Landslide -- A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover
Subject: Timothy Egan
Interviewer: Tracey Dorsey
This interview* was recorded in Seattle, Washington in February 2008, as part of Landslide - A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group and Stamats Communications. Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Timothy Egan is a national enterprise reporter for the New York Times and the author of The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
I'm going to start really broad and ask you, who was Herbert Hoover?
Well I suppose if anyone even thinks about Hoover it's like that line from Casablanca where they say, “Mr. Rick, you don't really like me, do you?” And he says, “I suppose if I ever thought about you I wouldn't like you.” I don't think people think of Hoover. I think Hoover became an asterisk, and the asterisk is buried in the Great Depression.
The person behind that asterisk is fairly fascinating, because he was full of contradiction. He started out as this great humanitarian. He was one of the first graduates of Stanford; he claims the first graduate. He made a pile a money. One of the statements I found of him is he said, “A man who has not made a million dollars by the age of 40 is not much of a man,” and that was one of the many problems for Hoover; a lot of his past statements came to haunt him like a bill collector.
He said these things repeatedly in life that seemed innocuous at the time, but it followed him. But Hoover, whoever he is, is this person who's grounded in the guy that screwed up in the Great Depression. He's thought to be heartless, he's thought to be callous, he's thought to be a person who didn't care, and he’s thought to be some sort of gray monotone from the past.
That's what he's thought to be. What do you think he was?
Well, I think he's sort of a more full dimensional individual. I think he was a pretty good humanitarian. But you can't separate the man from the policy. Policy flows from narrative, and his narrative was self-help. I am the guy that made a million dollars on my own.
And who is Hoover in your view?
Again, in my view, he was a man of contradiction, a person who seemed to have a heart. He was a person who had a humane impulse, but was so grounded in an almost Victorian, 19th Century philosophy about how you help people, but I think history has been fairly accurate in its judgment of him.
He was the person who couldn't save us at the Great Depression and we really wanted to be saved. And I think the evidence does show that even though FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, the man who followed him, didn't save us, Roosevelt felt like he saved us. He felt he gave us this connection.
Hoover is interesting to me because also his life philosophy was the individual. Government should not help the person in need; the individual, their family, their community should. It goes back to what happened to him in his life story, but it also goes back to what happened in 1927 and the great flood. This was the disaster that preceded both the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Katrina. I mean it was in size and in terms of how many Americans were refugees. The greatest three movements of Americans for natural disasters were this flood of 1927, the Dust Bowl, and Hurricane Katrina.
Hoover was hired by the government in 1927 to oversee the relief effort, and that's where his philosophy, which was basically that individuals can do it, came from. He went to the Red Cross, he went to churches, he went to community groups, and he realized there was a huge disaster, but he said government is not going to be the helping hand.
So he applied that template later on when the Great Depression happened and when the Dust Bowl happened, and it proved to be catastrophic. So I don't think he was a bad man. I don't see Hoover's as evil or wicked or deliberately ignorant. I think the judgment on President George Bush on Hurricane Katrina will be quite harsh, and Hoover, the judgment on him was not, again, that he was bad; it was that he applied the wrong view, and it came out of his life's story.
You were talking a little bit about Hoover's philosophy and individualism. In terms of the Mississippi Flood of 1927, was there precedence for a federal government to come in these natural disasters to save the individual?
That's a very good point that's raised, which is that we've never been confronted by anything on this scale before, so you can't blame Hoover for not having anything to fall back on that was equal in size to what this disaster was, both the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. This was the worst economic depression in the history of the industrial age democracies.
Now, we've had a series of panics; they always call them panics. 1893 was one of them. It usually involved machinations of the stock market and railroads. So we'd have these panics, then people would loose confidence in the economy and the economy would sort of collapse. This pace would go on for a year, or two years, three years, five years, and it would affect a fairly large segment of the economy.
Just a few, very simple statistics on the Great Depression: At the end of 1932, which is the end of Hoover's term, one term, and heading into an election year, one in four Americans were out of work. 25% of the entire, of job-age Americans had no job. There were no food stamps; there was no social security.
So if you were elderly and you didn't have a family to take care of you, you were basically at the mercy of society. There was no price support for farmers. So if your crops failed, unlike now, when you're backed up by the government, you had nothing to go to. You had no government basis to back you, no safety net essentially that was there.
One in three Americans were out of work. At the end of 1932, nine million, Americans had lost all their savings in banks. Banks had failed. That was the other component. There was no safety net, no FDIC, no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to back up the banks. So all these things in society collapsed and there was no backup.
Hoover was facing something unprecedented. It's a fair criticism and a fair suggestion to say, yes, he didn't change. He approached it in ways that other people had approached it, because there had never been anything like this.
The Mississippi River Flood of '27 was a pretty big deal. It was huge. It displaced more than half a million people on a natural disaster scale, and by the end of Hoover's Presidency, the Great Depression had gone on for almost three years. It was larger than any of these panics I had mentioned, so it was clear that drastic measures were needed at this point.
You talked about Hoover's American individualism, that his philosophy was based on the self, the individual. Yet, prior to his election, you had characterized him as pretty liberal. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. One of the fascinating things about Hoover, I think is, is to see the arc of his political philosophy. In 1912, we had a third-party candidacy in Theodore Roosevelt. He had been a two-term Presidency, and then he broke with the Republican Partly in 1912, for the Progressive Party or the Bull Moose Partly. It was a radical party. It was as radical as anything we've ever seen in American politics, advocating universal suffrage for women, having laws to protect children in labor, and strict environmental standards, lots of conservation.
One of Teddy Roosevelt's supporters at this time was Herbert Hoover. It was the one time in his life that he broke with Republican orthodoxy, and people who went with TR in that Progressive Party were pretty inclined to radicalism. If you put the party platform of 1912 up against most things today, you'd see it's a radical party. It called for a lot of things that American society was not ready for.
They later picked them up years down the road. So Hoover was a follower of Teddy when Teddy broke with the Republican Party, and that's a really big deal that formed people's life philosophies for a long time. But then the difference between him and others is that he came back to the party and became a fairly traditional Republican, and he was the Food Administrator during the Great War. In the 1920s he was Secretary of Commerce, and he became more of a mainstream, what's good for business is good for America a sort of Republican.
There was a point in his life, again, that TR phase, where he at least backed a radical. He also was known as being a fairly humane individual. He was a hero in the teens and 20s for helping people. He was a hero for doing humanitarian work along the lines of how we see Jimmy Carter now when he goes off to help a country that's starving or help with the diplomatic stalemate. Hoover was considered one of these American humanitarians up to that point.
You mentioned his humanitarianism. He did feed Belgium during World War I. He was also the U.S. Food Administrator, and he had, for a long time, been associated with the agricultural sector. How was he perceived among the countryside farming communities early, before his Presidency?
