It was Hoover's fate as President to cope with the greatest crisis since the Civil War. In the process he sacrificed much of his reputation as a hero.
From Hero to Scapegoat
No American president entered office with greater expectations, or left with more bitter disappointments, than Herbert Hoover. "I only wish I could say what is in my heart," he remarked as hard times engulfed the nation and his popularity evaporated. But Hoover's heart never could subdue his head.
|1932-97: During the Bonus March, children are seen at a camp set up to criticize Hoover's policies, July 1932. (Underwood and Underwood)
Hoover's presidency showed the limitations of managerial government in a time of national emergency. With his stiff-necked refusal to play the political game, the president clung to the same theories of individual initiative and grassroots cooperation that had fed and salved war-torn Europe and ministered to flood victims in this country. "A voluntary deed is infinitely more precious to our national ideas and spirit than a thousandfold poured from the Treasury," he said. This was the practical idealism that had raised Hoover the presidency, only to become a ball and chain hobbling him from galvanizing a suffering nation.
To most Americans, the president was a remote, grim-faced man in a blue, double-breasted suit. They saw none of his private anguish throughout sixteen-hour days, engaging in fruitless mealtime conferences with economists, politicians, and bankers. Hoover's hands shook as he lit one Juan Alones cigar after another. His hair turned white and he lost twenty-five pounds.
Holding office at such a time, said Hoover, was akin to being a repairman behind a dike. "No sooner is one leak plugged up then it is necessary to dash over and stop another that has broken out. There is no end to it." Defensive to the point of bewilderment, he told reporters, "No one is actually starving." In fact, said Hoover, he knew of one hobo who had managed to beg ten meals in a single day. He once offered Rudy Vallee a gold medal if the popular entertainer could come up with a joke to curtain hoarding of gold.
But increasingly the joke, such as it was, was the man "Time" called "President Reject."
"Mellon pulled the whistle
Hoover rang the bell
Wall Street gave the signal
And the country went to hell."
Hoover himself indulged in a rare bit of whimsy during a meeting with former President Coolidge. After his successor had outlined a host of anti-Depression measures, Coolidge offered wry consolation. "You can't expect to see calves running in the field the day after you put the bull to the cows," he commented. "No," replied Hoover, "but I do expect to see contented cows."
There was precious little contentment among Hoover's countrymen. One day in 1931, 10,000 Communist demonstrators picketed the White House with placards reading, "The Hoover program --a crust of bread and a bayonet." Congress, for whom the next election seemed more important than unity in the midst of crisis, stubbornly resisted the president. "Why is it that when a man is on this job as I am," raged a baffled Hoover, "day and night, doing the best he can, that certain men...seek to oppose everything he does, just to oppose him?"
Worse lay in store. In 1929 the Democratic National Committee hired former newspaperman Charles Michaelson to attack Hoover's Superman image. Backed by a million dollar budget, Michaelson wrote speeches for Democrats on Capitol Hill and distributed a column called "Dispelling the Fog". The president was falsely implicated in a sugar lobbying scandal. An alleged food riot in Arkansas was cited as "proof" of Hoover's inhumanity. Herbert, Jr. was accused of profiteering from a job with airlines. The president's niece was informed by a gardener that the Depression resulted when "Hoover and Mellon" removed all the gold from Fort Knox and buried it on an island in the Potomac.
Will Rogers summed up the mood of a nation: if someone bit an apple and found a worm in it, he joked, Hoover would get the blame. Desperate encampments of tin and cardboard shacks were dubbed "Hoovervilles." There were "Hoover hogs" (armadillos fit for eating) "Hoover flags" (empty pockets turned turned inside out) "Hoover blankets (newspapers barely covering the destitute forced to sleep outdoors) and "Hoover Pullmans" (empty boxcars used by an army of vagabonds escaping from their roots).
Rumor mongers claimed that the president had diverted public funds to build his fishing retreat, and was somehow involved in the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's infant son. Mrs. Hoover said it was no surprise that the voters had turned on her husband; if she believed half of what they had been told, then she would not vote for him herself.
Hoover adopted a bloody but unbowed stance. "I cannot take the time from my job to answer such stuff," he said. At the same time it must be said that he did little to advance his cause. Building speeches like an engineer builds a bridge, Hoover delivered his statistic-laden texts in a dish-watery monotone. His face wore the look of a condemned man, not a confident leader. "You can't make a Teddy Roosevelt out of me," he explained, apologetically.
He shied away as if by instinct from the emotional aspects of modern, mass leadership. In the spring of 1932, three Detroit children hitchhiked to Washington to try and get their father out of jail. Hoover was deeply moved and ordered the father released immediately. Yet he refused to let the press be informed, or the children exploited for his personal political advantage. From hero to scapegoat: Hoover's failure to dramatize himself was his greatest strength as a humanitarian and his greatest flaw as a politician.
