Landslide -- A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover
Subject: David M. Kennedy, Ph. D.
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
This interview* was recorded at Stanford University in January 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. Dr. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Who was Herbert Hoover?
Well, Herbert Hoover was, in his time, probably the most famous and accomplished American of his era. He, as the saying goes, fed the starving Belgians during World War I. He was a very successful mining engineer before that. He was Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge and Harding administrations and then President of the United States.
Why should people be interested in hearing about Hoover today?
Well I think Herbert Hoover is a very interesting figure, not just historically but in human terms, because he was such a person of high achievement and such great accomplishment, and he was thought of as the most competent person of his age, and he becomes President of the United States. He's inaugurated in 1929, and almost immediately is walloped by one of the greatest economic catastrophes we've ever seen. And, in some ways, it's a great human story about the most accomplished human being of his generation just overwhelmed by a catastrophic crisis on a scale that he couldn't of imagined.
How was it that he earned his reputation? Why was he so accomplished? He was known as the great humanitarian, the great engineer, how did he earn those titles?
Well, you know, Hoover, in some ways, is a classic Horatio Alger story. He was an orphaned boy from Iowa, grew up partially in Iowa, partially in Oregon, was a scholarship student at Stanford University. He had no means, no family behind him, no inheritance, no nothing. And, as a very young mining engineer he discovered and evaluated the possible value of a gold mining property in Australia and recommended it to his employers, and they got very rich off of his recommendation and gave him increasing responsibility. And, at a very young age, he was a multimillionaire and a very successful mining engineer in Australia and China and Latin America.
He was living in Europe when World War I broke out and international humanitarian agencies named him as the person to organize food relief for Belgium, which had been invaded by the Germans and was occupied, and food supplies were disrupted and so on. And he did a marvelous job, and then Woodrow Wilson brought him back to the United States to run the Food Administration during World War I. Again, he was a fantastic success.
He accompanied Woodrow Wilson to the peace talks in Paris in 1918, 1919. John Maynard Keynes said of him that he was the only person at Paris who emerged with an enhanced reputation. He was widely regarded by everyone he came in contact with as just an enormously intelligent, conscientious, competent person.
Is there any other President who has taken office with that kind of reputation?
Well, it's, there are other very accomplished Presidents, I would think. Thomas Jefferson certainly comes to mind almost immediately, a very worldly person who had impressed his peers, not only in this country but elsewhere, with his stature and his competence.
But Hoover is, in some ways, a singularity. He's a product of the modern American higher educational system to an extent that most previous Presidents have not been before him with some exceptions. He, to repeat, he's, his is a Horatio Alger story, a person who comes from nothing and no where, who becomes one of the most prominent citizens of the world. So, he has a lot of claims on our attention, I think. He, in some ways is the actual kind of personality that F. Scott Fitzgerald was trying to write about in the Great Gatsby, somebody who comes out of obscurity and becomes a great world commanding personality.
Well there's this very poignant story about the young Herbert Hoover's arrival to live with his uncle in Newburg, Oregon. I think captures some of the background that he came from, and instructs us about just what an accomplished life he had. And he was orphaned as a young boy, he lived with some relatives or friends in Iowa, and then eventually it was decided he should be sent to Oregon to be raised by his uncle in Newburg, Oregon.
And he traveled, I believe, by train as far as some place on the Columbia River in Washington State, and then he traveled by buckboard, or perhaps by boat, by riverboat to wherever the uncle came to fetch him near Newburg. And by the time this young boy, he was about 10 or 11 years old, by the time he'd arrived to where his uncle met him, he'd been traveling for days on his own and he hadn't bathed. And the, we're told the first thing the uncle said to him when he greeted him was, kid, you stink. And this is just, I think representative of the kind of harsh environment that he grew up in. And you can only imagine how lonely and frightened and insecure this kid must of felt, and yet he becomes this great, self-confident personality. So there a human story there that I think is really quite interesting.
What was Hoover's Quaker past? Do you have any kind of concept of what Quakerism and how he was brought up may have played into his personal philosophy?
Well he was a birthright Quaker. To the best of my knowledge, he wasn't really a practicing Quaker over the course of his life. But I do think that his formation as a young man and his personality as an adult do reflect that Quaker background - the reserve, the refusal to be flamboyant, the great sense of privacy. I think these are, these characteristics are reinforced by a lot of other facts of his upbringing. But I think the Quaker factor was certainly prominent amongst the things that made him who he was.
You touched some of his personal traits. Can you describe him and his style as the leader and politician for us?
Well, you know, one way to capture his style I think, or describe his style is to remind ourselves that he's one of only two engineers who have been President of the United States, the other was Jimmy Carter. And they're very different personalities to be sure, but there's something conspicuously very much the engineer about Herbert Hoover. He was very analytic. He was very enamored of the numbers. He did things by the numbers in a sense. He wanted the best empirical data, the best facts that he could get his hands on before he made policy. He was certainly no kind of person who acted on his gut or on his instinct, but he was calculating and cool, and analytical in his approach to all kinds of issues.
Are you aware of what kind of relationship Hoover and FDR might have had in these early years in the '20s?
