All posts by Fred Michmershuizen

Ron Wood pays tribute to Chuck Berry

On a sizzling new live album, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood pays tribute to Chuck Berry. It’s called “Mad Lad: A Live Tribute to Chuck Berry.” Ronnie Wood plays guitar on all the songs, and he sings on most of them. I’m not the biggest fan of Ronnie Wood on lead vocals, because his singing voice reminds me more of Bob Dylan than Mick Jagger. But his guitar playing is fantastic, and his band is really tight. They are billed as Ronnie Wood With His Wild Five. The album was recorded at a small theater in Dorset, England.

Ron Wood CD review Fred Michmershuizen

The CD opens with “Tribute to Chuck Berry,” a song by Wood, followed by the Chuck Berry covers. Many of the songs are instantly recognizable, while others are lesser known. Some of them, including “Talking About You” and “Little Queenie,” have been recorded by the Stones. “Wee Wee Hours” features Imelda May on vocals with Ronnie Wood and is the CD’s best song. Other standouts include “Almost Grown,” which is Ronnie’s best vocal of the evening, “Blue Feeling,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Mad Lad,” the album’s title track, which is an instrumental. But all the songs are fantastic. If you’re a Stones diehard like me, this album is a must for your collection!

 

Eleanor Roosevelt

During the approximately 12 years that Franklin D. Roosevelt, our nation’s 32nd president, served in the White House, his wife kept a high profile. Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences and gave speeches in public. She published newspaper and magazine columns and hosted a weekly radio show. During the depression years she traveled all across the country, visiting children in poor neighborhoods and workers in coal mines, advocating for better living and working conditions. During the war years she traveled extensively overseas, visiting troops to help raise morale. She was also outspoken on civil rights and women’s rights.

It should be noted that the job of first lady is not really a job at all. There are no required duties. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “first lady” is not even a formal title and should not be capitalized in news articles.

Eleanor Roosevelt biographyreedman
“Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman

 

Both before and after the White House years, Eleanor Roosevelt had a thriving public career. In the years before FDR’s presidency, Eleanor was active in charitable and philanthropic organizations, in Democratic Party politics, and in various women’s groups. She taught at Todhunter School for Girls in New York City. She also helped run a furniture factory with some of her female companions, with whom she shared a house at Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York.

After FDR’s death, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt a delegate to the United Nations, where she worked in various capacities for many years. She chaired a commission on human rights and was instrumental in drafting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here are some additional notes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life:

  • She was niece of Theodore Roosevelt and was fifth cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Theodore attended the wedding of Eleanor and Franklin in New York City when he was president and gave the bride away. It was St. Patrick’s Day 1905.
  • She was born to wealthy parents in 1884 in New York City. She was orphaned at and early age and was raised mostly by her grandmother.
  • She was sent to a private all-girls school in England that was taught entirely in French, where she thrived. But her grandmother made her come back to New York a year early to make her social debut as a debutante.
  • After Eleanor and Franklin married, they had six children, one of whom died in infancy.
  • Franklin had an affair with another woman, and Eleanor found out about it in 1918. The other woman, Lucy Mercer, turned out to be Eleanor’s social secretary! Franklin promised to end the affair, and he and Eleanor stayed married. But from then on they lived separate lives in many respects.
  • When Franklin died in 1945 at his home for polio survivors in Warm Springs, Georgia, Eleanor learned that Lucy Mercer (who was now Mrs. Rutherfurd) had been with him. Not only that, Eleanor also learned that the other woman had been visiting FDR in the White House, and everyone including her daughter, Anna, knew about it.
  • After FDR’s death Eleanor moved to New York City, first living in an apartment on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Later she bought a house with her physician and his wife, where the three of them lived together and became companions.
  • She wrote more than two dozen books.
  • Throughout her life Eleanor Roosevelt had close relationships with several other women, as well as with men, the nature and scope of which has been speculated upon extensively.
  • When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and former Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower attended her funeral.

Most of this is included in “Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman, a book intended for younger readers. I really liked this book. I found it heart-warming and informative. One of the best features of Freedman’s book is its extensive collection of photographs. Sometimes pictures can say more than words.