Before Hoover's Presidency, Hoover was the best thing to happen to the American farmer since homesteading became legal. Here's what he did: We had laissez-faire farming economy, And most Americans, not most but a significant amount of Americans, well into the 20th Century, one in three in 1930 in fact, worked on a farm.
So we were still the Jeffersonian agrarian society, and the movement to cities was a relatively late thing. What happened was that you were paid for whatever the market would give you for the commodities that you produced. It was a pretty small farming economy, that is the local farmers produced wheat, or apples, or grain of some sort, and sold it to local vendors, who sold it to local stores.
All of that changed rather dramatically under Hoover because, when he was the Food Administrator, the United States became, for the first time, a big agricultural exporter. It got into this global commodities game. Food went from being something that local farmers made for local people to a global commodity. That was not Hoover's doing. It radically changed the American farm economy and, in many ways, led to the creation of the Dust Bowl.
How did it lead to the creation of the Dust Bowl?
Well here's what happened: When Hoover was the Food Administrator he set a guaranteed price support for wheat. He said the United States government will pay you farmers no matter what the market does elsewhere. Now this is a free market Republican saying this, no matter what the food market does, we will guarantee you $2 a bushel for your wheat. That was huge.
That led to this gold mining of the American mid-section. All of a sudden you could get an enormous amount of money for wheat, a guaranteed $2 a bushel. Now he's doing this because he wanted to prime the pump, he wanted to flood the market with American wheat so that we could feed people overseas. Russia had been the only exporter of wheat at this time. They were cut off by World War I, so suddenly the United States had to step into the breech and be the food producer.
Wheat goes from.25 cents a bushel, to .50 cents a bushel, to $2 a bushel, and there's this stampede of people going out to the grasslands of the Great Plains to turnover what is arguably America's largest intact ecosystems, the Great Plains grasslands, and plant wheat. People would show up, they call them suitcase farmers, they'd show up at some dinky little town with a suitcase, go out and claim 320 acres in homesteading, because they doubled the Homestead Act and you could claim 320 acres. Plough some, plough up the grass, throw some seed into the ground and then they'd disappear, go back to Chicago, or New York, or wherever, and come back in the spring to harvest it, knowing that they could get $2 a bushel, which is a really big deal.
There was this woman, I think her name was Ida Watkins, she was a wheat farmer out of Kansas, and she said, “I made more than Babe Ruth did last year.” It's just a Kansas wheat farmer, because suddenly it was this incredible bonanza.
Now every boom has a bust, and so, when the price support was taken away, when you could no longer get $2 a bushel, what were we left with? All this wheat and nobody to take it, because Russia was back after the war supplying it. So we had this huge run up in wheat prices. The price support was taken away, but all the wheat was there, and then this crash.
That led to all these grasslands, an area about the size of the state of Pennsylvania, being torn up. There's a great quote from the Paiute Indian who lived out at this grassland that had all been torn to make farms for wheat. He said, “wrong side up,” which is exactly what happened. You had this grassland torn up, the price crashed, the wheat rotted in the silos, the land itself started to blow. Then it took to the sky and we had these epic storms. We had this nightmare scenario that lasted much of ten years.
But was all that Hoover's fault? No, but the economics of it, the foundation of the price run-up, the gold rush on wheat that led to all these people suddenly showing up in a place that was considered the great American desert, a place that had been disparaged as the absolutely worst patch of ground in the United States that would never be farmed, that was just considered trash land; all of this place being ripped up, you can tie in part to the run-up in wheat that started when Hoover set those price supports.
How does Hoover's propping up business through government square with his American individualism?
When Hoover set a floor for wheat at $2 a bushel, it was a real departure from his philosophy, from Republican governing philosophy, and for that matter, with the United States Government era. We had never set guaranteed prices for products like that. We had never said, we're going to pay you for this no matter what happens to the market, so it's a big contradiction for Hoover to do that.
To me the interesting thing about that is twofold: That at the start of it, what it did to cause people to plough all this land up; and the back end of it, when all this land was ploughed up and 15 years later this foul ground took to the sky because there was no one there to purchase all this wheat. Desperate American farmers then went to Hoover and said, give us this price support now.
At that time wheat went to a dime a bushel. So imagine, one time it's $2 a bushel, now it's ten cents a bushel, because the market fell out and that price support had been removed. That's when Hoover possibly could have saved the farm economy; that's some of what FDR later did. At this point, Hoover didn't help them because, he said, this would be government intervention. The free market is at work right now; it's culling out this excess of inventory, if that's how you want to phrase wheat stacking up in silos, wheat that would feed hungry people.
Yet he didn't intervene. He intervened to start the thing; he didn't intervene at the end when it would have really helped, or when they think it would have helped, I should say.
When people think of the 1920s, they think the roaring 20s, and bathtub gin, and everybody's rich. Can you describe what life was like in the country in the 1920s?
Yes, but before I tell you what life was like in the '20s, there's an excellent point that should be made here. There was an agricultural depression before there was an American Depression, and it had to do with the price run-up, with prices going all the way up and getting all the way down. That happened in the late 1920s. So before the stock market itself crashed, which may or may not have led to the depression, the economists differ on that, there had been, there was an active agricultural depression going on in the late 1920s.
In the early '20s it was boom time across the board. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, we went on one long giddy spree and thought it would never end. I think the stereotype of the jazz age is fairly accurate. People were moving to the cities en masse, prohibition was going on, so there was this real sense of lawlessness. Something else that Hoover had quite a hand in, was in continuing prohibition, which led to this huge run-up in crime and also led to a lot of farmers finding something for their product finally, which was whisky. They made whisky out of corn.
Entire counties, literally hundreds of counties in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska were kept alive by black-market whisky. Hoover was a proponent of prohibition. Before that, in the 1920s, the market went crazy. You could buy shares of General Electric for $27 a share and three days later they'd be at $110 dollars a share, which is what it went up to. People thought, you know, this is going to go on forever.
Farmers put their money in these banks, these towns, which were spreading across the midsection of the United States. Most people think settlement happened in the 19th Century. That's not true. The biggest surge of settlement in the western half of the Great Plains was all in the 20th Century. So towns rose up overnight. They were suddenly prosperous in all this wheat that was getting these great prices. Every town had a movie theater and a couple businesses, selling new cars, and they had a bank. Farmers put their money in these banks, and these banks put their money in the stock market, because the stock market was only going to go one way.
So we had this great getting. It's happened many times in our history, but this was the worst. This feeling that the good times will never end. That even the little towns like Dalhart, Texas which I became quite familiar with, where people literally went from living in holes in the ground, in sustainable existences where they would dig what's called dugouts, and they would be four feet down and four feet up with these tarpaper shack walls and earthen floors. Families of nine and ten people living in these earthen floor dugouts, or sod houses, where you'd, just stamped grass.
