- Paul V. McNutt and the Age of FDR by Dean J. Kotlowski
Dean Kotlowski ends his biography of the mid-century Indiana Democratic Party leader by pointing out that Paul V. McNutt’s bust sits in the middle of Indiana University’s McNutt quadrangle “without any plaque or marker of any sort to explain who this man was or why he should be remembered” (428). McNutt is one of those New Deal–era Democrats whose name one runs across every now and then when reading about FDR and the party’s sweep of the political spectrum during the Depression era. When one finishes Kotlowski’s biography, McNutt becomes more meaningful not only for his part in the Roosevelt coalition (with which he was often at odds, we discover) but for the intersection of his life with the intense historical situations in which he played a central role.
Writing a biography is a complex task and Kotlowski does a superb job of lifting McNutt out from the background so that the reader might see where and what he accomplished. Born in rural Indiana in the last decade of the nineteenth century, he did well enough to attend Indiana University and then Harvard Law School. After graduation he returned home to teach at IU and shortly thereafter joined the army when the United States entered World War I. Afterward he became an early member of the American Legion and by the end of the decade was elected as its national commander. This became his springboard into politics for, as Kotlowski reminds the reader throughout, McNutt’s goal was nothing short of the presidency.
This is where the and the Age of FDR comes into play. In 1932, as the Democratic leader of the Indiana delegation, McNutt held out against FDR ’s nomination in the hopes that, while he was the party’s choice for governor (which he would win, things might swing his way for perhaps the nomination or the second spot). It wasn’t to be and for the next decade he operated in the shadow of FDR. As governor he built an efficient machine and dispensed New Deal aid and operated programs that brought hope to many in the Hoosier State, although he was a bit tarnished by his use of martial law in the southern Indiana coalfields. Due to term limits he could no longer run in 1936 and turned to Roosevelt hoping for a cabinet position. Instead he was named the high commissioner for the Philippines. The primary success of his tenure there was getting visas for over thirteen hundred Jews to immigrate to the islands. However, by the time he left in 1939, the policy stalled [End Page 85] and his efforts, while noble, were stymied. He returned to Washington and began lobbying for the 1940 nomination; but, unbeknownst to him or very few others, FDR had begun mulling the idea of a third term, thwarting Mc-Nutt’s efforts once again. He hoped for the vice president’s spot, but FDR and his team had little trust in McNutt and instead he was appointed as the director of the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw the Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, and a host of other New Deal agencies. During World War II he headed the War Manpower Commission and afterward was appointed by Truman as the first ambassador to the Philippines. He left public service the following year and spent his time between his law offices in New York and Washington, served on various boards, and spent a lot of time visiting and working with the Indian Democratic Party. The effects of years of smoking and drinking began to take their toll, and in the spring of 1955 he died of cancer of the esophagus at the age of sixty-three.
As you can tell by the breadth of the review, McNutt’s career intersected with most of the significant historical events of the first half of the twentieth...