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Lessons From The Bonus March

Lessons From The Bonus March

On September 15, still trying to get it right, President Bush made his fourth visit to the area devastated by Katrina. Each trip has been, it seems to me, more carefully scripted. Gone are the off-the-cuff jokes about youthful hell-raising and the accolades to incompetent officials. The most recent game plan left no room for gaffes. The President, dressed uncharacteristically for a prime-time speech in an open-necked shirt, presumably to show he too was getting his hands dirty in the cleanup effort, spoke in a fenced-off area of Jackson Square with the iconic cathedral, lit by trucked-in generators, looming behind him. (When the President failed to visit the worst-hit sections of the city on his first visit, the White House explained that he did not want to disrupt rescue efforts. Didn’t efforts to fence off, camouflage, light, and sound one of the city’s central squares interfere with essential rebuilding tasks?) Before the speech the President was driven through some of the blacked-out sections of the city, a far cry from Lincoln’s walk through Richmond, as described here by Frederick Allen on August 31, or New York Mayor Lindsay’s stroll through Harlem at the height of the riots, or another reckless foray among supposedly dangerous elements.

In June 1932, when the Bonus Expeditionary Force, more than 90 percent of whom were Army and Navy veterans, marched on Washington, D.C., wanting no more than the military “bonus” they had been promised, President Hoover called out the troops; General Douglas MacArthur, caught out of uniform, sent his orderly for the necessary items and announced, “MacArthur has decided to go into active command in the field,” and Major Patton led his 3rd Cavalry against the crowd of hungry, unarmed men, women, and children. The marchers fled, the troops pursued, and the results were tragic. When New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the newspaper accounts, he observed that he might feel sorry for the President if he were not so deeply moved by the plight of the men and their families.

The Bonus Marchers were still there when FDR moved into the White House the following year. His adviser Louis Howe, no slouch in the tricks-of-political-publicity trade, took the First Lady on a surprise—to both her and the marchers—visit to their encampment. Eleanor Roosevelt rose to the occasion quickly and magnificently, as usual. She served coffee and sandwiches, sang campfire songs, and listened. Her gesture changed nothing, except perhaps the feelings of the marchers. Hoover sent the troops, they said; Roosevelt sent his wife.

In Jackson Square, Bush spoke to a gathering of officials and to the television cameras. He remained as far from Americans desperately in need of morale as well as help as he had been on his first tone-deaf visit.