There are many other books about Eleanor Roosevelt, including a multi-volume series by Blanche Wiese Cook, which I have not read but I understand goes into much greater detail about Eleanor’s personal life and relationships. There’s also the wonderful seven-part Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” available on Netflix, which is definitely worthwhile in my opinion.

Eleanor Roosevelt Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. This photo, dated November 1949, is from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

 

Rumors of War

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture, on temporary display in Times Square. According to the description posted nearby, the work is a response to the many Confederate monuments displayed throughout the country. After being on display in New York until Dec. 1, the description says, the sculpture will go to Richmond, Va., where it will be permanently installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” sculpture

 

Wiley is the same artist who painted President Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley Barack Obama

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was our nation’s 32nd President. He is considered one of the greats. He led our country during two of its most difficult challenges: The Great Depression and World War II. He was elected to an unprecedented third term, and then to an even more unprecedented fourth term. But he was president for 12 years, not 16. That’s because he died three months into his fourth term. He is the only president to have served more than two terms. He had three different vice presidents: John Nance Garner during his first and second terms, Henry A. Wallace during his third term and Harry S. Truman for his fourth. He won all four of his presidential elections in landslides. In 1932 he soundly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. In 1936 his opponent was Alf Landon, in 1940 Wendell Willkie and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey.

Today’s book report is on “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. There are many biographies of FDR to choose from, and I selected this particular title because I wanted a solidly written, one-volume, cradle-to-grave book. I am glad I chose this one. It clocks in at 600-plus pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes plus 32 pages of photographs. In my view, this is a well-researched and nicely written biography. Like in any good biography, the author describes not only the subject’s successes and triumphs but also his flaws and failures. Yes, FDR had quite a number of flaws. But he had many more good qualities. Many of these characteristics were endearing, even heroic. Many passages in this book were moving and brought a tear to my eye, and a few other descriptions made me laugh out loud. A minor complaint I had was the author’s frequent use of asterisks and footnotes — lots of them, on almost every page — breaking up the flow of reading. I also thought the coverage toward the end of the events leading up to D-Day, and then the 1944 presidential campaign, was a bit on the skimpy side. But all in all, this book was filled with tons of insight and information. Here is some of what I learned.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a life of wealth and privilege. His status came not only from the paternal side of the family. His mother, Sara Delano, came from a wealthy family herself. Sara was what would be called today a helicopter parent. Her influence on her son was immeasurable. She saw that Franklin received an excellent education, first at home with tutors and later at boarding school. By the time he was 9 years old Franklin knew French and German. The family traveled extensively in Europe. He attended Harvard and graduated after three years, but he stayed on campus a fourth year as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Franklin was a distant cousin of both Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin was from the Hyde Park (Hudson River) branch of the family, and Theodore and Eleanor were from the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle. Eleanor’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died of alcoholism when Eleanor was a girl. Like her uncle and cousin, Eleanor also lived a life of privilege. She attended an all-girls boarding school in England that was taught entirely in French. Theodore was president when Franklin and Eleanor got married, and Theodore attended their wedding in Manhattan and gave Eleanor away. Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, a daughter and five sons. One of the sons died in infancy. All of their children ended up getting married and divorced multiple times, and several of the sons embarrassed their father while he was president with various minor scandals. All of FDR’s sons served in World War II. At one point early in their marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. The other woman was Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor found a packet of love letters they had exchanged. FDR broke off the affair. Eleanor and Franklin remained married, but from that point on they led separate lives, had separate groups of friends and had separate interests. In the White House, according to the book, FDR and Eleanor dined apart each night, in separate dining rooms, with different groups of people.

Eleanor became active in various social and philanthropic causes, as well as with various women’s organizations. In these circles she met and befriended two women, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. FDR built them a “shack,” which was actually a large mansion, called Val-Kill, located on the Hyde park property in New York State, where the women all lived together. The author of “FDR” does not delve too deeply into Eleanor’s relationships with other women or speculate on the scope of their intimacy. Eleanor was also close with various men in her life. According to the book, Eleanor had a male bodyguard, Earl Miller, a New York State Police officer, who became a companion and friend, and who might also have been more than a friend.

