June 22, 2018
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Advice from FDR

President Obama had better things to do last weekend than attend the 124th annual Gridiron Dinner, a white-tie gathering in which leading Washington news correspondents roast government officials. Vice President Biden stood in for him and, in keeping with the gag-filled evening, said, “He couldn’t make it because he’s busy preparing for Easter. [One-beat pause] He thinks it’s about him.”

But, despite his absence, Mr. Obama got some unexpected advice as he struggles to lead the country into economic recovery. Here is how it happened:

The club’s historian scoured the archives to see how the Gridiron handled the other Great Depression, in the 1930s. By 1932, the situation was so grim that most skits aimed their barbs at President Herbert Hoover and Vice President Charles Curtis, who kept saying that recovery was “just around the corner.” One song went:

“Rock-a-bye Hoover, on the tree top.

“When the wind blows, the market will drop.

“When the boom breaks, the prices will fall.

“Down will come Hoover, Curtis and all.”

Another, to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell,” went “The farmer’s gone to hell.”

President Hoover was not amused. Speaking at the close of the dinner, he lamented the “slump in humor” and the “worldwide depression in good-natured wit.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Mr. Hoover, winning all but six states in the 1932 election. He quickly created the New Deal, reforming the banking system, relieving the unemployed, generally restoring Americans’ self-confidence and leading the country toward recovery, which finally came with the military production for World War II.

The Gridiron historian reported Mr. Roosevelt’s remarks at the club’s winter dinner in 1933, in the depth of the Depression:

“When one is in a jungle, he has to try to cut himself a path in order to get out. If the wrong direction is taken, the only thing to do is go back and try another one.

“We have too many people in the jungle of depression who are sitting still on stumps, telling us who are wielding the brush hook and axe that we are headed in the wrong direction and that the best thing we can do is come and sit down on the stump with them and complain about our hard luck.

“We are too busy clearing away the underbrush in order that once more we can find the open road for us to bother our heads about the brethren who still sit complainingly on stumps.”

Sound familiar? Those serious words, spoken in the midst of an earlier disastrous episode, could fit the present challenge. Now, as in those years, everyone knows that times are hard and no one knows for sure what is the best course. Mr. Obama, like Mr. Roosevelt, must continue to try for the best way forward and, if that doesn’t work, cut another path through the underbrush.

We don’t need complainers sitting on a stump any more than Franklin D. Roosevelt did.

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