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The moment of a man's greatest triumph may be the moment at which he fails to realize that his greatness lies behind him, and so it was with Roosevelt's New Deal. Both the innovation and the idealism that marked his first term faded during his second. This became a time of consolidation, of adjustments and repairs. The new measures were more practical, more limited, more hardheaded; things moved more slowly. And there was a new quality of vengeance through power politics.
Roosevelt had always been the total politician, immensely gifted in all the arts of power, combining public spirit with guile. Politicians tend to judge themselves by election returns, and the results of 1936 apparently convinced Roosevelt, never an exceptionally modest man, that he could do almost anything. He devised his vengeance on the Supreme Court in total secrecy; just two days after inviting the aged Justices to the White House for a formal dinner, he summoned his staff to work at 6:30 a.m. to start typing and distributing the Judicial Reform Act of 1937. This artful document alleged that the entire federal Judiciary was overburdened and falling behind in its work, so the President should have the right to name an extra judge to supplement anyone who refused to retire at 70. In practical terms, that meant increasing the Supreme Court to as many as 15 Justices.
What became known as the "court-packing scheme" aroused fierce resistance not only among conservatives but among many who revered the independence of the Judiciary. Influential Senators openly balked. Chief Justice Hughes sternly wrote to a Senate committee and demonstrated that the court was neither overburdened nor behind in its work. At the same time that Hughes defended his court, however, it began to shift its position. As usual, the Justices admitted no change, but a series of decisions now began to uphold key New Deal legislation, notably Social Security and the Wagner Act. Friends urged Roosevelt to accept his victory gracefully by dropping the court-packing bill, but the President had committed too much personal pride to the struggle. After months of rancorous debate, which dominated the politics of 1937, the Senate humiliatingly rejected Roosevelt's project.
Roosevelt's animosity now turned against the Senate. By the most favorable interpretation, the President wanted to remold the Democratic Party into a unified liberal movement, and he had to do it before his prospective retirement from the White House in 1940. Critics simply called it a "purge" of anyone who