They went, in five to seven years time, from living in those dugouts to really nice houses, and having new cars and pianos. The good times just came with this hypo manic surge. Then, of course, it crashed almost with the same velocity.
That crash was due to the wheat market falling, right?
A couple things. The wheat market completely crashed. Wheat went as high as $4 a bushel, and then it went as low as a dime, and then they literally couldn't give it away. If you drive through Texas, or Oklahoma, or Kansas, or southeast Colorado in 1929, before the stock market crashed and the first year of Hoover's Presidency, as you approached a town the first thing you would see is the silo. As you came to the silo what you would notice is that the thing is just stacked to the gills with grain. The grain isn't going anywhere. The market had completely collapsed; they produced way too much. That was a problem.
The other problem, which directly affected so many people, was the collapse of the banks. I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating that 5,000 banks a year or more were failing. These banks were sort of like the, it's a Wonderful Life, imagine of the Savings and Loan. Every town had a little bank that gave out small loans to people, and they thought, boy, the price of wheat is going to continue going up. So they all were indebted; they were encouraged to take out these loans.
They gave the money to the banks, and the banks gambled it in the stock market. The banks were not backed by anything, so when the failed, they failed because they had put their money in the stock market. When the farmer went to get his money out of the bank, there was nothing there. You had these runs on banks, you had these people banging on doors, you had these mobs with pitchforks saying they were going to burn the bank down and hang the owner if they could find him. People were outraged. They thought this stuff was safe.
Hoover's role in that was, he didn't think government should back the banks. One of the first things that Roosevelt, who was also fairly radical, did was to save capitalism, supposedly. There, most historians think that the irony is that this lefty, progressive Franklin Roosevelt saved American capitalism. Hoover didn't intervene because strangely his government philosophy came around to the, we shouldn't interfere.
But you had, over the course of his Presidency, entire towns go through this amazing arc, just in those four years. They were at their peak, and then they were on life support. Towns sent telegrams to Hoover saying, the entire city is on the verge of starvation, do something. Remember, there was no price support, no food stamps, no Social Security, none of this help with things that we take for granted right now, none of this safety net that we take for granted right now
They sent out S.O.Ss. You had towns go, in the compact course of one person's presidency, from booming, shining little towns on the prairie, to desperate. This is well before these Hoovervilles, I'm not talking about so-called Hoovervilles which were these villages, but prosperous little Norman Rockwell-like American towns which would just be on their backs. That happened at the arc of his Presidency.
What were the primary issues and who were the candidates of the '28 election?
In the 1928 election, you had, for the first time, a Catholic running, Al Smith from New York, and you had Herbert Hoover running as a fairly traditional Republican, basically saying, don't change the good times, keep everybody rolling, why change things when they're going good. I think most of the election didn't turn on issues, I think it turned on things that often throw an American election off, like a person's race or religion. Because Al Smith was a Catholic, that's why I mention that, it was a very big deal.
There was pretty strong anti-Catholicism in the South. What Hoover did was he broke the solid South, which had been Democratic since the Civil War, because they thought Lincoln, the Republican, of course, was the great villain. Reconstruction through Grant, Hoover broke that.
It was all about Catholicism. It wasn't about the old issues of race and Lincoln; it was all about the Democrats running a Catholic. Hoover won big. He won in a landslide, which clearly he had a huge mandate.
It's interesting to look at his Inaugural address, though. It was a quick Inaugural address, you know, kind of a in and out, quickie, here's the issues, let's move on. Yet the interesting thing was, he spoke about really having to get a handle on crime, and it was all because of Prohibition. The one great exception to this rosy view of the United States in the end of this prosperous era of the 1920s was that we were an outlaw society because of Prohibition. Hoover himself, if you believe some historians, would go to the Belgium Embassy to have a drink because, technically, he was not violating American law. He was on Embassy grounds, which are not subject to American Sovereignty.
He was for Prohibition. He called it a great social and economic experiment. It certainly was an economic experiment in the way it changed the farm economy and changed so many. It was a disaster. Everyone mocked the law from polite society all the way down to the bottom end.
In the '28 election, he did speak about crime and having to get control of crime, and it was all because we were in the grips of Prohibition and people were lawbreakers at every level of society. He won big; it was a landslide, and he won big because Smith was a flawed candidate and Hoover seemed to fit the times. The irony is he seemed to fit the times in '28. In '32, four years later, he couldn't have been more out of the times. He seemed to be a man from another century by then.
How much of it was a cult of personality? There was a famous quote about Hoover saying, “I'm afraid that these people think that I'm a superman.”
It's interesting that Hoover was concerned about the presidency becoming a cult of personality, and I think it was a good reserved sort of Middle American concern to have that. We'd never been one of these countries that got wrapped up like the South Americans in the cult of personality. We would never follow a Napoleon type.
When FDR ran against Hoover in 1932, four years later, one of Hoover's main criticism was that he, FDR, was leading a mob. It was a mob-mentality to stampede him out, and the mob did vote. Hoover lost every state but six, in 1932. This is a person who had had this landslide victory four years earlier.
He had a legitimate concern about that. He wasn't set up, in any way, for the media age, though he was fairly telegenic. He just wasn't personally suited, I don't think, to that. It seemed to go against his character, whereas, Roosevelt almost invented that age.
What was Hoover’s attachment to Prohibition?
He publicly was for Prohibition, and again, he called it a great economic and social experiment; that was his do-gooder side. Remember Hoover was the son of Quaker parents, and I'm not saying that made him a teetotaler, he wasn't a teetotaler, but a lot of Quakers, when Prohibition was started, were behind Prohibition. They saw the scourge that liquor was doing to the drinking man, and certainly a lot of working-class people were ruined by liquor.
Prohibition came out of this sort of do-gooder, abolitionist, Quaker ideal. It was a big part of that liberal, we can improve human beings thing, and Hoover bought into that. He was somewhat of a hypocrite, though, because he was a drinker, but he saw how Prohibition led to a real uptake in crime. Organized crime got its foothold in the United States because of Prohibition.
Hoover, in his Inaugural Address in the spring of 1929, was really concerned about this. One of Hoover's main problems for historians was that his past statements haunted him like a bill collector. He had this knack for saying things that looked horrible in retrospect.
Hoover said in 1929, “We are nearer now as Americans to eliminating poverty as a nation than any time in our lifetime as a nation.” The Great Depression hits later that year, and that statement would follow him to his grave. He made several statements like that and I think that was one of the main reasons why he looked so bad to historians, because he made these continuous statements.
He addressed Prohibition early on, and it was the number one concern in his Inaugural Address. He thought the economy was fine. He said, all we’ve got to do is basically stay the course, but we've gotta do something about crime. That was all because of Prohibition. He didn't advocate getting rid of it at this point.
The candidate that Hoover was in '28 was really sought after. Are there modern day comparisons that you could make?
