About a quarter of the way into this presidential biography by Jean Edward Smith, I came across a quote that I’m taking a moment to reflect upon. It’s the point in the book at which FDR is stricken with polio, in 1921, and he is hospitalized and unable to walk. According to the author, a journalist described the scene when friends visited FDR in the hospital. “Roosevelt gaily brushed aside every hint of condolence and sent them [the well-wishers] away more cheerful than when they arrived,” the journalist wrote. “None of them has ever heard him utter a complaint or a regret or even acknowledge that he had had so much as a bit of bad luck.” The author continues, “FDR saw it as his duty not only to appear in the best of spirits but to bolster the spirits of those about him.”
This passage made me think of my mother, also a polio survivor, who was born in 1932, the year FDR was elected president. I don’t recall my mother ever complaining, not even once, about how the virus had affected her own body, requiring her to use crutches and braces for the rest of her life. She sometimes would recall mistreatment by doctors and teachers at orthopedic school, but she never, not once, bemoaned her situation. To the contrary, she would always be optimistic. She would focus on the many things she could do, and she would often make light of her crutch, and the hand brake she used on her car, with a clever sense of humor.
He tried so hard to pull our country out of the worst economic disaster it ever experienced before or since, what would become known as the Great Depression. Even before the Wall Street crash of October 1929, which came just months after his inauguration, Herbert Hoover knew the stock market was a speculative bubble. He had taken steps to address this, but few would listen. After the crash he immediately called captains of industry to the White House and got them to promise not to implement massive layoffs or pay cuts. He also persuaded union leaders to agree not to stage any labor protests or strikes during this time of crisis. His efforts worked for a while, but soon it became evident that this was more than just a cyclical recession.
It was really a problem with worldwide dimensions. It was brought about by factors that included a massive global trade imbalance, poor international monetary policy, and how governments were maintaining or not maintaining a gold standard. It was all complicated by the massive debts and reparations owed after the war in Europe. The depression was much worse overseas, and in Germany the government was about to collapse. Here at home, Hoover got Congress to agree to a moratorium on German debt and reparations payments. He also called for private relief through organizations like the Red Cross. And he encouraged state and local governments to implement local infrastructure projects to help spur employment.
But when Britain abandoned the gold standard it set off another round of misery here, causing massive bank failures. Hoover gathered the nation’s top banking executives to Washington to establish what would become the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was an effort designed to keep credit flowing and banks liquid. Finally, thinking that the economy was soon to improve, Hoover set out to raise taxes and cut spending in an effort to balance the federal budget and thus demonstrate that the government was on solid footing.
When Hoover implemented these measures, the economy would perk up for a few months at a time, only to fall off again. There seemed to be no end in sight to the misery. It’s therefore no surprise that Hoover became a one-term president. In the election of 1932, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Hoover decisively, winning 472 electoral votes vs. 59 for Hoover, and getting 57.4 percent of the popular vote to Hoover’s 39.7 percent.
Today’s book report is on “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” by Kenneth Whyte. It’s a fitting title for someone who was active in public life not only during the Great Depression, but also during both World War I and World War II, and the start of the Cold War. At more than 600 pages with thoughtful insight and analysis, I found this book a pleasure to read. It’s certainly one of the best presidential biographies I have yet encountered. I learned so much, not only about Hoover but also about the momentous times in which he lived.
Elected to our nation’s highest office in 1928, Herbert Hoover was our nation’s 31st president. He was a Republican who had never before held elective office. But he was no stranger to the federal government, having served in three previous administrations.
A native of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi. He was also the first Quaker to be elected president. He was orphaned when he was just 9 years old and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. His early childhood trauma likely affected his emotional development, leading to lifelong social awkwardness and an inability to connect with others on a human level. He didn’t like “glad handing” or kissing babies as so many other politicians do. He was among the first students to attend Stanford University, where he studied engineering. After college he got a lucrative job working for a British mining company, and he traveled to Australia and China to develop mines. He was really good at this, and he made tons of money for the company and for himself. He eventually settled in London, where he started his own firm.
In business Hoover had developed immense organizational and managerial abilities, and when war broke out in Europe he put these talents to use, first by helping Americans stranded abroad get home safely, and then later by organizing massive humanitarian relief for the people of Belgium, who were starving. After the war, Hoover joined President Woodrow Wilson’s delegation to the Paris peace talks and later organized more humanitarian relief, this time for all of Europe. President Warren G. Harding, who was elected in 1920, gave Hoover a cabinet post — Secretary of Commerce — and he stayed on in that post under Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in office.
Hoover was an excellent commerce secretary. In an effort to streamline business activity and eliminate waste, he gathered and published immense amounts of data and called for improvements to the nation’s infrastructure as well as preservation of natural resources. He helped get the Radio Act of 1927 signed into law under Coolidge, which regulated and helped organize the nation’s airwaves. Importantly, Hoover also set out to standardize construction materials and consumer products, everything from screws to bricks to automobile tires and even baby bottles. According to the book, Hoover’s standardization of home building materials reduced the price of a new house by a third, making home ownership more achievable for many Americans.
