“As I Understand It” (E25)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, October 1932
  • First reprinted in: The Athletic Benchley
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


Benchley concluded a very profitable twelve year run in the pages of the Detroit Athletic Club News with this disinterested observer’s guide to the 1932 Presidential election. The only trouble with “As I Understand It” is that, unlike the 1924 iteration of the rite (see E5), the Hoover/Roosevelt face-off actually promised to have consequences. RB is having none of that in this article, which, it must be said, was never intended to influence anyone to do or think anything. What does come across, however, is the author’s very real mistrust of representative democracy, at least insofar as it had been practiced up until his time, and his scorn for bureaucratic “expertise” (always synonymous in the Benchleyan imagination with abject incompetence traveling under the cover of incomprehensible bar charts).

Benchley correctly identifies the two main points of contention between the Democrats and the Republicans that political season – 1. The Depression, and 2. Prohibition. He goes a little over the line into smugness in his discussion of taxes and the inadvisability of pushing “soak the rich” programs in a nation newly shorn of plutocrats (ha ha). But perhaps this was inevitable, given the upscale readership of the DAC News. He shows more investment in the grand task of freeing the country’s parched throats from ol’ Volstead’s killjoy grip, but here too, he sees little evidence that America’s deliberately obstructionist institutions will be able to crank out an anti-amendment any time during the remaining years allotted to him.

Favourite Moment:
“If I have diagnosed Currency Inflation correctly, the same thing if practiced by a little group of individuals is called ‘counterfeiting’…”

“After the Deluge” (E8)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, March 25, 1933
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted (for practical purposes)
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes


Writing in his Guy Fawkes persona, RB catches up with the New York papers as they struggle (and fail) to produce coherent coverage of the Banking Crisis of March 1933, often described (in retrospect) as the absolute nadir of the Depression.

The piece begins with a blanket statement on the Press’s subservient role vis-à-vis the government. This was all well and good, Fawkes says, from the point of view of efficiency, during the summer of 1917, when the Wilson government knew exactly what they wanted in the headlines (and what they’d throw you in jail for saying against the War Effort). When Robert Benchley references the July 4th holiday (the day the family learned that beloved eldest son Edmund had been killed in the Spanish-American War), you know he’s got some skin in the game… and when he yokes those comments to militaristic misadventures, you know he’s boiling! So… the Press stands ready to reinforce norms and manufacture consent, but what happens when the patriotic puppeteers lose the plot? During the first few days of March, the New York papers were presenting financial ruin as a minor problem affecting OTHER states (and the middle strata of the newspaper). Certainly nothing to get up a headline about.

Roosevelt’s March 4th inauguration, and the passage of the Emergency Banking Act, triggered a truly dizzying week of pronouncements and retractions from all of the city’s most trusted organs. Without any point of view to sell, these ink merchants opted for perpetual motion in lieu of “spin”. Hey, it helps to calm babies. Ultimately, Fawkes concludes, the city’s opinion leaders may have meant well, but there’s no way they did any good. He adds: “It might have been well if they had placed a moratorium on newspapers during that crucial period.”

The lengthy column goes on to ask whether the press will come down on “FR” or “FD” as their shorthand term for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (apparently no one had yet thought to go “TR” one letter better – but this would come shortly!) Fawkes also glances across the ocean to take in the London Daily Express’ errant coverage of February’s abortive pre-inauguration assassination attempt. The Express appears to have gotten the wrong Florida woman on the phone and then just allowed her to take solo credit for saving FDR’s life. He hopes a similar mistake in a more sensitive matter of international diplomacy won’t create a transatlantic incident someday. Finally, Fawkes tosses a rare bouquet the New York Times’ way for sending a competent progressive reporter to cover the ongoing travesty of the Scottsboro trials – and from a quick perusal of the copy he sent back, F. Raymond Daniell does appear to have done his best to ensure that justice was properly served (of course, that would have to wait until 2013).

Despite a lifelong love of Benchley’s humour, I had actually never read a Wayward Press column before. Terrific stuff – really looking forward to the rest of them!

Favourite Moment:

“What acute stage was that? What Depression? Certainly not the ‘protective action’ in roughly two thirds of the country’s banks announced on page 19?”