When Roosevelt Met Ironic Detachment

Let us this week take liberties with the style of some of our finest political writers, and imagine how they would have covered the nation’s capital during a famous few years back in the old century:

WASHINGTON-Poor Little Frankie! He wants so much to be Al Smith, but he just doesn’t have it in him to put on a brown derby and trade in the pince–nez for a couple of gold teeth. He handles his oh-so–Hudson Valley cigarette holder with such aplomb he makes Ronald Colman’s Clive of India look like a Tammany hack, but Roosevelt of Hyde Park wants us to believe that he understands the problems of the working man. Or non-working man, if you believe the hype that’s being sold as a “New Deal.”

Little Frankie’s now-famous inaugural address had more laugh lines than It Happened One Night , although the Democrats have nobody even remotely resembling Clark Gable ( sans undershirt, of course) or Claudette Colbert (legs and all). You’ll remember that Little Frankie, son of privilege, actually uttered the following phrase with a straight face: “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.” I half-expected Little Frankie to pause for a moment while he picked the hayseed out of his hair. Maybe he was waiting for Mummy to do it for him. Such a spectacle might have distracted the wandering thoughts of those of us who recall that Little Frankie, before he discovered the power of fake populism, spent some time in the company of the money changers when he was practicing law in New York and serving as vice president of Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland.

The practices and lack of scruples of Wall Street apparently didn’t bother Little Frankie back in the early 20’s, but now-when there are political points to be made-he’s decided to tell us about the evil that bankers do. Memo to Little Frankie: There’s a John Ford movie you should see. It’s called The Informer , and it’s about betrayal. You might want to reflect upon the fate that befell Victor McLaglen (and I’m not talking about his Academy Award, either, although it’s becoming clear that you might qualify for one yourself).

So Little Frankie of the Hudson Valley Roosevelts, married to Eleanor of the Hudson Valley Roosevelts, has decided to play the role of Great Commoner made famous by William Jennings Bryan. Huzzah! Let all the common people mass outside the gates of Groton, demanding admission by right of association with the Next Great Commoner! Of course, let the same masses gather in Hyde Park and we’ll see just how well Little Frankie relates to the non-working families he claims to speak for. You think the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? Duh! Check out Blanche Yurka’s performance as Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities . The masses can get ugly, but Little Frankie-protected from real life by the smothering presence of dear old mum-thinks they’re just a tad upset, and can be calmed down with bank holidays, populist rhetoric and reassurances from a so-called Brain Trust.

Little Frankie wants us all to get behind his National Recovery Administration, or set out for the wilds of the West as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or write travel guides for the Works Progress Administration. Who’s his speech writer, Frank Capra?

Personally, I’m all for Little Frankie’s New Deal. Bring ’em on, all those agencies with their lyrical acronyms. Sign me up for the C.C.C.! (As long as I can get a hot bath after a day spent watering Sequoias or building dams.) Put me in front of a W.P.A. typewriter and I’ll make New Jersey sound like Switzerland. (Just as long as I don’t actually have to visit the state.) Take money out of my paycheck so that retired people don’t die poor. (Yeah, as if Americans will agree to socialism imposed by a Hudson Valley patroon.)

Go for it, Little Frankie! Reinvent yourself as a protector of the common people, a friend of the unemployed, the scourge of big business. Borrow one of Al Smith’s cigars. Listen to Eleanor when she talks about equal rights for everybody, including-well, you know. We’ll have fun watching you from our detached, ironic observation points. Maybe they’ll make a movie about you someday. That would be perfect, wouldn’t it? Because you and Eleanor and the Brain Trust are just play-acting anyway, and all this talk about “money changers” is taken from a script. You don’t believe it. We don’t believe it. Only the chumps out there in the great beyond believe it.

And we’re so much smarter than they are, aren’t we? We know all is futile. Just like All Quiet on the Western Front , only without the trenches.

When Roosevelt Met Ironic Detachment