FDR got his start in politics as a State Senator. Then, following in cousin Theodore’s footsteps, he became assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 FDR ran for vice president as the running mate of James Cox. They lost to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A year later, FDR had a life-changing event. He contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing, first aboard houseboats in Florida and later in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he purchased a large property and turned it into a home for polio survivors. He faced his physical disability with courage, never asking for or seeking sympathy. He devised a strategy for appearances in public in which he would walk with crutches and braces while holding on to a son or a military aide. Always, even though he might have been in excruciating pain, he was smiling.

In 1928 FDR ran for governor of New York and won, again following in TR’s footsteps, and then in 1932 he ran for President and won. During this time, becoming governor of New York was seen as a stepping-stone to the White House. FDR was the fourth governor of New York to become president. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and TR were the others.

When FDR took office in 1933 the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis it had ever known. FDR acted quickly and decisively, first to stabilize the nation’s banks, and then to establish a number of government agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. He called this agenda the New Deal, and in his first 100 days he got Congress to pass enormous amounts of legislation. Some of these programs and agencies were temporary, while many others have survived to this day. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to use federal funds to build dams, bridges and schools. There was also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired young men to plant trees. And later there was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which also employed many people and funded many endeavors, including arts projects. FDR also signed into law legislation that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), which for the first time protected depositors from bank failures; the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to regulate the stock market; and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations and controlled flooding. He brought electricity to rural communities. He initiated legislation for unemployment insurance, and he signed the Social Security Act into law.

All of this was a departure from his three immediate predecessors, who thought that the Washington had no business enacting such programs. But FDR was different. He believed that the full force of the federal government should be brought to bear to provide for the general welfare, and to improve the lives of all citizens. Perhaps the biggest departure from his predecessors, however, was FDR’s sincere confidence that things would get better, that everything was going to be OK. Unlike Hoover, who was a pessimist, FDR was an optimist. It was in his first inaugural address that he uttered the immortal phrase that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” which was a message the American people needed to hear at the time.

The next huge event to confront FDR and the nation was the outbreak of World War II. Hitler was on a murderous rampage, and he had already invaded France and was threatening Britain. Yet the American public did not want to go to war. FDR helped Britain with desperately needed war materiel, under a policy that he devised called Lend-Lease. He also got Congress to enact a military draft. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR gave his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to an emergency joint session of Congress, and he called for massive numbers of planes, tanks and ammunition to be manufactured in our nation’s factories. Early in the war, FDR devised a secret plan that allowed the United States to drop bombs on Tokyo. It was a crazy idea, but it worked. And while it had little military effect on the conflict at the time, it achieved a much-needed morale boost for the Americans. Again, FDR’s confidence and optimism came into play.

During the war FDR met many times with Churchill, and a few other times with Churchill and Stalin. According to the book, FDR did not micromanage the war effort. He set broad goals and left it to his generals to plan and execute the objectives. For D-Day, according to the book, FDR merely set the date and named Eisenhower commander, and he let his military leader conduct Operation Overlord, as it was code-named.

FDR also made several huge mistakes, and he had plenty of personal flaws. According to the book, he had been arrogant as a state senator and rubbed many people the wrong way. As president, he signed no civil rights legislation. The author says that FDR was unable to act on civil rights because he needed to keep southern racist Democrats in his fold, because he needed their support for his New Deal and war initiatives. Also, tragically, FDR went along with a plan during World War II to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. During his second term FDR also interfered, unwisely, in various Democratic Party primary races and was embarrassed. Also during his second term he cut federal spending, which led to the “Roosevelt Recession,” which was basically a recession within the depression.

Perhaps FDR’s most famous blunder was his ill-fated scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This happened during his second term, after the court had struck down several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. FDR failed in his plan and was bruised politically. According to the book, the reason so much of the legislation had been struck down was that it had been poorly written or too hastily drafted.

Nevertheless, despite FDR’s shortcomings, his tenure in office includes momentous achievement. By the end of 1944 the depression was over, the Allies had invaded France and the tide of the war had turned and the end was in sight. FDR sought and won a fourth term, but his health had deteriorated markedly. He was in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945. Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, was with him.