I think that it's accurate to say Americans still vote their pocket books. Hoover is an indication of that more than anything. If we feel good, we stay with the President, if we feel bad, we don't stay with the President. There were echoes of it when Reagan later said famously, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” He did this to unseat Jimmy Carter. There are echoes of that in almost any modern race, “do you feel better now? And how are you doing?”
Most of us felt pretty good. The agriculture side wasn't in a depression yet, but it certainly was seeing some real trouble spots, and people were going under on the farm side, but the rest of the United States was doing pretty well. So he generally rode that. I don't think it's fair to expect him to call for radical changes at a time when most people were prosperous.
Eight months into his Presidency, the bottom drops out of the stock market. What precipitated that decline?
You know, people will debate as long as there are economists they'll debate the origins of the Great Depression. To me the interesting thing about it when I looked at it and tried to understand it from the perspective of folks living through the Great Depression, was that most Americans in 1929 did not own stock. No more than two percent of Americans owned any part of the stock market. Perhaps three percent if you include grandma leaving some inheritance to the kids.
It was a real niche thing. Now, almost 40% of Americans own stock. It's a huge part of our economy, but in 1929 it was a niche thing. So when the market collapsed, it collapsed over a series; there wasn't just one Black Tuesday or Black Friday, it collapsed gradually in the fall of 1929. So that by November of 1929, the market was down 40% overall, but it had gone up at least that during the 1920s.
On this face of it, this should not have caused the economy to collapse. What happened was that it had a spiraling effect; all these banks in all these little towns, and all these banks in all these big cities had bought into the market. So even though only two percent of Americans owned stock, the greater economy had bought into it. They'd taken people's savings and purchased into it, so when that disappeared and this market collapsed, there was nothing there.
Did then, the stock market crash have an immediate effect on all of these rural communities?
The interesting thing is that, when the market crashed in '29, most farmers didn't think it would affect them. In fact, there was a little bit of schoedenfreud. They thought these swells in the city, these people who drank all that bathtub gin in the 1920s, and danced the night away, these people they would see in the movie theater, the Nickelodeons that they all went to in these little towns, they thought it was almost Biblical. You lived too hard, too fast, and this is your comeuppance.
They never thought it would get to them. This was a distant thing. They didn't equate their wheat and their savings in the bank with this market. They saw this stereotypical image of people jumping out of a building, which was one of the great myths of the Depression. I mean people did not commit suicide in any more scale then than they do now, it's just that it became a media image of 1929.
So we went from a fairly small segment of the economy, something that only two percent of the people had a share of, the stock market, to a much larger segment, the banks. Everybody had a share in that. Then it went to a much larger food supply, which had already started to go down in the 1920s. So it had this ripple effect. It was this sort of contagion that had an effect of touching everything.
Now Hoover looked at this and you can see why he said these statements that look idiotic in modern-day light. On the surface, it didn't make any sense that the world's greatest economy would collapse from something that only two percent of the people had any shares in. So he would look at the numbers in the early part of the Great Depression, 1930 and 1931, and he'd make statements like, all the indicators are that the worst is over; all the indicators are that this will be over. I remember he said in 1930, “This will be all behind us within 60 days.” When 60 days came, instead of 5,000,000 people being out of work, suddenly there were 10,000,000 people out of work. He looked like a moron.
He'd predicted these things because everything before him told him that this shouldn't bring it down. So, he really lost credibility. I think one of the problems with Hoover is he said these things based on the past, and it's hard, almost, to blame him. Any other man in that position, any other woman, any other President, you wouldn't think this could drag down the entire the United States economy based on the past.
But then, instead of saying, there's a real concern, let's see what we can do to fix this. He would say, all the indications are that the worst is behind us, and instead of the worst being behind us, we literally went from 5,000,000 people being out of work to 10,000,000 people being out of work in less than a year's time.
Nobody had ever seen anything like this. It didn't match any of the panics, the 1893, the 1904, these various panics that had come before in our economy. Nothing had ever been this bad. I think part of it was that we had joined the global economy, and the global economy was terrible too, because German reparations had led to big parts of Europe’s currencies being worthless. We had joined the global economy indirectly because of Hoover. Because of wheat we became a global trader. We were also contributing to it.
Our economy had never been that tied to the rest of the world. Hoover was dealing with a lot of things that are thought to be 20th Century, but didn't really kick in 'til the 1920s, or the 1930s, or beyond. That sort of modern 20th Century economy, the modern 20th Century agriculture economy, the modern 20th Century Industrial Age for us all started later in the century, and he got hit with that. In some ways he got hit with changes that were well beyond anything that any decent leader could see.
What efforts did he make with the crash? What efforts did he make initially?
To me the most interesting thing that Hoover did was that he thought that the way to save the American economy was to go with the producer end, to prime the pump at the producer end. That is, to help people produce, help the factories produce more cars, to help farmers produce more product, to help anybody making something.
He had a huge fundamental difference with the Democrats who were swept into office in the off-year election, 1930. They seized power in one of these landslides that preceded what was going to happen to Hoover two years later. Yet, their argument was that government should be doing something, and later through FDR, government should do it on the other end, on the consumer end, on the people end.
Roosevelt ran on a platform in 1932 of the forgotten man. It was a direct stab at Hoover, who wanted to do the producer end. Roosevelt said, let's help the person at the end who can't afford it. He said, it doesn't matter. The Democrats in general throughout Hoover's term said, it doesn't matter how much, how many cars you produce, how much you help people at the production end, if somebody at the buyer end can't afford it.
There was a fundamental philosophical difference in how to approach this thing, and Hoover, based on pretty reliable evidence up to that point, said, let's prime one end of it. He also, this is what's fascinating to me, because he's thought to be such a strict conservative laissez-faire Republican, wanted to raise taxes. Most Americans did not pay income tax at the start of the Hoover administration.
Income tax was sort of a niche thing. It had been approved by the Supreme Court several years earlier, but most Americans still didn't pay income tax. Hoover wanted to raise taxes on a fair amount of the American society that did not, at that point, pay taxes. And what did he want to raise taxes for? Public Works projects, the famous Hoover Dam, and some big irrigation projects.
He wasn't against meddling with the economy or doing something profound, it was just that what he proposed was so small by comparison. So, when the Democrats came in 1930, and took control of the Congress there were literally cries. They say you could hear them yelling on the floor of the Congress, “soak the rich.” They said that, and then they put in a huge estate tax, which is with us still, where they would take up to 85% of a rich person's estate when that person died. They raised income tax from the low 20s to the high 60s. That was well beyond what Hoover wanted to do.
It's important to keep in mind that it was Hoover's idea, initially, to raise taxes and to increase government spending, which goes against everything we know and think about Hoover too.
Initially he was also trying to corral business owners to get them to maintain wages and keep jobs. Can you talk about that a little bit?
