his affliction.

Promotion for FDR’s Jersey City visit, which appeared in the newspaper the day before.
I wish I got a better scan of this full page advertisement in the Hudson County Dispatch with Mayor Frank Hague’s proclamation that FDR’s visit would be considered a city-wide holiday. Can you imagine such a thing happening today? I cannot. I do imagine though, not attending would have not go unnoticed and probably resulted in unfortunate consequences.

The new hospital was courtesy of a $5 million grant by the Public Works Administration.

Roosevelt thanked the crowd for the “Jersey City’s commitment to the policies of the New Deal.”

He was reportedly very moved when, as part of the corner stone laying ceremony, he was given a bouquet of roses by a blind girl, who was a student from the “A. Moore School for Crippled Children,” which was one of the first public schools for disabled children. The school opened in in 1931, has since dropped “Crippled” from the name and is now part of New Jersey City University.

Roosevelt was stricken with polio, but was rarely seen with the braces on his legs. Indeed, all the photographs in both papers show him either sitting in the motorcade car or standing behind the podium. He may have hidden the affliction, but the affliction was well known. Look at this very strange paragraph in the Jersey Journal.

“He appears in Jersey City as the “Great Humanitarian – and one can successfully deny that he is one. He appears in Jersey City as a president who has the humility of one who has suffered sickness nigh unto death.”

This was an election year; FDR was the incumbent, the election a referendum on New Deal policies. The Republican opponent was Alf Landon. While the cornerstone ceremony was tacitly a campaign stop, October 2 was still a month before election. FDR emphasized that he wanted to shun politics; the newspapers were hyping the Great Humanitarian angle.

But why this heavily publicized highlighting of his avoidance of Politics at the Jersey City event?

Al Smith.

The newspapers indicate that Roosevelt would return later in the month to Jersey City to address a meeting of the J.C. Democrats, a traditional, less newsworthy campaign stop. Like Roosevelt, Al Smith was governor of New York and Roosevelt’s New Deal was based on Al Smith’s policies. Smith ran against Hoover in 1928 –other than his progressive policies, Smith was anti-prohibition, which he rightly saw as unjustly targeting immigrants.

Hague was an instrumental supporter of Smith. Roosevelt vied for the Democratic candidacy for president in 1928. Hague backed Smith then and even backed Smith in 1932 at the start of the convention, but after it was clear Smith could not be re-nominated, Hague – arguably the most powerful politician in New Jersey – put his full support behind FDR. Now, while ideologically kindred, and both New York Democrats, Smith and Roosevelt despised each other. Smith had the more vindictive personality. He was unable to overcome his animus and sadly, his later years were tainted by his petty, obsessive hatred of FDR. The day before FDR came to J.C. to lay the hospital corner stone, Al Smith announced his support of Alf Landon. Smith went rogue! FDR – a master politician – publically– “shunned” politics and played the great “humanitarian.”

The whole nation was watching Jersey City on this day. The first major public appearance by FDR, after the philosophical godfather of the New Deal disavowed this legacy by attempting to torpedo his reelection, is at the helm of a new public works project. Instead of trading insults with a politician, the leader of the nation is laying down a cornerstone (how biblical) to a hospital.

Jersey City was the setting when the very public display of citywide gratitude squashed a political attempt to undermine the New Deal. FDR is cheered by “crippled children,” making Al Smith’s personal vendetta seem mean-spirited, his disloyalty to the party would not be forgotten.

For the rest of his life, Al Smith lived under the cloud of being a Democratic apostate. His lasting legacy is the Al Smith Dinner, where every four years, whomever is running for president – or their surrogates – meet in an informal dinner –and fundraiser for Catholic charities – sponsored by the Archdioceses of New York, where in a public display of national unity, the two candidates act friendly, jibbing and ribbing each other. This charade of bipartisanship is exactly the opposite of Al Smith’s vain attempt to sabotage the New Deal in 1936. Al Smith was a great leader who tarnished his legacy over his petty resentment of Roosevelt and it seems that every four years the Al Smith dinner reminds us more of Smith’s post-office failings than his accomplishments in office and as the first Roman Catholic to win the presidential nomination of a major political party. In 2004, John Kerry was not invited to the Al Smith Dinner because of his pro-choice stance.

Later in the month, even though the Dispatch said he would return, FDR did not attend the J.C. pre-election Rally. Instead, Hague verbally attacked Al Smith, his fellow Irish Catholic politician, who also owed his rise to power to the patronage politics of a city political machine.

Hudson Dispatch: “10,000 at Jersey City Rally boo Al Smith as Hague Reads Him Out of the Democratic Party.”

FDR did not lower his reputation to battle in the muck with Al Smith. Hague was more than capable of slugging it out with Smith and that punch contained even more wallop since it came from one of his biggest supporters. Hague proved himself the loyal solider. Roosevelt never had to appear less than Presidential. Al Smith was unable to a spoiler to FDR, and the endorsement of Landon coming in the same weekly news cycle as a new hospital in a major metropolitan, working class city, made that endorsement sound merely spiteful. It did Landon no good.

FDR was a master when it came to politics. Hague knew all too well which horse to bet on.

“Mayor Charges Former Ally “Has become a Republican Spokesman – Says Hudson Will Give President Majority of More Than 125,000 and State Will Be Frist to Report in FDR Column Tomorrow.”

FDR won in a landslide. The New Deal was popular, Social Security and Unemployment benefits had been enacted and the WPA was giving out jobs. FDR won 523 electoral votes; Roosevelt received 98.49% of the electoral vote. Jersey Journal Headline: “FDR Sweeps Hudson County by 172,000 Margin.”

In Jersey City, Roosevelt received 116, 168 votes, Landon 28,079. More than four times as many people voted for FDR than his opponent, now that’s a Democratic city. (if 70,000 of the 350,000 crowd were children, where did the 163, 832 come from? We have metro editors on the payroll don’t we Tom?)

In the 1928 election, Al Smith was whipped, though not as bad as Landon. Hoover turned out to be one of the worst presidents in our history, but Smith just couldn’t connect with enough of the population. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-progressive sentiment was too widespread during the jazz age. He could not sell his act outside the New York area. In 1928, Al Smith lost New Jersey by a large margin, but won Hudson County – 153,000 to 49,000 for Hoover.

Frank Hague could get out the vote and could get the president to build a hospital. The buildings are still in use and the hospital he built is still serving the public, in fact, Liberty Medical is considered one of the best hospitals in the New Jersey. Justified support for a leader, a city political machine getting some good done, a government project whose echo still reaps benefits almost a century later.

Give or take 100,000 in the crowd, what city could ask for more from a presidential visit?

FDR’s visit to Jersey City was his first major public speaking appearance after his Democratic adversary, Al Smith, endorsed the Republican in the race, Alf Landon. The press loved Smith’s public apostasy, and the pressure was on FDR to reference it in Jersey City. 

Later in the Month, Mayor Hague played the loyal FDR surrogate and lambasted Al Smith as a traitor. Hague was a major supporter of Smith in the decade prior, although history now remembers him as one of the head of one of FDR’s most dependable big city political machines.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all your good research on this important event, often superficially presented in JC histories or other media accounts but never actually investigated in the journalism sources of the day.