Scotia author focuses on FDR and 1936 presidential campaign

David Pietrusza and his new book.

David Pietrusza and his new book.

SCOTIA – It’s a good thing for David Pietrusza that a century lasts 100 years. Most likely he’ll never run out of things to write about.

An Amsterdam native and long-time Scotia resident, Pietrusza has become a nationally known author, most of his work chronicling important years in presidential history, such as 1920, 1932, 1948 and 1960.

His latest book, “Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal,” looks at the election campaign that earned Franklin Roosevelt his second four-year term in the White House.

The book has gained plenty of attention in historical circles, and earlier this year Pietrusza was interviewed on CSPAN by William Harris, deputy director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. Noted historian Douglas Brinkley called the book “a marvelous and important history,” and Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Pietrusza’s work was “another fascinating book on a key moment in history.”

Pietrusza graduated from the University at Albany in 1971 and had a long career working for the state of New York, retiring in 2007. He already had four major works completed by then, including his first that wasn’t focused on baseball, “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.” He had previously done a series of short books on baseball history before producing his first major written work, “Rothstein: The Life, Times, and the Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series.

Pietrusza will be discussing “FDR Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal” Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. at the Albany Public Library at 161 Washington Ave.

He spoke to The Gazette about his new book on FDR last week.

Q: Why FDR and why 1936?
A: I’ve largely now written about presidential elections held in the first part of the 20th century, and one simply can’t escape Franklin Roosevelt in doing that. He’s the key figure. And he ran so many times. One of his key but underreported elections is 1936. People think because an election is a blowout there’s nothing to say about it. But how did his 1936 landslide become that blowout? And was it inevitable? In 1936, as in often the case, it wasn’t. As late as July 1936 the Gallup poll predicted that Republican Alf Landon was ahead in the Electoral College. The Depression was hardly over. In November 1936 unemployment remained 13.9%. FDR had to convince the public that the glass was half full rather than half empty. He certainly succeeded at game’s end.

Q: FDR and Al Smith are two of New York’s biggest political characters of the 20th century. What was their personal relationship like?
A: FDR’s relationship with Governor Smith was long standing and early on was quite cordial. One could even say that Al Smith was FDR’s political mentor. It was Smith who cajoled FDR into running for governor in 1928. But after 1928 when FDR rebuffed Smith’s efforts to guide him, the relationship soured. It only worsened after FDR was elected president in 1932, and by 1936 Smith had become the most prominent spokesman of a conservative, pro-business Democratic organization called the Liberty League. The relationship never healed after that.

Q: What does your sub-title, “The Triumph of the Liberal Ideal,” refer to?
A: In 1932, exactly what FDR stood for was not exactly known. He was very late coming to a firm position on repealing Prohibition. Was he going to slash spending? He promised to do that. What efforts would he put into relief? Would he support federal old age pensions? However, by 1936 the public pretty much knew where Franklin Roosevelt stood and ratified his actions. In 1932 the election was largely a thumbs-down on Herbert Hoover. In 1936 it was a referendum on Franklin Roosevelt and his brand of liberalism.

Q: In your CSPAN interview, you mentioned how 1936 was the “campaign of hate.” What did you mean?
A: Contentious politics are nothing new today. In 1936 the charges and counter charges (“Fascist!” “Communist!”) were flying left and right both figuratively and literally. You see an ugly strain of populism in 1935 and 1936 featuring Senator Huey Long, the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, and Long’s former henchman the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith. You also see a rising Communist Party USA. Some wild Republican charges are made regarding Social Security. And we even see a good deal of class warfare rhetoric from Franklin Roosevelt. He capitalizes on the opposition of people like Liberty League and other business interests, often disturbing even key supporters like Frances Perkins with his rhetoric.

Q: How significant were FDR’s “Fireside Chats?”
A: Franklin Roosevelt was a remarkable performer and the fairly new medium of radio provided him with an invaluable platform. His voice went right into people’s homes, convincing tens of millions of Americans that he was their friend. But what is remarkable about his Fireside Chats is how few there actually were. From April 1935 to September 1936 he delivered none, You see, FDR had a keen political sense and recognized how one might wear out one’s welcome and lose votes,

Q: What’s next for David Pietrusza?
A: I have another book in the works right now which is a departure from my series of books on presidential elections, but still connected to some of my previous work. Right now it is being shopped to the publishing industry so I really can’t comment on it publicly, but we have seen interest in it and hope to sign with a publisher in the very near future.

Also by David Pietrusza:

1998 — “Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”
2002 — “Teddy Ballgame: My Life in Pictures”
2003 — “Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series.”
2006 — “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents.”
2008 — “Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Homespun Wit and Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge.”
2008 — “1960 — LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies.”
2011 — “1948: “Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America.”
2015 — “1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR — Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny.”
2018 — “TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, the Great War, and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy.”
2020 — “Too Long Ago: A Childhood Memory. A Vanished World.”
2022 — “Roosevelt Sweeps Nation: FDR’s 1936 Landslide and the Triumph of the Liberal Ideal.”

Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Scotia Glenville

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