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Roosevelt's blistering words for the 'money changers'

January 20, 2009 |  6:30 am

It will be interesting to see whether President-elect Barack Obama has harsh words for Wall Street and bankers in his inaugural address today.

As bad a situation as the financial sector has wreaked on the broader economy, conditions don’t rival those of 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office at the depths of the Depression.

Still, Obama has made it clear that his administration will demand much more of bankers in return for additional federal financial help.

Fdrandhoover I went back to read Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1933. He was blistering in his reproach of the nation’s financiers of that era.

The most famous excerpt from that speech, of course, is the "fear itself" passage:

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.

Then he described the economy:

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

Then, Roosevelt turned on the financiers:

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 have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence.

They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

It's a popular view today that Roosevelt had to save capitalism from itself -- that he had to persuade Americans that the system was salvageable and could work again for the common good, if its excesses could be curbed.

On some level, Obama, too, faces the challenge of rescuing capitalist finance from its own self-destructive nature.

-- Tom Petruno

Photo: President-elect Roosevelt and President Herbert Hoover riding to Roosevelt's first inauguration in 1933. Credit: Associated Press

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