What Hoover did with wages and what Hoover did with jobs, was basically to hold the line, and wages fell in the 1930s, enormously.
You made less in 1931 than you made in 1900. Just imagine our lives now if we made less. There was inflation at work and all that, but you could earn a livable wage, which in 1930 was $2 a day. Well, in 1899, $2 a day was laughably bad to some people, so wages did fall.
Hoover tried to hold the line on that. Not until Richard Nixon, another Republican implementing seemly Democrat economic policies when he had these ill-fated wage and price controls, did you see another person really jump in to try to control wage of rate. Businessmen rebelled at that, and maybe that's one reason why some of them were comfortable with Roosevelt when he came on.
Roosevelt, in some ways, ran to Hoover's right politically. He criticized Hoover for daring to raise taxes, criticized Hoover for all this government spending, and called Hoover a tax and spender. This is the person who would spend more than any President ever had. The national budget in the early 1930s was about what a state budget is. It was about $3,000,000,000. It was nothing then, it was a pittance. The government became this huge thing just after Hoover left, but Hoover was the person who initially thought of expanding it.
Federal Government's control of our individual states was much less. What could Hoover have done, truly, to turn the tide of the Depression?
It's a great question, could Hoover had turned the tide of the Great Depression? Even the most ardent supporters of Franklin Roosevelt will say he didn't really cure the Great Depression. What cured the Depression was World War II, and World War II was the greatest government works program we ever had.
I live in Seattle, and the reason we have 70,000 people making airplanes is because of Boeing. Now, what could Hoover had done? He could have taken a different philosophy. I think he probably could have solved the banking crisis; that's one thing he should have been prepared to do, probably more. Roosevelt did it in the first 100 days. He basically called a banking holiday and closed down all the banks. He said later, “I thought it was a gamble,” he didn't know it would work.
Hoover could have done something to shore up the banks, could have done something which the government later did, which was say, we'll guarantee a base. He did that with wheat and he could have done it with the banking system itself. People didn't trust banks. That's one of the reasons why, after they collapsed, money wasn't circulating and that's why the whole economy was frozen, because people didn't think if you give $10 to a bank it's gonna be there. They didn't trust it. There was no FDIC. Hoover could have done something, I think, with the system then.
Agriculture, we can perhaps talk about later, it's a longer question. The main thing I think Hoover could have done, maybe he was not temperamentally suited to doing, was to use the bully pulpit, was to be what leaders must be in great crises, which is to feel Americans’ pain, to use the latter day pain, and to feel like you understand them. He never connected and he was the start of the modern media age. Perhaps not absolutely the start, but certainly newsreels were in every theater and some people saw Hoover every single night, because they went to the theaters five nights a week.
He was the first person you really saw actively. You didn't see Calvin Coolidge, you didn't see those earlier people, but you saw a lot of Hoover, and he didn't connect. Was that his fault by personality, was that his fault because he didn't recognize? For whatever reason he didn't, he didn't give them a sense of confidence. You can have policies one way or the other, but I think a big part of being President of the United States is to simply lead by force of personality.
There's a great quote from Will Rogers who said, “Roosevelt could have started the White House, could have set the White House on fire, burned down the White House, and most of us would have applauded it, because they would have said, by God, at least he did something, at least it's a start.” The feeling was that Hoover didn't do anything.
Whether that's legitimate as a criticism is a good question. But the point is that most Americans felt at the other end that he didn't do anything; that he didn't feel what they were going through. He had said these things earlier, as I said, that came back to haunt him, starting with, “any man who's not a millionaire by age 40 is a failure,” going all the way up to, “we, we're the nearest we've ever been to our triumph over poverty,” to these idiotic statements, idiotic in retrospect, that we were thinking that prosperity was just around the corner.
That's what people heard. So, rather than any big government changing program, because again, you can argue that the New Deal did not fix the economy. It brought wages and money into the community, but it didn't fix the Great Depression.
Another quote that is at the Hoover Presidential Library is “no one is actually starving.”
It's a famous quote. I believe he said it in 1932, and I hope I'm not wrong. When Hoover said, “no one is actually starving,” people were actually starting to starve. What we know now is from the people who lived through the Dust Bowl. This is about 1,000,000 Americans who didn't go to California, who didn't go to Washington State, and who didn't go to the cities; who stayed put in the epicenter of this extraordinary event by mother earth itself, when all this dirt took to the sky. These people were starving because they couldn't get anything from their land anymore. They were eating, at one point, brined tumbleweed.
Tumbleweed is something that came over with Russian immigrants. It's called Russian thistle and it came, incidentally sewn in the pockets of their vest. They carried seed for wheat, which they would plant in the Great Plains, but incidentally were these seeds for Russian thistle, which is not a new plant. Tumbleweed would grow in the drought and in this foul ground, because it didn't need anything, so they would take it and brine it in these jars.
Initially they fed it to their horses and then, after a while, they started eating it themselves. I've seen these telegrams, which little towns sent to President Hoover that literally said we are starving. When Hoover made that statement, people were starving, but it wasn't quite the modern media age it is now; it would take a while for reporters to find these little towns. You, Life Magazine would send somebody who would go through a tour of the middle section of the western plains and come back and write a story three months later and say, oh my God, people are starving.
There were food riots throughout the United States, not just in Chicago, but also in Texas and Oklahoma. People rioted to get at some of these food supplies. He said things that proved so catastrophically wrong that it made him look callous.
What happened was that there was overproduction. This is the late 1920s and early 1930s, and then there was no production. So when you had overproduction, you had all these foodstuffs to go around, and nobody could buy it. That led to a collapse in the farm economy. After the collapse, after the ground itself went foul, after the earth itself took to the sky, you had almost no production. Suddenly people were starving, because the land wasn't producing anything, the land itself was destroyed.
You had 100,000,000 acres where the land was basically sterile. They didn't even have what every American homesteader had for a while, which was, a little garden out back where you could produce something to feed yourself. I saw thousands of accounts in diaries, and I heard the stories myself of people just trying to create a little sort of garden patch on their homestead. What the dust storms did was to ruin that garden patch itself.
So it went from surplus, which was the economy thing, to surplus gone and nothing being produced, and that's why people went hungry.
So in Belgium, when the people went hungry, Hoover feeds them. He defies the Nazis. In 1927, with the flood, he comes and organizes voluntary efforts to save these people. Why isn't Hoover stepping in on an humanitarian level?
It's a really interesting question to look at Hoover's life and say why was he such a great humanitarian in these crises. He knew how to deal with a crisis. Here he's confronted with the greatest crisis that any American President has had since the Civil War, and he fails miserably. Why doesn't he do what he did? I don't think he was callous and cruel, wicked, cold, all these horrible things that were said about him.
By the way, during the campaign for reelection in 1932, he was so despised the Secret Service was worried about him. People threw rotten eggs at his train when it pulled into a station; people threw tomatoes at him; people flipped him off. He was hated by that time 1932 rolled in. He was blamed for, personally for people's crises.
