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Hopkins too was a master builder. The WPA created New York's La Guardia Airport, for example, and restored the St. Louis riverfront. But the most remarkable aspect of the WPA was its willingness to put people to work at their own trades (average wage: $50 to $60 a month) and to try anything. The WPA excavated Indian burial grounds in New Mexico, translated and indexed French and Spanish records in New Orleans, operated the bankrupt city of Key West, Fla. Unemployed writers like Conrad Aiken and John Cheever were put to work creating the American Guide series. Artists like Ben Shahn, Jackson Pollock and Alice Neel (see cover portrait) painted pictures to be displayed in schools and other public buildings. The WPA Federal Theater Project provided 12,000 jobs for novelties like Orson Welles' all-black version of Macbeth and the jazzed-up Gilbert and Sullivan Swing Mikado. "It takes a lot of nerve," Hopkins warned Theater Project Chief Hallie Flanagan, "because when you're handling other people's money, whatever you do is always wrong. [But] what's a Government for?"
The battles between Hopkins and Ickes were typical of Roosevelt's way of exercising leadership. Having attracted swarms of bright and assertive newcomers to Washington, he encouraged them to fight for their ideas, even against each other. To the despair of those who believed in official channels and hierarchies, Roosevelt constantly called in special advisers and experts to suggest new and sometimes contradictory approaches. And he always remained ready to experiment. "Take a method and try it," he said. "If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."
Roosevelt knew too that the actual administration of the New Deal was only part of the answer. No less important was his psychological campaign to cure what had become a national crisis in confidence. Roosevelt instinctively understood the immense importance of radio as a means to reach and unite people, and with his sonorous voice he brilliantly exploited the new medium in the periodic "fireside chats" that always began: "My friends . . ." Roosevelt was equally adept at manipulating the press. He invented the modern press conference, canceling Hoover's stiff insistence on written questions and inviting White House reporters to gather around his desk for bantering but far-ranging exchanges on his new programs.
The American people responded. At the White House mail room, where two or three functionaries had dealt with fewer than 800 letters a day in the Hoover era, 22 clerks were swamped by nearly 50,000 letters after fireside chats during Roosevelt's first