You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

From the Stacks

The Inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Hulton Archive/Getty

"Inaugural Parade," March 22, 1933

In 1930, four years after Edmund Wilson first arrived at The New Republic, the desk-bound literary critic declared his intention to become the magazine's roving reporter. It took his colleagues by surprise. "I doubt whether he had been west of Pittsburgh before that time," wrote one-time New Republic editor Malcolm Cowley in 1972. For the next couple years, Bunny—as Wilson was known to his friends—traveled the country, becoming increasingly dismayed at the scenes of depression and decay he encountered. Wilson thought nothing less than pure socialism would cure America, and so he was not thrilled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's broad coalition-fueled victory in 1932. (The rumor that FDR had borrowed the phrase "the new deal" from a series of articles in The New Republic did not dampen his dislike.) In his "Inaugural Parade" dispatch, Wilson reports from FDR's swearing in, poison pen in hand.

Everything is gray today. From a distance, the dome of the Capitol looks like gray polished granite and in the bleak March sky has a sort of steel-engraving distinction. Close to, the big building seems a replica in white rubber; clouds in colorless light threaten rain or snow. An aluminum blimp hangs below them.

The people seem dreary and they are curiously apathetic. The Washington banks have closed, the banks throughout the country are closing, and, in spite of the attempts of some papers to keep out of sight the news that New York and Illinois have finally gone, there remains under all the activity and pomp the numbness of a zero hour. The people's prosperity has vanished; even the banks don't know where the money is; even the banks say they haven't got it; so they are simply shutting up, no checks cashed; blankness and dismay. And what seems a circumstance of bad omen, Thomas Walsh, the most popular member of the Cabinet, has suddenly died on the eve of taking office.

They wait in the park in front of the Capitol. "What are those things that look like little cages?" "Machine guns," says a woman with a giggle. They wait till they see Roosevelt's dim figure on the platform on the Capitol steps, hear dimly the accents of his voice—then the crowd rapidly thins.

And even when you read them, the phrases of the speech seem shadowy—the echoes of Woodrow Wilson's eloquence without Wilson's glow of life behind them. The old unctuousness, the old pulpit vagueness: "in every dark hour of our national life," "and yet our distress comes from no failure of substance—we are stricken by no plague of locusts," "where there is no vision the people perish," "the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," "our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men." The old Wilsonian professions of plain-speaking followed by the old abstractions: "I am certain that on this day my fellow Americans expect that ... I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly," etc. So what? So In finance we must "restore to the ancient truths" the temple from which the money-changers have fled; so in the field of foreign affairs, he "would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor."

The thing that emerges most clearly is the warning of a dictatorship.

The first part of the parade is dignified.

Preceded by well drilled motorcycles and a squadron of khaki cavalry leaning forward as they briskly canter with their sabers against their shoulders, the silk hats and the admiral's gold-braided bicorne roll along in their open cars on their way from the Capitol to the White House. Roosevelt smiles his smug public smile, taking off his high hat and calling back to greetings from the crowd. "He looks like Wilson, doesn't he?" says a woman. "The glasses and pointed nose look like Wilson." Another woman showing her neighbor a newspaper picture of the president graciously receiving Hoover in his car, says: "He looks so aristocratic, I think!" Mrs. Roosevelt sits beside him, small, dark and unpretentious, smiling, her little round black hat tilted fashionably over one ear.

A space of waiting; the weather is getting colder. The parade proper begins. The branches of the service pass first. Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, who drove the veterans out of Washington last summer; the flare of flags of the First Division; tall, rigid West Pointers in gray; Marines in clean white caps and gaiters with a red and yellow rattlesnake flag; bluejackets; Negroes in khaki; always with a white officer at their head; khaki trucks, khaki anti-aircraft guns; a new kind of short black machine gun as perfect and shiny as the little screw-out pencils that people used to wear on watch-chains; stretchers; a drum-major in a white shako; the blue Richmond Blues, the gray Richmond Grays and the red and gray Richmond Howitzers, all with white plumes and pre-Civil-War uniforms. It is fun to hear "The West Point Cadets’ March," and "The Stars and Stripes Forever"—they bring back the America of boyhood: the imperial Roosevelt, the Spanish War. And the airplanes against the dark sky, flying in groups of nine and moving as they reach the reviewing stand into exact little patterns of jackstones, awaken a moment's pride in American technical precision.

But from this point on—and there are something like three hours of it yet—the procession crazily degenerates. From recalling one of those college reunions where the classes dress up in costumes, it takes on qualities of grotesque idiocy which make the Carnival at Nice look decorous. Decorous, because it is proper for a carnival to be silly and gaudy, whereas the inaugural parade is supposed to be impressive.

It is the co-eds who first give it a musical-comedy air. The military delegation from Atlanta Tech High is headed by a pretty girl in a red coat and white pants with a white overseas cap and white Sam Brown. Another in high heels leads a company of girls in gray and blue. The John Marshall Cadet Corps from Richmond are handsome in long gray coats and red cloaks.