So the question is, why didn't he help them then? It wasn't that he didn't help them, it was that he took entirely different approach. He didn't think the government itself could intervene on a massive scale. He really wanted to encourage. He'd had the template of the 1927 Mississippi River Floods, a huge natural disaster, so he thought, why don't we apply the same thing. He encouraged the Red Cross to go, and the Red Cross showed up in all these little towns. You'd have somebody's high school gymnasium in 1931 suddenly converted to a hospital, and people dying, 7th graders, kids in elementary school dying like that of dust pneumonia.
The Red Cross was encouraged, and the Red Cross was in all these towns, but they weren't equipped to do it. The disaster was so big that the model that Hoover applied just wasn't prepared for the crisis. So it isn't that he did nothing, he did what he had done in the past.
Many of the people that we have interviewed, and much of the research that I've read, and some of it from Hoover himself, said that it was his programs that were the foundation of the New Deal; that Roosevelt enacted Hoover's policies. Do you believe that? What's your reaction?
I think it's revisionist history and this is just certainly my view based on the research that I've done. Everyone looks at things and filters it through their prism. I looked at this through the eyes of people who were perhaps the hardest hit victims of the Great Depression, because they were hit by not just the Depression itself, but also by the Dust Bowl. So they got a double whammy: The national world and the economic world. I try to look at it through their eyes, and through their eyes, Hoover didn't do squat for them. Now, those who say that FDR just implemented Hoover's policies, I think you have to throw the question back at them: Why didn't Hoover himself implement those policies? Now you could say, well he had a Democratic Congress, but there's a lot that a President could have done.
The banking crisis, for example, where Franklin Roosevelt basically called a bank holiday, shut everything down. They called for radical measures. In the farm economy, Roosevelt went out and, for the first time in American history, gave farmers money to stay alive; some people got up to $400 a year. It was direct payments to farmers if they stayed on the ground. Also, there was food.
They had CCC workers slaughtering hogs also to try to help the farm economy and then giving the food to the poor. I think it boils down to the macro question of how much does government want to get involved. I think saying that FDR implemented, certainly on the public works scale, not true. With Roosevelt, it was much more massive, it was a huge public works program, but Hoover had started it and we were well underway into looking at these big dam projects. The Grand Cooley Dam was something that Roosevelt thought of, but Hoover also looked at dams along the Columbia River and on the Colorado River as well, the two big western rivers. These dams were huge public works projects; they were huge agriculture projects. A lot of it was backed up, but on a bigger scale I think it's a real reach to say that, FDR just implemented this.
I'll tell you what Hoover said. To me this is the damning quote; this is the sort of money quote on why I disagree with an assessment that says FDR just implemented Hoover's policies. On Inauguration day in 1933, there's this great picture of Hoover and Roosevelt riding to the Inauguration. Roosevelt is giddy, he's got his tipped cigarette, and he's jaunty. He just looks like the face of confidence, and this is part of the reason why he was so successful. He looked the part. He looked like things are gonna get better.
Hoover's gaunt, he looks terrible, he looks like a man who just lost by one of the biggest landslides ever. They're riding together in the open car in March of 1933. Just before Roosevelt takes the oath of office, Hoover says to him, and I quote him in my book, and his quote was used all over, he says, “We have done everything that can be done, there is nothing more that we can do.”
What that says to me is that he had exhausted his tank of ideas; he was out of gas. Hoover said himself, there's nothing more that can be done and then Roosevelt took off in a sprint. So if he took off in a sprint, was he using these ideas that hadn't been implemented? How could someone say nothing more can be done, and then have someone turn around and say, well he had all these ideas that Roosevelt later used.
No, he was out of gas; he'd exhausted his tank of ideas. The most conclusive evidence of that are his words. Never forget, that he himself said, when the torch was passed from one President to the other, “there is nothing more that can be done.”
The summer of 1932 in Washington, many called it a disaster for Hoover. Do you want to speak to that at all?
What happened with the Bonus Army, which are these vets who converged on Washington in 1932, I think it just consolidated, or hardened an opinion of President Hoover, that he was a heartless bastard. Whether it was true or not, is a debatable question, but it seemed to Americans that when you had soldiers turning on veterans, which is, I believe what happened there, it was further evidence of the heartlessness of this man.
It just became one of images that hardened and consolidated the view that Hoover was not on your side. I think Hoover had a number of those things happened to him during his Presidency, but that was one of them.
So in 1932, does he have anybody in his corner?
Hoover probably had a pretty good chance at the start of the 1932 election, just because the Democrats were really being Democrats. They were just really fractious and what Democrats do really well is they form circular firing squads, and they had all these different factions.
There was a guy running called Alfalfa Bill Murray from Oklahoma, who was an incredible racist. The Democrats, remember, had this huge racist wing—the Southern wing basically. A lot of the reason why the Democrat party was strong in the South was because of White Supremacists. There was a guy, Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray of Oklahoma, who thought he was going to be the nominee. He was running on a pretty populous/racist platform.
Roosevelt was thought to be sort of a lightweight, thought to be a dandy. Remember as well that Roosevelt was a person who suffered from polio, so physically he had this little brace on his leg. Hoover, if he was of thinking going into the election before Roosevelt was the nominee, was thinking the Democrats would destroy each other, and that they would be given this dandy FDR, I mean this guy who looked like sort of a lightweight.
In my reading of the '32 election, what changed the view of Roosevelt was, and this goes to Hoover's fundamental approach to government, when he gave this so-called forgotten man speech. I think it was in April of 1932, in which Roosevelt said that the foundation of the American economy should be based on the forgotten man at the bottom of the pyramid, not the man at the top.
By implication, Hoover backed the man at the top, and so it sort of helped to solidify. Roosevelt found his voice with that forgotten man speech, and again, by implication it was that he was on the side of the people and Hoover was not.
It helped Roosevelt transition from being a dandy. He was a rich man, I mean he was from this wealthy family, this aristocracy, this Hudson River, and he had that little jaunty cigarette at the side. He really seemed like a rich guy, spoiled kid; in modern politics, you could have swift-boated him. You could have demagogued him as, what is this rich kid from this aristocracy know. He transitioned himself into someone who was on the side of the forgotten man; by implication Hoover was not.
Then something like the Bonus March happened, in which our own veterans were treated, in most people's minds, in a terrible way; and it just solidified this. Politics then and now, is about narrative, it's about presenting, and this is what any good politician or any good lawyer will tell you: you win your argument in court, you win in Presidential election if you can convince people of you narrative, your story; if you can attach your narrative, your story to policy.
