For FDR, Letters Provided Glimpse Into America

Robert McElvaine's book "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man" i i
Robert McElvaine's book "Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man"

Author Robert McElvaine says President Franklin Roosevelt often read a random sampling of letters, telling his aide it was the perfect index to the public's state of mind.

"In the very beginning of his administration, there was no scientific opinion polling ... but he always felt that getting a letter from somebody who was actually out there suffering, experiencing the New Deal program, was the best way to understand whether they were working or not," McElvaine, author of Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man, tells NPR's Michele Norris.

He says at one point, 50 people at the White House were dealing with mail from the public because the amount of letters coming into the White House when Roosevelt came into office was vastly more than ever before.

The increase in mail "seems to have been a combination of the desperate situation so many people were in with the feeling that Roosevelt was actually listening to them," McElvaine says.

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