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Recalling FDR's pivotal rise at the 1932 DNC

Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR -- and How America Was Changed Forever, By Steve Neal, Morrow, 371 pp., illustrated, $26.95

As delegates and party leaders arrived in Chicago for the 1932 Democratic National Convention, they could not fail to see the thousands of homeless men, victims of the Great Depression then gripping the country, camped out in cardboard shacks and sleeping in the park across from the convention hotel.

"Huddled in grimed newspapers," wrote novelist John Dos Passos, who was covering the convention for The New Republic, they were "men who have nothing left but their stiff hungry grimy bodies, men who have lost the power to want."

And behind the scenes, the city's major banks, their funds drained by worried depositors, were on the verge of closing on the eve of the convention, and with them, it was feared, all of the nation's banks.

The Great Depression cast a shadow over the 1932 convention, just as the threat of terrorist attacks hangs over the convention that opens here next week. But the drama at the heart of Steve Neal's rousing account is unlikely to be matched here. Regrettably, Neal will not be covering the Boston convention. The author of this masterpiece, a longtime political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, died in February at 54.

Surprising as it seems now, the nomination of Franklin Roosevelt was not only not inevitable but hung perilously close to being denied. "Happy Days" brings back to life the excitement of a long-gone political era. It is a political junkie's must-read.

The 1932 convention had built-in drama, for while Roosevelt came to the convention with a majority of the delegates despite losing several key primaries, Democratic Party rules at the time required a two-thirds vote to win the nomination.

Lacking that, the way was open for a stalemated convention, giving hope to the gallery of rivals, not least of them Al Smith, the 1928 nominee, who had already defeated Roosevelt 3 to 1 in the Massachusetts primary. Roosevelt had made "the questionable decision" to contest the primary, Neal writes, at the urging of Boston mayor James Michael Curley, while Smith had the backing of the state's Democratic establishment.

This was the convention that made "Happy Days Are Here Again" the abiding Democratic Party anthem, when the snappy tune from the 1930 Hollywood musical "Chasing Rainbows" was substituted for "Anchors Aweigh" during the Roosevelt nomination demonstration. There was a stop-Roosevelt coalition of sorts, but it had to wait for Roosevelt's majority to crumble. That it didn't, Neal writes, was due to the arm-twisting and rabble-rousing of Roosevelt floor lieutenants such as Huey Long, the flamboyant populist senator from Louisiana.

And when Roosevelt's support held steady, writes Neal, it was Joseph P. Kennedy who drew on his friendship with publisher William Randolph Hearst to swing the California and Texas delegations from House Speaker John Nance Garner to Roosevelt, in return for the pledge of the vice-presidential nomination for Garner.

If, three-quarters of a century later, it is virtually impossible to imagine a history without Roosevelt, it may be even harder to grasp the excitement aroused by Roosevelt's decision to fly from Albany, near his home at Hyde Park, N.Y., to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. Not only did that break with the tradition that nominees wait at home to be officially informed -- usually weeks later -- but flying was a risky business in 1932.

More important was the symbolism of "a new era." The six-hour flight in a cold and noisy Ford Tri-Motor, broken up for two refuelings, "captured the public imagination," writes Neal. As people were alerted by short-wave radio to its progress, "many rushed to local airfields to catch a glimpse of the historic flight."

"As the beaming Roosevelt emerged from the plane" in Chicago, Neal wrote, the polio-crippled candidate "stood tall on the flag-draped ramp, conveying the image of athletic vigor."

And when he came before the convention shortly afterward, Roosevelt acknowledged that his appearance "is unprecedented and unusual, but these are unprecedented and unusual times." And even as he had broken one tradition, "let it be from now on the task of our party to break foolish traditions" -- with, as he said later in the address, "a new deal for the American people."

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