Hoover was never able to attach his story, which again, starts out being Quaker, humanitarian, American dream success. He made this money, it's a good thing, and no one, judged him poorly, because he made a lot money; that was his success story. He could never attach his narrative to the times. Roosevelt was born into wealth, but he attached narrative to story, which was, I suffered through polio. He said, if you went a year without being able to wiggle your toes, what happened to the Great Depression is nothing by comparison. So he had a superior narrative.
It got attached to Hoover by then and it was just irreplaceable. I don't think any genius in '32 could have changed it. By then he went into it somewhat thinking he could still do it. By the end of '32 it was clear that he couldn't change the dynamic that he was not on the side of most Americans.
He won only six states in the 1932 election, and those were solid, New England, Republican states that just weren't going to vote Democrat until hell freezes over. Hell has since frozen over, by the way.
Hoover had said, throughout his campaign and even after the fact, that he had turned the economy around, that there were signs in '32 that it was improving and that it didn't continue to improve because the banking system was afraid of the uncertainty of what Roosevelt would do. What's your response to Hoover's claim that he had turned the economy around?
It's an interesting question: had Hoover improved it by the end of 1932? The macro statistics do not bode well for his argument on that. I'll mention it again: 9,000,000 Americans had lost their savings by 1932. That was the peak. So you talk about the banking crisis, 9,000,000 Americans lost their savings. That's huge. Proportioning that out today it would be as if 30,000,000 Americans had lost all of their life savings.
Now that is an epic crisis. Twenty-five percent were out of work at this point. When the Depression started, we were almost at full employment, except for the agriculture sector, which had been in Depression then. I don't see how you can get around those two enormous macro statistics. Was it improving? There's some evidence that it started to turn a little bit, but you will never get around those two statistics, that army of people who were in pain at this point.
I guess you could argue over the turning point of the pain.
How do people live when they don't have any savings and they can't get food out of the ground?
It's really interesting what happened to Americans at the depth of the Great Depression, because the entire economy was dead, frozen, and we went back to something.
What happened in the early part of the 1930s and throughout the Depression until the big public works projects came along, how did people stay alive, how did the American economy function at a time when there was no money in circulation, virtually no money? At a time when 9,000,000 Americans had lost their savings, at a time when several million American farmers were getting zero for their years’ labors, was that we became substance of bartering economy. People bartered a lot and particularly sought outside of the cities, although the cities had their own unique bartering economy. It was very common for people to say, I will do a certain thing for you, I'll fix your tractor, I'll go help you shore up the siding on your house and in turn, you'll give me some of the cream because you're one of the people that has a cow that could get cream. So we had a barter economy. It was a cashless economy, people doing one favor for the other.
At the very extreme edge of it, what we saw in the Dust Bowl was some people, I wouldn't say they lived on it, but subsisted, to a degree, on things like road kill. The sheriff would come back with varmints that they'd picked up off the street and there'd be a crowd of folks there to get it. I want to go back to something earlier that was mentioned: foreclosures.
Not only had the banks robbed people, in their minds, because again, they had given the banks their savings and then when they went to get the money it wasn't there. So they literally felt that they had been robbed by the banks. Compounding that, though, or perhaps worse than that, were foreclosures. The banks that didn't go out of business were taking people's houses, were taking people's farms. You had a foreclosure crisis that you have never seen in American history, until now. We're having a foreclosure episode because of the sub prime meltdown. It can't compare to what happened then, though.
It was so bad that these normally placid, middle of the road, main street Republican farm folks in towns like Mars, Iowa would go into a courtroom, during Hoover's administration, and grab a judge who was ruling on one of these foreclosure proceedings. They grabbed him, kidnapped him, took him out to this field, strung up a noose, tarred and feathered him, and were going to hang him until the local posse intervened and arrested all these people.
Hoover did not deal with this foreclosure crisis. That was the other part of the banking side that made people feel so removed. He was warned on this too. There was the American Farm Bureau, a very conservative lobbying group, still is, representing the real conservative side of farming. This is not that prairie progressive, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin. This is the real conservative, middle and southern states. The American Farm Bureau warned Hoover in '31 and '32, I saw the statements, that if he didn't do something about the foreclosure crisis, he was going to face a mob rebellion. People were turning into Trotskyites, socialists. It was sort of a radical time. There was this upheaval going on because the times were so hard.
Hoover did try to enact a home loan association. Why was that not effective?
As with all things that Hoover tried, maybe you could blame the Democrat Congress that came in and just wanted to continue to throw obstacles because they wanted to get him out of office as quickly as possible. There's an argument for that and I think it has merit, but most of the things that Hoover tried, he only tried halfway; and so he would say, perhaps we can begin to experiment with this, and he would try something like that. He would trot something out.
This is why historians barely remember any of the initiatives that Hoover tried with the Great Depression, because they were interesting ideas, some of them were later adopted by Roosevelt, but they were small, bit, let's try this on a small scale, ideas. What Roosevelt did was to try it on a large scale. That's why he got in so much trouble with the Supreme Court because, as I said, the federal budget in 1930 was $3,000,000,000. That's the budget of the State of Oregon right now. Actually, the State of Oregon's got a bigger budget than that.
Then Roosevelt suddenly put the government in everything and Hoover never went that whole hog.
How did he react to his defeat? What do you ultimately think decided the 1932 election?
The economy. There was no other issue. People were desperate for somebody and Hoover was doomed on so many levels, but it was this big rejection that Americans can ever give of a sitting President, especially a sitting President who won with a landslide. Hoover was not a 51 President. He was not a George Bush in his first term. He was a landslide President. He had a mandate; he had the majority of people with him, and to be thrown out by the largest electoral margin to date, was extraordinary rejection of him. Hoover was very bitter.
What happened after Hoover was thrown out was, I think, somewhat out a character for him, because he seemed to be a fairly stable personality. He became very bitter and he denounced Roosevelt to most of his friends and then later publicly. They wanted him to be a spokesman for the anti-Roosevelt movement. There was a big part of business, a big part of Wall Street, that thought Roosevelt was a communist, a socialist, that what he was doing was far too radical.
Social Security, by the way, did not come in until 1935, somewhat down the road in the Roosevelt Presidency. Hoover was extraordinarily bitter and continued to try to make his case that he had been unfairly blamed for the Great Depression, and in fact, by 1937, in the Roosevelt second term, we took a real turn of the worse. The Great Depression then should have run its course. With millions of people on the payroll through all these government works projects, the CCC workers, this alphabet soup of government work projects that were using federal monies to hire people — we were the biggest employer.
Even with all that, the Depression took a real turn for the worse in the late 1930s, several times. There's some justification for Hoover. He must have felt a strange sense of vindication as that deep into a second Roosevelt term, the economy had not turned around; but all the evidence I've seen is that he didn't really learn from his defeat. He became bitter from his defeat.
He went on to become a very active former President. Do you know what prompted him to do so?
