Like many Americans whose parents lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, I’ve been thinking lately about that economic and social catastrophe. It was never going to happen again, we were told, and certainly believed, but…….Anyway, this morning, the ninth day of the new year, I arrived at my desk feeling somewhat tired – which has been the case now and then over the past few months, as our once-booming economy has pursued its alarming downward course. I’m not a pessimist by nature, and I try to keep things in perspective. I’m keenly aware that these aren’t by any measure the worst of times, not when you think about 1860, 1930, WW II, and I’m really optimistic that the new Administration in Washington will provide the leadership we need to dig ourselves out of the economic hole we’re in. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been whistling a happy tune on my way up the stairs to my study in the morning lately, especially after my customary hour with the New York Times and its steady stream of dismal economic tidings. (a typical article head in today’s business section, “For Stores, a Lump of Coal”). My wife Barbara refuses to read the morning paper at breakfast these days, instead re-reading passages from Wayne Dyer’s The Power of Intention and thumbing through the various interior design publications she takes. But I’m addicted to news, no matter how negative, and ignoring the morning paper is one trick this old dog isn’t capable of learning.
So there I was this morning – seated at my desk, mustering up the energy to fuel my day of mapping out business strategy, writing client reports and answering emails – the usual drill – and my eyes began wandering over the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that cover one wall of my study. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just browsing while waiting for the adrenalin to kick in, when I lighted on a book my parents had given me for Christmas some 40 years ago: the first volume of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s trilogy, the Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order. I turned to chapter 1, “Prologue: 1933.” Schlesinger sets the stage:
The White House, midnight, Friday, March 3, 1933. Across the country the banks of the nation had gradually shuttered their windows and locked their doors. The very machinery of the American economy seemed to be coming to a stop. The rich and fertile nation, overflowing with natural wealth in its fields and forest and mines, equipped with unsurpassed technology, endowed with boundless resources in its men and women, lay stricken. . . .Saturday, March 4, dawned gray and bleak. Heavy winter clouds hung over the city. A chill northwest wind brought brief gusts of rain. The darkness of the day intensified the mood of helplessness. “A sense of depression had settled over the capital,” reported the New York Times, “so that it could be felt.”
“Well, things may not be that bad now,” I thought to myself, “but we really are in a mess, and I can pretty easily relate to that ‘sense of depression.’ ” Then my thoughts turned to my parents’ all-time hero, FDR, and how, as Mom and Dad told me countless times, when they heard his words on the radio on March 4, 1933, their hearts were filled with hope for the future. “We just knew,” Dad once said, “that things would be OK, no matter how terrible they were.” So, I Googled “FDR inaugural 1933,” and – what a world we live in! – up came a link to that wonderful speech. I actually felt a surge of positive energy just re-reading it. Here are a couple of excerpts that I think will resonate with you as they do with me:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. . . .
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we still have much to be thankful for. . . .
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well . . .
Re-reading these wonderful words, feeling the strong emotion they kindle in my own heart at a remove of 75 years, I am reminded of the tremendous importance of words – not as a substitute for resolute action, to be sure, but an essential prelude to action, supplying the inspiration and the energy that pave the way to action. I’m looking for that inspiration on January 20, 2009; I’m sure you are, too. Meanwhile, if you’re feeling down, you might want to Google “FDR inaugural 1933.”