|President Herbert Hoover with wife Lou Henry.
[Click here for part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft.]
There’s a dark little secret about Herbert Hoover. It’s this: Other than four terrible years as president of the USA, Hoover led a terrific, admirable, productive life as a leading 20th Century progressive.
So why do so many people hate him? How did this fine, up-standing man end up getting blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s?
When Barack Obama reached the White House in January 2009 — just after the US economy had tanked again in the Financial Meltdown of 2008 — we heard comparisons to 1932 from all sides. Obama friends tried to paint him as a new Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose 1930s New Deal used activist government to address the crisis and made him a Democratic hero, re-elected three times. Now, increasingly, opponents are trying to link Obama to FDR’s predecessor Hoover — the goat.
Obama, if you don’t want to end up being tagged another Herbert Hoover, then listen up !
First, the disconnect: Before he became president, Americans admired Herbert Hoover. From Sanford University, Hoover went out and built a fortune as a geologist and mining engineer. He led gold and zinc-mining projects in Australia, China, and a dozen other countries while leaning multiple languages and writing two major engineering text books.
In 1914, when World War I erupted in Europe, Hoover organized the rescue of 120,000 Americans initially stranded there, then stayed in Europe to lead massive food relief efforts for Belgium and other suffering countries. When the US entered the War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called him home to lead the US Food Administration. After the War, Hoover returned to the battle scene to feed millions of more refugees in devastated Eastern Europe. Then he founded a center at Stanford University — paid from his own pocket — to study the War and its deadly effects on civilians.
People called him “the great humanitarian.” Back home, he served eight years as a model Secretary of Commerce, leading a huge relief effort after terrible floods hit Mississippi in 1927. He won the presidency in 1928 by a landslide and, at his March 1929 inauguration, he talked about ending poverty and restoring a Teddy Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson style progressivism.
Wall Street’s stock crash came in October 1929 — setting the stage for the Depression — when Herbert Hoover had been President just seven months. Nobody blamed it all on him — just like nobody blamed the 2008 financial meltdown on Barack Obama. The forces causing the 1929 crash had been building for years. And Hoover himself refused to just sit and let people starve — the traditional US government response to Wall Street panics. During his term, he launched public works projects, lowered some taxes, prodded business leaders to keep workers on payrolls, started a Reconstruction Finance Corporation, so on, so forth.
After all, people thought, who could possibly be better prepared to face the crisis than “the great humanitarian,” “the great engineer,” Herbert Hover?
So what went wrong?
By the time Hoover ran for re-election in 1932, he had taken this initial good will and lost it almost totally, making himself a virtual public enemy in America. Crowds booed him, threw eggs and rotten fruit at his train and limousines. How did he make such a mess of things? Here goes–
First, failure matters. The truth is, very few economists in 1929 or 1930 really understood the developing financial collapse, let alone knew how to stop it. It was something new and would take years to figure out.
Hoover tried some new things, tried some old things, but nothing worked. Instead, the economy teetered, tottered, then sank. By 1932, banks were closing by the thousands, unemployment hit 24%, and panic spread. Some Hoover decisions directly fueled the disaster: the Smoot-Hawlety Tariff (signed over objections from economists), badly-timed attempts to balance the budget, a tax increase.
Hoover did not start the downturn, but three years of his “help” made it worse. Was this alone enough for a pink slip? Maybe not. But there’s more.
Second, knowing what’s going on matters: Yes, presidents should show optimism and confidence in a crisis — but not at the cost of looking stupid and uninformed.
Faced with growing panic after the 1929 stock crash, Herbert Hoover came forth with a chorus of happy talk. “The crisis will be over in sixty days,” he announced cheerily in 1930. “People will work harder, live a more moral life,” added his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. There were “definite signs that business and industry have turned the corner,” the president repeated. (For your reading pleasure, click here for a longer list of wrong Hoover optimistic predictions from the period.)
People stopped trusting him and resented him for either not knowing or not doing his homework.
Third, caring matters: The “great humanitarian” of post-World War I Europe never delivered similar relief to the starving unemployed of 1930s America. Instead, in one dark episode, when a group of jobless World War I veterans came to Washington, D.C. seeking payment of a promised pension bonus (the “Bonus Army”), Hoover sent police and then army troops under General Douglas MacArthur to disperse them. A violent melee followed, resulting in two marchers killed and hundreds more injured. Hoover refused to reprimand MacArthur for the violence. (For a great read on this episode, see The Bonus Army (2004) by Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen)
Finally, personality matters: Hoover sank into frustration. “Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement.” he lamented. His complaints sounded petty. His name became an insult. Shantytowns for homeless were Hoover-villes. “I’m the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him,” he later said, trying to make a joke of it.
Lesson for Obama:
Now, a word for Obama: Don’t be fooled. Being smart does not itself make you a good president. Nor does being called a “great humanitarian.” Crisis brings out the best and worst in people.
When things get frustrating, don’t show it. As president, you are the country’s face. Your confidence, optimism, and good nature — magnified by TV — matter as much as any 10-point economic program. But so too does your credibility, and as president the accuracy of your every word is constantly tested by events and “gotcha” pundits. So if prosperity is not around the corner, don’t pretend it is, and don’t gripe that it isn’t.
And don’t complain about being unappreciated. Whininess is the least attractive trait in any leader — especially a president.
Our modern Great Recession of 2008 may not be over on time for the 2012 election, but Americans are smart enough to stick with a leader who shows he can finish the job. Choose good policies, then sprinkle in some strait talk, empathy, confidence, focus, and good nature. That, along with a promising economic report or two, can make the difference.
By the way, Herbert Hoover enjoyed a long and productive life after leaving the White House in 1933 — living until 1964 when he was 90 years old. Harry Truman invited him to assist food relief efforts in defeated Germany after World War II. Hoover then led a two major federal Commissions on government reorganization (among the most successful ever), wrote three more books (including a best-seller on Woodrow Wilson), and managed the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Still, most people remember him today only for the Hoover-villes, as the cranky, ineffective president who failed to address the Great Depression. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 34.)
Next up: Jimmy Carter.