The Battle of Anacostia Flats
In the summer of 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, World War I veterans seeking early payment of a bonus scheduled for 1945 assembled in Washington to pressure Congress and the White House. Hoover resisted the demand for an early bonus. Veterans benefits took up 25% of the 1932 federal budget. Even so, as the Bonus Expeditionary Force swelled to 60,000 men, the president secretly ordered that its members be given tents, cots, army rations and medical care.
|1932-96: World War I veterans block the steps of the Capitol during the Bonus March, July 5, 1932. (Underwood and Underwood)
In July, the Senate rejected the bonus 62 to 18. Most of the protesters went home, aided by Hoover's offer of free passage on the rails. Ten thousand remained behind, among them a hard core of Communists and other organizers. On the morning of July 28, forty protesters tried to reclaim an evacuated building in downtown Washington scheduled for demolition. The city's police chief, Pellham Glassford, sympathetic to the marchers, was knocked down by a brick. Glassford's assistant suffered a fractured skull. When rushed by a crowd, two other policemen opened fire. Two of the marchers were killed.
At this point the District of Columbia government asked federal troops to preserve order. Hoover reluctantly agreed, but only after limiting Major General Douglas MacArthur's authority. MacArthur's troops would be unarmed. The mission was to escort the marchers unharmed to camps along the Anacostia River. But MacArthur ignored the president's orders, taking no prisoners and driving tattered protesters from their encampment.
After Hoover ordered a halt to the army's march, MacArthur again took things into his own hands, violently clearing the Anacostia campsite. A national uproar ensued. In far off Albany, New York, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt grasped the political implications instantly. "Well," he told a friend on hearing the news, "this elects me."
Against all Odds
"We are opposed by six million unemployed, 10,000 bonus marchers, and 10 cent corn," said Herbert Hoover at the start of an uphill reelection campaign. "Is it any wonder that the prospects are dark?" On top of everything else the president was saddled with Prohibition, whose enforcement he believed unworkable. Originally he intended to make only three speeches on his behalf, but as the contest heated up, Hoover took to the campaign trail for weeks on end.
"Let no man tell you it could not be worse," he told one audience. "It could be so much worse that these days now, distressing as they are, would look like veritable prosperity." This was hardly an inspiring message, nor did Hoover's defense of the gold standard and balanced budget win many converts-- especially at a time when the magical Franklin D. Roosevelt was appealing to the "forgotten man." FDR promised to cut federal expenditures by 25% and attacked high tariffs. Hoover replied that a billion dollars in spending had already been cut and that tariffs had saved jobs in the Midwest and industrial Northeast.
Everywhere Hoover went he saw evidence of the nation's bitterness. He was jeered outside a Detroit arena and hooted at in Oakland. After tomatoes were thrown at his train in Kansas, he said dejectedly, "I can't go on with it anymore." But he did. Disregarding doctor's orders, Hoover warned of the threat to individual freedom posed by Roosevelt's vaguely defined New Deal. Election Day was a Democratic sweep, as Roosevelt carried all but six states. Hoover received the bad news at his California home. A few days later, on the east bound presidential train to Washington, friendly journalist found an exhausted Hoover. The President looked up at his visitor with a one-word greeting. "Why?" he asked.
The Banking Crisis
Chained-together, 1930s-style bank doors represent the financial crisis that gripped the nation during the early years of the Great Depression.
In the last weeks of his term, Hoover faced a desperate crisis of confidence as uncertain investors sought reassurance that the new administration would defend the gold standard. On February 17, 1933, the president wrote the president-elect, seeking assurances that Roosevelt would balance the budget, combat inflation, and halt publication of loans made by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Roosevelt, sensing that his discredited predecessor was trying to tie his hands, kept silent.
Soon banks in two dozen states began to totter. Hoover denounced corrupt bankers as worse than Al Capone ("He apparently was kind to the poor.") He proposed that the Federal Reserve guarantee every depositor's account in the nation. The idea of deposit insurance would eventually become law, but in February, 1933 the Reserve's governors preferred a general bank holiday instead. Hoover refused to take such a drastic action without Roosevelt's agreement. And FDR had his own agenda.
Twice on the night of March 3, Hoover telephoned the president-elect trying to persuade him to join in concerted action. FDR replied that governors were free to do what they wishes on a state by state basis. A little after one in the morning, the governors of New York and Illinois unilaterally suspended banking operations in their states. "We are at the end of our string," a bone-weary president remarked to his secretary that morning, "there is nothing more we can do."