Michael Perino’s 2010 history of the Pecora hearings entitled The Hellhound of Wall Street will induce any reader to ask: Why we can’t find such a crossexamining prodigy today?
The story begins in 1932 when a progressive Republican Senator, angered by years of the bankers’ poor treatment of farmers, and now Chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee, resolves to delve into the causes of the Great Depression. He knows he will soon be relegated to Senate obscurity as the Democrats take power and that this inquiry is his last chance to leave his mark and influence policy in a matter close to his heart. After a series of very cautious interrogators are appointed as Committee Counsel and go through the motions for short periods and then withdraw for various reasons, Senator Norbeck of S. Dakota finds Ferdinand Pecora, it seems, only as a desperate, flailing accident of history. Pecora is a diminutive Sicilian immigrant who, through prodigious effort and talent, and against all odds in a period rife with anti-Italian prejudice, pulled himself into moderate prominence as an honest New York City Assistant District Attorney. His life story in itself is a tribute to our dream of American opportunity for all and this appeal helped catch the eye of the press. However, the New York press had been strangely somnolent despite the graveness of the county’s situation until Pecora’s questions began to provide good copy. He soon had the Senate press gallery hanging on his every word as his remarkable skills of cross-examination begin to appear. The details of his investigative methods and his rather quick stripping-away of his tycoon subjects' supposed infallibility makes fascinating reading for anyone with a taste for courtroom drama. I am inclined to guess that another interrogator with the same energy, self-confidence, flair for the dramatic, integrity, and, most essential of all, the backing of a fearless Senator or two could do something similar to our lords of creation today, given the support of a truly independent major media.
The author begins with a moving description of the state of the nation and Washington D.C. in 1933 as Roosevelt delivers his inaugural address. He reviews the stark facts on that day at the bottom of the Great Depression, and I take the following from his narrative: Thirty-eight states had closed all their banks. Bank failures had been running in the thousands per year. In those days, before Federal deposit insurance, one-fourth of the country’s families had lost their life savings. Industrial production was one-half of the 1929 level. Unemployment was at 25%. Shantytowns were popping up everywhere. Bread lines wound around city blocks throughout the country. The signs of malnutrition among schoolchildren were increasing. On the day before the inauguration, the DOW was down 86% from its extreme 1929 peak. The NY stock exchange had announced it would be closed indefinitely. Pundits had been calling for Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers. In parts of the country, revolution was openly discussed. The previous summer Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower had dispersed hundreds of World War I veterans gathered to petition for early release of promised bonuses. Cavalry, drawn sabers, fixed bayonets, tanks and tear gas had been used. There was still tension in the city. Machine gun emplacements were set up along the inaugural parade route. A crowd of 100,000 shivered expectantly before the East Portico of the Capitol.
Roosevelt promised “action and action now” while Hoover sat next to him grim-faced. Applause suddenly erupted from the quiet crowd when he said that the moneychangers had fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization and that we may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. Roosevelt said that the words came to him as he sat in church. But, as the author says, it was clearly Pecora’s revelations of greed, arrogance, bad judgment, and tax evasion in hearings concluded just two days before that prepared the country for the reforms of Roosevelt's historic "100 Days." The lesson for me is that even Pecora could not have done what he did without the support of a sympathetic press and a resolute Senate Committee willing to issue subpoenas to obtain answers under oath to his penetrating questions. Today, that appears to require campaign finance reform.