These initiatives all fit in with Hoover’s worldview, that government should help foster business growth and stability without intervening directly. In other words Hoover was not a laissez faire capitalist, nor could be he called a socialist. He was rather a champion of a so-called “third alternative.”
When a great flood of the Mississippi River caused widespread devastation in 1927, Hoover performed the duties of what a good FEMA director would do today, organizing relief efforts and saving many lives and livelihoods. He relied in large part on private donations.
In 1928, after Coolidge declined to seek another presidential term, Hoover received the Republican Party nomination. He won in a landslide, receiving 444 electoral votes to 87 for the Democratic nominee, Al Smith of New York. The popular vote in 1928 was 58.3 percent for Hoover and 40.8 percent for Smith.
When Hoover began his term of office the first thing he did was get in a huge fight with Congress — over tariffs! The Republicans controlled both houses, but Hoover lacked the political savvy and the inside connections needed to get legislation through. In the midterm elections of 1930, the Democrats gained seats in the House but the Republicans maintained control. Then late in Hoover’s term several Republican representatives died, causing power in the House to flip to the Democrats. Interestingly, when this happened Hoover was able to get legislation passed more easily.
Hoover was president during the Prohibition era. Early in his presidency Hoover convened a commission to study the issue, but when it recommended that the Volstead Act, which was the federal government’s enforcement mechanism against booze, be revised, and Prohibition itself be revisited, Hoover did not act. To his credit, Hoover had wisely called Prohibition an “experiment” in the 1928 campaign, but at heart Hoover was more of a “dry.” In the election of 1932 the Democratic Party platform called for outright repeal of the 18th Amendment, and FDR campaigned on repeal. This might have contributed to FDR’s lopsided victory over Hoover.
As a former president, Hoover lived for many more decades and continued to serve his country. He chaired two Hoover Commissions, one under President Truman and one under President Eisenhower, to help eliminate redundancies in the administrative branch and to help make the federal government run more efficiently.
After leaving office Hoover lived for a time in a large house in California, but he eventually moved to New York City, living in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He died in 1964 at age 90, outliving both FDR and JFK.
Also after his presidency, Hoover spoke out publicly and privately against FDR. In my view, some of Hoover’s criticism of his successor was sour grapes, but in other respects it was warranted. Hoover thought that FDR should not have let the United States recognize the Soviet Union, and he was infuriated that so many people ended up living under an iron fist after the second world war. Hoover also was troubled by the New Deal, thinking that the federal government was getting too big and interfering too much in industry. According to the book, the elder statesman Hoover became the spiritual godfather of the modern conservative movement, influencing thinkers such as William F. Buckley Jr.
Nevertheless, after the Depression Hoover was branded a failure, and that sentiment lasted for many generations. This may or may not have been fair. I tend to think that it was unfair. In 1932 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns, FDR and his Democratic Party had been especially nasty toward Hoover. As part of a Democratic Party smear campaign, shantytowns during the depression were dubbed Hoovervilles — a term that continued to be used even during FDR’s many years of being president during the Depression.
This blaming the Depression on Hoover even carried over into popular culture. For example, the Broadway musical “Annie” features a song called “Thank you Herbert Hoover,” which is a sarcastic thank you. And in the popular song “I’m Still Here” by Sondheim, from the show “Follies,” a woman of a certain age reflects on her life, remembering living through the Depression and many other ups and downs. “I lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, that was fun and a half,” she sings. “When you’ve lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, everything else is a laugh.”
It must have been difficult to be Herbert Hoover, especially during the FDR years. He was unpopular, yet, according to the book, when everyday Americans encountered him they wanted to shake his hand. Sadly, Hoover was not emotionally capable of reciprocating these affections.
Here are some additional facts about Herbert Hoover:
He married Lou Henry, and they had two sons, Herbert Jr. and Allan. Lou Hoover was an extraordinary woman in her own right. She had been a tomboy. In a picture included in the book, she resembles Annie Oakley! She rode horses and drove cars. She even drove coast to coast by automobile through the Rocky Mountains, at a time when there were few paved roads. The trip took a month. She preceded her husband in death by many years.
Speaking of the song mentioned above, Herbert Hoover was not related to longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
Those who are old enough might also recall Hoover being affectionately recalled in “Those Were the Days,” the theme song for the long-running TV show “All in the Family.”
He had a brother and a sister.
He was a hard worker.
He smoked lots and lots of cigars.
He was bad at spelling.
He had a habit of jangling coins in his pocket.
He enjoyed fishing in the Florida Keys, always while wearing a jacket and tie!
Also not related to longtime White House usher Ike Hoover.
Also, there was no connection to the vacuum cleaner.
But the Hoover Dam, however, is named after the 31st President.
He founded the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
He also invented a game, called Hooverball, in which he would throw a medicine ball with colleagues on White House grounds, for exercise.