Nobody had a longer ex-Presidency than Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman embraced him. I think Harry Truman was the first Democrat to embrace him somewhat and appoint him in a position. Even though there's evidence that he was bitter, he didn't leave the stage as bitter people do often. He tried to stay active; he kept a hand. He could have just gone and lived on the farm, as Stanford was known and is still known as, but he tried to stay active and have a legacy. He will never shake the legacy of the Great Depression. No matter how much we look at Hoover in a different light, and I think we should look at him in light of some of his early humanitarian work, he will never shake the Great Depression. He wanted to reshape his image.
Well into Roosevelt’s second term, Depression's still got a grip on the nation and the war really brought us out of it. Why is Hoover named the scapegoat and Roosevelt's named the hero?
There's a great question: why was Hoover the scapegoat and why was Roosevelt the hero when the Depression itself didn't really get much better? Initially it got better. When Roosevelt started the first part of his term, things did get better. The unemployment ranks were reduced, people had jobs, and money was circulating. Interestingly you had to take turns with some of these government jobs. They would be like the floor sweeper in a small town and somebody would have it for three days and somebody would have it for two days.
The CCC would show up into a town and they would build a bridge, and that was something that brought a community together because they were doing something. Money was circulating. Now, you could argue it was make money, it was play money, and it was being cranked out by the government. They were running a deficit to produce jobs, but money was back in.
Initially, I don't think it's fair to say Roosevelt didn't change things for the better. He did change things for the better. Then, institutionally, Social Security came in 1935. The FDIC, backing banks, came in his first term. Institutionally things changed that perhaps prevented a Depression from happening, but later in Roosevelt's term, again, we were late in the '30s, and things weren't getting any better.
So why did Hoover not get credit then in light of that history that showed that two terms into Roosevelt's Presidency, we are still in the Great Depression? I mean that's a long time. Most Presidents would have been thrown out a second term if he hadn't produced by then. Why didn't he get credit? I think it's what I said earlier: institutionally he didn't change anything. Roosevelt institutionally did.
I'll tell you what happened with the elderly right up until Social Security. I was fascinated by this; I had never seen this before; I never had thought about this: If you were old and you didn't have any money in the bank, or you didn't have a family to take care of, you were literally at the mercy of society. There were so many people in their 50s who feared not getting a job again, because they were going to be penniless. Social Security was a radical departure from that.
So people would write President Roosevelt these letters, early on in his administration. They'd say, I'm not so old, I am 61 years old, but I cannot find a job. Therefore, I'm afraid I will end up on the streets begging. Please, please, can you do anything for me personally? Now they may have written those same letters to Hoover, but it goes to what I said earlier, they didn't feel like Hoover understood.
I think to answer the question of why Hoover gets the blame and Roosevelt doesn't, even though things didn't improve, is a two-part answer. One is he didn't change things institutionally, which Roosevelt did, through Social Security, which I just said. Second is, he never connected with people, and I think people were willing to see Roosevelt through his troughs because he connected. They weren't willing to see Hoover through the troughs.
So what should Hoover's legacy be?
We'll never see him on a dollar bill, we'll never see him on a quarter, we'll never see him on any currency. Hoover will continue to fade, I think. I think there will be some revisionism for him, some of it justified because of his early work and because he didn't cause the Great Depression, even people like me who think Hoover was terrible for the average person during the Great Depression, I don't think he helped people who were in pain, and we now expect our Presidents in this big democracy to help people when they suffer something that's beyond their control, and certainly the Great Depression was beyond most people's control.
You're working one day, the next day you're on the streets. By the way, here’s one of the things that Hoover said later. Again, I talked about a series of idiotic statements that came back to haunt him. People in the cities were selling apples for five cents an apple. You can look at the newsreels as I have, you can see the pictures of every city in America had people selling apples. Hoover was asked about that and you know what he said? He said that they were selling apples because it was better than working at a job, that they preferred selling apples. Selling apples was a good deal, is what he said, and that just was laughable.
A lot of those people selling those apples for five cents an apple had, at least the evidence from the stories written at this time, been thrown out of work. Their business was selling those apples. Hoover said, oh, they were just doing it because it was good deal; they didn't have to pay taxes and they made money on it.
He was haunted by these things he said which, in retrospect, looked really inaccurate to be fair, looked idiotic to be perhaps harsher. So, Hoover's legacy will be that he was the wrong man for the wrong time. If he'd been President through the prosperous '20s, he probably would have been perfect, but he was not suited by temperament. He was a man of the earlier part of the 20th Century; he was not suited for this epic crisis.
Let's say Hoover had been elected to a second term. I don't think he would have been able to have any of the institutional affects that Roosevelt later had. Roosevelt, basically said, everything we know is wrong, let's throw out the past. You needed one of those breakpoints. Could Hoover have started Social Security, which kept the elderly from the poorhouse? Could Hoover have put in the FDIC, which shored up the banks? Could Hoover have saved the Dust Bowl victims?
Now it's arguable whether Roosevelt saved them, but he certainly tried many things to save people in the Dust Bowl. I think probably it's a mixed picture. I don't think a president tied to the past could have done those policies. I think he was too bound up in another age.
How is he relevant to today? Or is he?
Hoover is relevant to today because whenever we get in one of these change elections, the Democrats will always hearken back to Herbert Hoover, even though there's a real diminishing pool of people who have any idea who he is, or even what that means.
Hoover today is still someone that the Democrats can use, and there's a certain segment of mostly elderly folks, that all they have to do is say Herbert Hoover and it has an instant, almost electroshock. It just sort of jolts them. Herbert Hoover, my God, we don't want to go back to that.
That's probably not fair. We still look at Hoover as one of the people who brought a humane, but a fundamental laissez-faire approach to how we help those in need. He performed magnificently, by all evidence, during the end of World War I when people were starving. He performed magnificently, by all evidence, during the great flood of 1927, which was the Hurricane Katrina of its time.
But he was ill suited. Let's have history judge him fairly for being humane in that regard. He was not inhumane, but then given the greatest crisis of any President since the Civil War, I think he failed miserably, not because he was a bad man, but because he applied outdated principles to something that called for something much bigger.
One of the little ironies of history through the Hoover administration was, while he was a supporter of Prohibition and while he was a supporter of a laissez-faire economy of a free market, perhaps the greatest, freest market during Hoover's time, the one growth market, was black market liquor. The farm economy was kept alive, interestingly, in big parts of the country that were later destroyed by things like the Dust Bowl, by bootleg whisky and by corn liquor. A lot of this corn was grown to make brooms. They called it broomcorn, because the stalks made them brooms. When the vacuum was invented, the broomcorn industry collapsed. What brought it back was Prohibition.
Every town had a still, or two stills, or three stills, and that was little industry in itself. So interestingly, by Hoover turning a blind eye to this black market, ironically, the Prohibition itself produced this huge and free market, this unfettered market, which was, black market liquor, alcohol.