Now the Governors are coming, sandwiched in between bands. Delaware Post Number One have shiny steel trench helmets, sky-blue coats, white breeches and black puttees. Gifford Pinchot, in an open car, bows and takes off his hat in response to the cheers that follow him, with gestures willowy and courtly like the White Knight turned politician. But the next sound is a breeze of laughter. One of the bands has a funny drum-major, whose specialty is hip-waggling and mincing: he puts one hand to his waist, holds it out marking the time with wrist limp and little finger extended, turns sideways and with a rumba-dancer’s rhythm performs phallic billiard-shots with his baton. And the effect of the fairy drum-major is to impart to the features that come after him a circus-parade effect of clowning. He is followed immediately by Governor Ritchie, who looks like a silk-hatted Mr. Woodchuck out of one of Thornton Burgess's Bedtime Stories; he shakes a day-day with one gloved paw, and you expect to see the automobile go off with a blaze and a bang and the silk hats tumbling on the ground.

There follows a strange little closed car with the blue Lone Star of Texas on the radiator. It has the streamlines of a small goblin army tank and the audience murmur as it passes that it cost ten thousand, thirty thousand dollars. The Green Trojans of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, are frog green with bersaglieri’s feathered bonnets. The National Indian War Veterans are old men in a big green bus.

And as the weather grows darker and more ominous, the parade becomes more fantastic. The American Legions Posts, which dominate the later sections, startle, trouble and shock. Are these the implacable guardians of Americanism? There are legionnaires with bright bluecoats and canary-yellow trench helmets; legionnaires as orange hussars; legionnaire drum and bugle corps who perform fancy evolutions as they march. A great many women mixed up among them. One detachment of patriot ladies wear red cloaks and blue and white plumes. The circus illusion is further heightened by a cute-kid cowboy on a donkey and by a man who marches all alone as Lincoln and whom you expect to see stop and do a clowning act—perhaps puff smoke out of his stovepipe hat.

Now the spectacle become frankly delirious. Comic lodges and marching clubs go by. Men appear in curled-up shoes and fezzes, dressed in hideous greens, purples and reds. Indians, very fat, with made-up squaws: real or burlesque? A very large loose old Negro with a purple fez and yellow-edged cloak, carrying the prong of an antler as if it were the Golden Bough. The airplanes overhead have been replaced by an insect-like auto-gyro, which trails a big advertising banner: "Re-Tire with Lee’s Tires." The Negro lady hussars wear bright purple stockings. The Spirit of '76 are probably cockeyed: one of the trio is always getting behind and then running to catch up to the others. Real Cherokees in white-fringed suits and with pink-tipped feathers; one is on a horse, bareback, and sends a rustle through the crowd, who remark that he is practically naked.

A passage of real dignity and gravity ensues. The cornets of the New York Police Band, who "fear no music written" and march in dense blue formation, make an attention- compelling impact for the solid ranks of the silk-hats of Tammany that go on and on like an army. No fantasy and no frivolity: each marches in a dark coat with a white carnation in his buttonhole. Al Smith, red-faced, is in the front line with John F. Curry, and gives rise to a high wave of cheering. They are followed by a comic Dutchman wheeling a red, white and blue keg and Miss Columbia leading the Queens County donkey.

But now a matter of expectation agitates the crowd. Whatever the papers may say later, it is Tom Mix and not Al Smith, who, at the start of the parade at any rate, receives the biggest ovation. Not even the president is so popular. They see his white suit and white sombrero blocks away and they go wild with delight as he comes by, making his beautiful little jet-black pony with its silver harness dance. He is a part of the publicity for a new film called "42nd Street" to which the Inauguration is incidental. With an assortment of Hollywood actors and beauties he has just come on from the Coast in an electric-bulb-studded train called "The Better Times Gold and Silver Leaf Special."

The beauties are featured on a "Better Times Float" which many people have waited till the end for. It has a red and yellow canopy like a street merry-go-round and as it is dragged along, it revolves, exhibiting the girls, who sit on wicker couches against a background of giant tulips, and wave as they come past the crowd.

But Hollywood is nothing to the marching clubs. An eerie music is now heard and ambiguous figures loom, out of Little Nemo's Adventures in Slumberland. Some seem half-Indian, half-angel, with feather headdresses that sweep to the ground; others (who get big applause) have hoods with spiky dorsal fins like Martians in the barbershop weeklies; and all are clad in flowing pale female robes tinted with celestial pinks and blues and with a kind of unpleasant iridescence such as sweat sometimes makes on white shirts. As they move they play mosquito-buzzing dance music on banjos, xylophones, violins and guitars. Interspersed are the Loew's Theatres Cadet Band, a drum-major who can juggle two batons, a drunk with Leon Errol rubber legs, who ricochets back and forth and shakes hands with the people on the sidelines.

A small soberly-uniformed band from the Virgin Islands and a small float of chilly-looking trained nurses incongruously end the procession.

If the parade went on any longer, it would be too dark to see, too cold to stay out. And you are glad when it is over anyway. The America it represented has burst, and as you watched the marchers, you realized that it had been getting sillier and sillier all the time. The America of the boom definitely died today, and this is the ghost it just gave up.