He was in China during the Boxer Rebellion.
He was not implicated in any of the scandals that befell the Harding administration.
He was uncomfortable with ceremonial duties, and he was not good at face-to-face interactions with the general public, or at working crowds.
He wrote many books, the most notable of which included “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson,” about the Paris peace conference after World War I.
And that’s Herbert Hoover. Before reading Whyte’s excellent biography, I knew almost nothing about the man. I found his life to be absolutely fascinating. As the author pointed out, Herbert Hoover knew every president from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and served under five of them, both Democratic and Republican, in addition to his own term in the White House.
Even more importantly, the author estimates that during his lifetime Hoover saved 100 million lives, through his humanitarian work during and after World War I and later after the Mississippi flood of 1927. That’s something to admire. I am so glad I took the time to learn more about this important American and his many achievements.
Imagine living in an era in which there is rampant speculation in the stock market, which keeps going up and up. There is almost no government regulation, which allows “stockjobbers” to concoct various get-rich-quick schemes, while investors are allowed to place large trades on margin. The economy seems to be doing well, yet interest rates are being lowered and tariffs are being increased, causing an imbalance in global trade. In just four years, there have been three rounds of massive tax cuts. The rich keep getting richer, and everyone else — well, they get to reap the benefits of trickle-down economics. Among the most vulnerable are the nation’s farmers, who are saddled with debt while crop prices fluctuate wildly. But hey, look at that stock market! It keeps going up and up and up! What could possibly go wrong?
Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the 30th President of the United States, serving through much of what is now known as the Roaring Twenties. One of his nicknames was “Silent Cal,” because he was sort of a do-nothing president who didn’t seem to care for much more than keeping up appearances. He was not an activist leader who roused people to action. He is what would be called today a small-government conservative. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, causing widespread devastation and suffering, the Coolidge administration did almost nothing to help. Coolidge occasionally spoke out in favor of civil rights, but he did not do anything heroic. To his credit, he is not known to have appointed any overt racists to positions of power.
In 1928 Coolidge attended a Pan-American conference in Cuba, where he encountered much resentment toward the United States over intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He attempted to normalize relations with Mexico, which was undergoing revolution and much political upheaval. Coolidge approved the Dawes Plan, which was designed to defuse the German debt crisis that had lingered after World War I. In coming years Germany would fall into an economic tailspin of its own, with devastating consequences for the entire world.
Coolidge, a lawyer, got his start in local politics in Massachusetts in 1909, when he was elected mayor of Northampton. He then became lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Massachusetts. Shortly after he became governor, the police officers in Boston went on strike and Coolidge fired them all. This action brought Coolidge to national prominence as an enforcer of law and order and as one who would stand up against communism. The Bolshevik revolution had just taken place in Russia, and there was already a “red scare” in the United States!
Coolidge’s newly minted national reputation landed him on the Republican ticket in the election of 1920, as Warren G. Harding’s running mate, and he became president in 1923 when Harding died in office. Coolidge was elected to a full term in his own right in 1924, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He declared that he did not think anyone should serve more than two terms as president and declined to seek re-election in 1928. Just six months after he left office in 1929, with Republican successor Herbert Hoover in the White House, the economy began to unravel, ushering in the worst economic crisis our nation had ever experienced. Coolidge died in 1933 at age 60.
Here are some additional facts about Calvin Coolidge:
He was born in Vermont.
He was religious.
He married Grace Goodhue and they had two sons, John and Calvin Jr., the younger of whom died while Coolidge was in office, after getting a blister while playing tennis on White House grounds. The blister became infected, and antibiotics had not yet been developed for treatment of infections.
Coolidge mastered the art of the photo opp, appearing frequently in newspapers, magazines and newsreels. Edward Bernays, who would become known as the “father of public relations,” was an advisor, as was Bruce Fairchild Barton, an advertising executive.
Coolidge was the first president to appear talking on film.
During the Coolidge presidency Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic, returning home and hailed as a hero.
With radio broadcasting an emerging technology, Coolidge signed legislation regulating the nation’s airwaves.
As president, Coolidge also signed anti-immigration legislation into law.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Coolidge’s economic philosophy (if you could even call it that) would be discredited for many decades, only to be resurrected by Ronald Reagan, who admired Coolidge and hung up his portrait in the White House.
Today’s book report is on “Calvin Coolidge” by David Greenberg, another in the American Presidents series. This was a quick, concise read. I would have preferred a longer book, but I was not able to find a better one. After reading the introduction to the best-selling biography by Amity Shlaes, I had to put it down because it was so over-the-top laudatory (in my view) that I wanted to barf.
Despite the short length of the Greenberg biography, I did find that it covered the bases quite well. I was particularly impressed with Greenberg’s thoughtful analysis at the end, in which he points out the various economic warning signs that existed during Coolidge’s administration. But he also concedes, quite fairly, that nobody back then, not even the president, could have predicted the future.