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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
January 29, 1933. Lord only knows what is going to happen to us in the next six months or a year. There are some very ominous signs in the middle west where the farmers are setting at defiance legal processes and by the strong arm preventing execution and foreclosures, and the like. I have often repeated to you that if these farmers with their love for law and order ever united with the disorderly and anti-government spirit of the cities, we can look for almost anything. I do not expect of course real revolution in this country, but such things history teaches us come over night, and it may be some little spark that kindles the conflagration. My mail is simply overwhelming with stories of want, and distress, and dissatisfaction, and oftentimes rebellion.
March 12, 1933. After I wrote you last Sunday, I received a request to come to the White House, and I sat there in consultation with the President and a number of his Democratic advisers while he was discussing generally the pending conditions. … The remarkable thing about him to me was his readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile. On Wednesday night again I was sent for and sat in conference with the Democratic representatives of the President and himself, and his Secretary of the Treasury and Attorney General until about one in the morning. He outlined, although it was not then in such shape as one could read it himself, what his bill was contemplating. [Senator Johnson apparently refers to the Emergency Banking Act, passed March 9, which empowered the President to reorganize insolvent banks and reopen sound ones.] Nobody present knew very much about it, and next day when we passed it, we knew just about as much as we did the night before, but what struck one like me sitting there in rather detached fashion, was that the man had decision, was ready to act, and was shoving a lot of people of more or less ability, generally less, who had not been accustomed to rapid motion, into an alert activity.
April 1, 1933. Roosevelt keeps up his astonishing efforts. He has an energy I little suspected, and a capacity for work I have never seen excelled. As I wrote you before, I can not believe that any one human being can thoroughly digest all that he is undertaking, but the very undertaking is the delightful thing to witness. It would be quite impossible for me to describe to you the change in the atmosphere here, or in the sort of government which now obtains for the moment. We’re nearer our philosophy of government than we have ever been in my lifetime in this nation.
February 14, 1934. I lunched with the President a month or so ago. We were entirely alone. … He endeavored to explain his financial policy, but either I was peculiarly dense or he was utterly unable to make clear what he was seeking to do. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think he is entirely certain of himself in this direction. … he has an extraordinary cunning. With his delightful smile, he looks you in the eye and proceeds rather deliberately about half way with what he has in his head, and awaits then an expression from you as to whether he shall proceed further. … he is one of the best that I have met in high office. If he can keep his head, and I imagine no man in history has ever been able to do so under such circumstances as surround him, he will do a great job.…
He is sitting on the top of the world, and I fear becoming conscious of it, just as Wilson did when he went abroad, and all peoples in all the world looked to him, and he forgot his own. Thus far, this sort of thing has not occurred with Roosevelt, but it is his future difficulty.
May 5, 1935. We are embarking upon a financial outlay which staggers even one as improvident and imprudent as I am.… Here within a brief period will be $10,000,000,000, which some day, somehow must be paid. In the language of the newspapers of today, it leaves me jittery.
Supporting Roosevelt for re-election in 1936, Johnson was nevertheless beginning to have reservations about him. The development of these, and the Senator’s eventual return to his confirmed role as opposition man, become clear in succeeding letters.
November 10, 1936. And now will come the test of the President. He loves the dramatic. His mentality is so restless it has to have something new daily. He has delusions of grandeur which make him dissatisfied with dealing with domestic problems alone, and which will constantly urge a wider field. Like Wilson he’ll see himself the arbiter of the world. With his power and the vote he has received, the views of men like myself will receive scant attention. … I’m going to be very lonely and very poorly equipped for the job. I don’t look forward … to the part I shall play.
February 6, 1937. I fear that the next few years, with an unbalanced budget, with the expenditure of funds running wild, with a neutrality bill giving the President the war-making power, in reality, and with a Supreme Court subservient to him, we’ll be very close to a Dictatorship. The Congress, of course, is worse than subservient, and no one man can prevent what is happening, but at least, an official as old as I am, with little in the future for him, can stand on his feet and make clear the situation. I am under no illusions about the puny power one man in opposition wields, but it is better to die fighting a fight like this.