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The “diary” Of Hiram Johnson
The cantankerous Californian’s utterly candid opinions, aver thirty years, of the Presidents he knew, the senators with whom he served, and the (to him) alarming changes in the America he loved
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
November 23, 1929. You have doubtless observed the gyrations of the national administration here in respect to the recent financial disaster. The President is the prince of bunk artists, and what he is doing now is to take political advantage of the situation. He calls here those who have much and have lost little. They make speeches from the White House steps about business is sound, there is no cause for worry, and that prosperity is with us, and the newspapers in their filthy lying way, tell those who have lost their all, that it is quite for the best, and they will soon recover it, and that everything is fine.
December 6, 1931. I have talked to a number of people since I have been here about the financial situation. … Nobody understands a damn thing and to me that is the tragedy. Every man in the Congress wants to help and there are more bizarre bills to be introduced than would patch all the scarred financial institutions in the world; but the fact remains nobody really knows what to do.
At first warmly embracing Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, Johnson was to turn on them with an incredible fury. Many of the reasons for this transition are revealed in his letters.
The experiments that Johnson was willing to support as short-term measures to expedite reform and recovery became anathema when he saw them transformed into what he felt were ends in themselves in an administration that had neither direction nor plan. Roosevelt’s charisma, which at first he found a refreshing contrast to the dreary presidential triumvirate of the twenties, became repugnant when he came to see it used as an instrument not of reform but of personal power and political aggrandizement.
Throughout this transition, Johnson insisted that he was remaining true to the creed he had always followed, and these protestations must be taken seriously. He had no difficulty accepting those reforms, such as conservation and government regulation of business, which were part of his progressive heritage. Those which thrust the government more directly into the lives of farmers and workers and the middle classes, which called for deficit financing on a more or less permanent basis, which led to the growth of federal bureaucracy, frightened and ultimately alienated him. The same personal qualities—compulsive independence, nostalgia for a more heroic past, ambivalence toward change—which had marked him in the first period, continued to characterize him in the second and led to a kind of negativism which some scholars have seen manifest even at the height of his reformist years.
Throughout his senatorial career Hiram Johnson remained a man in opposition, a man increasingly alienated from the forces that were transforming his country and the world but with no plan or alternative of his own to offer. He himself probably summed up the source of his greatest strengths and his most grievous shortcomings when he wrote in 1937, “In all my political life, I have pursued one course, and at my present age I could not if I would, and I would not if I could, alter that course.”
January 23, 1933. Something must be done. I tried to impress this on our President-elect the other day, and told him I thought the course would have to be one of trial and error. I think we’ll have to experiment with some hundreds of millions of dollars, or perhaps billions, and if necessary waste it, in even endeavoring to find a solution for relief.…
On Thursday last upon the invitation of the President-elect I called upon him at 3:45 at the Mayflower Hotel.… He wished me to become a part of his official family, not only because he felt our views concerning policies were similar, but because of the personal characteristics he knew I possessed. He offered me the Secretary of the Interiorship, and said that it was an office peculiarly within the knowledge of a western man and of very great importance and ought to be administered by one from the west.
He was very gracious in his offer. I tried to be quite as gracious in responding, and thanked him for the expression of his confidence and the compliment that he paid me, but added that I did not desire the position and could not accept it. He then said that it was his intention to place within that department some of the most important activities of government and make it of much greater consequence than even it was today. He urged me not to reject the offer finally because of his very great desire to have me a part of his administration.
I replied in kind again and told him that I did not desire the position and wished to preserve the singular attitude that I had always preserved. I might add, parenthetically, that I would not give a tinker’s most profane word to be in any man’s cabinet, and I would give even less than that tinker’s word to be secretary of the Interior. We talked with some rapidity on both sides on other matters.
My interview with him on the whole was very satisfactory. I liked him, and I liked his manner. He is genial, kindly, and sympathetic. … I do not believe he has with clarity thought out a fixed, definite program for national relief, but I can not blame him for this, because no one else has. … He presents, however, as fair a hope for us as during my political career has been presented by any man.