Here are a few more facts about FDR:

  • He was lifelong stamp collector.
  • He also collected stuffed birds.
  • He had a beloved dog, Fala.
  • He was a natural politician who knew how to cultivate relationships with key players in and out of government. He used flattery, cajoling and various other means to get what he wanted.
  • In 1932 FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in person. The plane had to stop twice on the way for fuel.
  • In all his years as president, FDR had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In some sessions the majorities were substantial, at other times narrow.
  • He held “Fireside Chats,” broadcast to the American people via radio. He started the broadcasts when he was governor of New York.
  • He had good relations with the press, and he held twice weekly press conferences.
  • As a precursor to full repeal of Prohibition, FDR signed federal legislation that legalized beer.
  • Every afternoon FDR observed “children’s hour,” in which he would mix drinks for himself and whoever he happened to be hosting that day.
  • When FDR was governor of New York, he named a woman, Frances Perkins, to his cabinet. When he became president, he named Perkins Labor Secretary. She was the first woman cabinet secretary.
  • FDR also had two female assistants, one of whom, Missy, was at his side constantly. When Missy had a stroke, FDR wrote her into his will, but she died first.
  • Eleanor was considered a political liability because she advocated for women’s equality and spoke out for civil rights for blacks.
  • FDR had a half-brother, James, who was many years older.
  • FDR was on a trip to Europe in 1901 with is mother when they received word that President McKinley had been assassinated and their cousin Theodore had become president.
  • When FDR was president-elect, a gunman tried to assassinate FDR when he was on a trip to Miami. FDR was not hit, but several bystanders were, as was the mayor of Chicago, who died.
  • He could quote British poetry from memory, a talent that endeared him to Churchill.
  • He drew a sketch for the design of what would become the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
  • According to the book, FDR was always seen in public standing with his braces locked, or seated in an open car. Only two pictures are known to exist showing FDR in a wheelchair.
  • The 22nd amendment, which limits a president to two terms, came into effect after FDR.

Whew! There is certainly a lot to consider about FDR. In my view, he was indeed one of our nation’s best presidents. I consider him to be the leader our country needed at the time, not only to help us get out of the depression but also to get us through the war. He left many lasting legacies, including Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment insurance, rural electricity, flooding protection — and the GI Bill, which FDR also signed, allowing millions of returning American servicemen to get an education and improve their lives and increase the nation’s standard of living. Plus of course, there’s the United Nations, which FDR laid the foundation for and is yet another organization that endures to this day.

What strikes me most, though, is that FDR did not have to do any of this. He was born rich enough that he could have spent his entire life doing essentially nothing. And then, after being stricken with polio, he could have retired from public life altogether. Nobody would have faulted him had he chosen to fade away. He had several comfortable homes to choose from. But there was something about FDR that made him genuinely want to help others, and to help his country.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

How FDR reacted to his polio diagnosis

Jean Edward Smith FDR bok reviewAbout 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.

Herbert Hoover

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.

Herbert Hoover (Library of Congress photo)

 

The electoral college results in 1928 show Hoover winning in a landslide over Smith.

 

The electoral college results in 1932 show Hoover defeated in a landslide by FDR.

 

Calvin Coolidge

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.

Kinderhook, N.Y.: Home of Martin Van Buren

On a week’s vacation from work, I decided to rent a car and go upstate. First stop Kinderhook — home to Martin Van Buren, our nation’s eighth president.

Lindenwald, Van Buren’s home and farm, is a national historic site and is open to the public. I stopped by the visitors center and watched a short film, and then I took a ranger-guided tour of the house itself. The interior is very well preserved, with many original furnishings and wall coverings. No photographs were allowed inside. The ranger was knowledgeable and personable. He spoke a great deal about Van Buren’s life and times, pointing out that he was in large part responsible for creating the Democratic Party.

