First test: Presidential interregnum

Antero Pietila
Don't believe the balderdash. The next president's first test will not be any foreign crisis but the interregnum period between the Nov. 4 election and Jan. 20 swearing-in, when President George W. Bush still makes all kinds of decisions that bind his successor.

We can only hope that the interregnum will not be as uncomfortable as the transfer of power in 1932 from the Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover, to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The men detested one another.

After three years of economic turmoil, the nation was on the brink of chaos and stock prices were falling again. Speedy action was needed, but the inauguration was not until March 4, 1933. Paralysis threatened America.

On Feb. 18, Hoover urged Roosevelt to make a reassuring public statement and announce that a special session of Congress would be convened immediately after the inaugural. “A declaration even now on the line I suggested would save losses and hardships to millions of people,” the lame-duck president wrote. Roosevelt did not respond.

The stalemate continued for weeks. On the eve of the inauguration Roosevelt rejected another plea from Hoover.

The day after the inaugural, March 5, Roosevelt acted. He called a special session of Congress, closed banks for four days and halted all gold transactions. “The kind of bipartisan collaboration for which Hoover had long pleaded was now happening, but under Roosevelt's aegis, not Hoover's,” historian David M. Kennedy wrote in his masterful book, “Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

If anything, the situation this year is even more complicated. The inauguration has since been moved to an earlier date, but Bush must make far-reaching economic decisions even as his power recedes. On November 15, he will host a summit of major industrialized countries and key emerging-market countries, including China, India and Brazil.

Should Bush involve the president-elect in some way? Perhaps, but  no precedent exists. The situation will be awkward - particularly if Barack Obama emerges as the winner. As in so many other respects, the political system is in uncharted territory.

I read Kennedy's Pulitzer-winning 2005 history on a long ocean voyage, wanting to improve my understanding of the Great Depression.  I had read plenty over the years, including “Perils of Prosperity,” William E. Leuchtenberg’s classic examining the United States between 1914 and 1932.

Kennedy clarified issues, busted myths. He underscored how protracted and unpredictable was the road to recovery from the 1929 stock market crash. Two observations were particularly frightening, considering today's situation: The Crash was only a prelude to the Great Depression, which began in 1933. And the slow recovery was jeopardized by “Roosevelt's recession” in 1937-38, when the nation experienced a 40 percent decline in industrial output and the ranks of unemployed swelled once again. In the end, the onset of World War II finally turned things around.

How did Baltimore fare during those years? Jo Ann Argersinger explored that question in “Toward A New Deal in Baltimore: People and Government in the Great Depression.” The 1988 book is out of print and commands steep prices on the Internet. Better borrow it from the library.

Baltimore's ruling Democrats did not much like Roosevelt or the New Deal. Sen. Millard E. Tydings caused so much mischief that Roosevelt tried to unseat him but failed. Baltimore's long-time mayor, Howard W. Jackson, was a believer in state’s rights. He ultimately abandoned Roosevelt altogether.

Instead of increased federal programs and regulations, Jackson and Tydings favored “competitive capitalism.” That “most effectively uproots the unfit, the unworthy, the lazy,” promoting “the vigorous, the competent, the purposeful,” The Sun explained.

This ideological dispute continues unresolved, this time between presidential candidates. History may repeat itself. If Obama is elected, conservative Democrats could join the debate.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped Baltimore between 1910 and 1975. His e-mail address is
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