Before he became president, Van Buren was very briefly governor of New York state, then he was called to Washington to serve as secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson. In Jackson’s second term, Van Buren was vice president. In 1836 Van Buren was elected president, but the economy crashed and he failed to be elected to a second term. He would run for president twice more, unsuccessfully, in 1844 and 1848. Van Buren had large sideburns, and he is credited with having come up with the word “OK”!

After the historical site visit, I also visited Van Buren’s grave, which is a short drive away at the Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery.

Click any of the pictures below to see them bigger:

Martin Van Buren Kinderhook pictures

Bill German at the New York Public Library

Longtime Rolling Stones insider Bill German presented a talk today at the New York Public Library on West 53rd Street. As many Stones fans know, Mr. German wrote and edited a newsletter about the band for many years. He went on tour with them, he hung out backstage and was welcomed into their homes and hotel rooms. He subsequently wrote about his adventures in a page-turner of a book that he cleverly titled “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It).” Bill also collaborated on a book with Ron Wood about Mr. Wood’s paintings and drawings.

Bill German Under Their ThumbIn my opinion, “Under Their Thumb” is the best book about the Stones — and trust me, I have read many books about the Stones. And in addition to being a gifted writer, Bill is also a terrific public speaker. This was my second time hearing him tell his story. Bill does impersonations of Mick, Ron and Keith, and the way Bill does this you really feel like you are there. During his presentation today, Bill shared pictures and fun anecdotes, including what it was like to hang out in Ron Wood’s basement when people like Stevie Ray Vaughn would pop by at 3 a.m., Keith’s hosting a “lunch” at 8 p.m. — and what happened when he spilled orange juice on Mick Jagger’s rug!

The room was filled with dozens of serious fans who, like me, were hanging on to Bill’s every word. Before and after the presentation, Bill spoke with his fellow Stones fans and signed copies of his books. I picked up extra copies of both the books that he had available, which I will be sending along to out-of-town friends and fellow Stones devotees Gary and Steve. Bill was gracious enough to sign these. He also answered all questions from those in attendance. I had a question of my own I wanted to ask, but I will ask that of Bill another day.

Bill German Ron Wood bookBill German Rolling Stones

On Tyranny

Could the unthinkable ever happen here in the United States? Could we all end up living in a dictatorship? If we are not careful, we just might. And it might happen sooner than anyone might expect. Sure, we live in a democracy today, with rule of law, freedom of the press and a constitution complete with checks and balances. But what if these safeguards fall away one by one? What then?

book review “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy SnyderIn his very brief yet very important book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder points out our nation’s Founding Fathers created a system with three separate branches of government specifically to prevent tyranny. The framers of our constitution studied the rise and fall of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and took lessons from philosophers such as Aristotle, who warned of inequality, and Plato, who warned of demagoguery. The author also reminds us that many functioning democracies in 20th Century Europe devolved into dictatorships, after periods of political stability.

If you ask me, our own country today is headed down the wrong path, a dangerous path. I see many ominous warning signs. Consider that our president and officials in his administration openly lie about even the most easily disprovable of matters. He calls those working in media (which includes me) “enemies of the people.” There are no more White House press briefings. Not that it matters anymore, since the most recent press secretary — the daughter of a preacher, no less — was forced to admit under oath that she slandered a government official, one who was fired in an attempt by the president to obstruct justice as he openly admitted on national TV.

Also consider that half the cabinet secretaries now are “acting” secretaries, thereby circumventing the Senate’s constitutionally mandated confirmation process. This is not normal, nor it is acceptable. Yet it happens. Members of the administration flout the law with a smirk on their faces. They say down is up and right is left, that our allies are our enemies and our enemies are our friends. They call those seeking legal asylum in this country “animals” and treat them worse than animals. They ignore congressional subpoenas and defy court orders. All the while, they are cheered on by crowds of angry people worked into a hate-filled frenzy at political rallies. Yes, the gathering last night in North Carolina was a hate rally.

If you are as troubled by these things as much as I am, you might want to get a copy of this pocket-sized book. It’s brief, yet in my view very important. You could read it on the subway to work or even on your lunch break. It’s essentially just a collection of short proverbs. Among the lessons are things such as “Defend institutions,” “Beware the one-party state” and “Investigate.” These are words to live by, if you ask me.