Well I, what little I know about it is their relationship was very formal, very arms-length. There's an episode in, when Roosevelt was Governor of New York, and he came to a reception at the White House, and Roosevelt was standing, waiting to receive the President in some kind of a receiving line, and Hoover kept him waiting, kept everybody waiting.
And, of course, as we all know, it was very difficult for Roosevelt to stand for long periods of time since he had little or no use of his legs. And some people speculated this was a kind of a deliberate snub or insult that Hoover was delivering to Roosevelt. I don't think so. I think it was probably just an accident of the calendar and timing. But it did set a tone for the relationships between them. And, in those days, the time between the election of the President and the Presidential inauguration was several months, November to March, so there was this long so-called interregnum between the time when Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and actually inaugurated March of 1933, and he and Hoover met on a few occasions during that time and tried to manage what today we would call the transition from one administration to the next, and their relationships were not very cordial. They were very stiff and very formal and there was an atmosphere of hostility and antagonism in the air.
I want to talk about the 1928 campaign. What were the key issues of the '28 campaign? What was the national mood at that time and what were people concerned about going into that election?
Well 1928, of course, was the eighth year of a, well, actually about the sixth year of a, quite a long and spectacular run of prosperity. There was a brief recession after World War I, but then beginning in the early 1920s, 1921 or '22 the economy really began to soar. And actually, the economy now, we think, looking back on it historically, entered a wholly new phase, where product lines that were quite innovative, like automobiles, and radio, and film, and so on, began to be consumer products on a huge scale. And it was a very heady time economically.
The Republicans had been in power in the White House in the Coolidge then, the Harding and then the Coolidge administrations. Then there was a widespread feeling that the election was the Republicans to lose, that they were the party that presided over this, these good times, and probably were going to stay in power.
So the Democratic nomination, in a sense, wasn't worth a lot, in that particular year. And, of course, it went to, as we know, Al Smith, the former Governor of New York, and the first Catholic to be nominated by a major party. And what we mostly remember about that election today, or what people remembered in the intervening, nearly a century now, is that it was Smith's Catholicism that cost him the election. That's probably a huge exaggeration. It's true that it was a net negative for him, at that time the country was still heavily Protestant and in its, not merely in its church affiliation, but its just general culture attitude. The idea of an urban Catholic as President was an awful lot to swallow for people at that time.
But the fact is, I believe, that had the Democrats nominated virtually anybody else Hoover would still have won, because the, to repeat, the Republicans had the claim that they had been responsible for the preceding decade's prosperity, number one; and number two, Hoover was just a commanding figure at that time. He'd been it was said of him when he was Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge and Harding administrations, that he was Secretary of Commerce and assistant secretary of everything else. That he put his finger into the business of the Treasury Department, and the Labor Department, and so on and so forth. And he was just thought of as a kind of super omni-competent person.
Walter Lippmann who was at that time probably the single most prestigious journalist in the United States, and commentator on political affairs, I believe it was Lippmann who said of Hoover, that there was no man alive who knew better the defects of American capitalism than Herbert Hoover. He knew what the problems in the system were. He had a very acute sense of it, and he was a reformer. He, it became obvious as soon as he's inaugurated in 1929, that he had a reform agenda.
Is there a candidate in recent memory that you would compare Hoover to so that people can put it in perspective a little bit?
There's really nobody, nobody wants to be assimilated to Hoover, of course, because he has such a catastrophically bad presidency. But some of that air of competence, no, I can't think of anybody who, there's been no presidential candidate since, to my mind, whose principal claim on our political attention has been just his sheer, unqualified competency. That was Hoover's great signature characteristic as a presidential candidate in 1928, and I don't think we've seen the likes of it since.
So, he assumes the presidency. We imagine in the '20s that everybody's prosperous. It's filled with parties and good times and everybody's giddy. What was, give an overview of, was life that grand for everyone?
Well despite the fact that the '20s was, on the record, a prosperous decade, significant economic growth, productivity gains, all the usual indexes of prosperity were there. But, having said all that, it's also worth remembering something that's not very well encoded in our folklore and our collective memory about the '20s, but roughly half of the country was still rural. And the agriculture sector was still a very, very important sector. It accounted for maybe a quarter of all gross domestic product. Today it's about two percent, so it's a, that is a huge difference between that time and this.
And the agricultural sector had been depressed ever since the immediate post-World War I era. So, the event that we know, historically as the Great Depression, capital G, capital D, which is usually thought to have, begun in 1929 with the stock market crash, that event, really, was old news in the countryside. The countryside had been in a depressed economic states, state for about a decade before 1929.
And the conditions of life out there are really kind of, something to contemplate. What it was like to live in the countryside in the 1920s. Even as late as the 1920s, about 80% of all the homes in the countryside have no indoor plumbing. We're talking about roughly a third to 44, or 45% of the entire population here, tens of millions of people. Virtually none had electricity. Which is why something like the rural electrification agency, or administration that comes online in the 1930s makes such a difference.
Hoover knew this. Hoover understood the crisis in agriculture and the countryside and he, the very first thing he did, after he was inaugurated in March of 1929, was he called the Congress into a special emergency session. Again, very reminiscent now historically of what Franklin Roosevelt would do in 1933. His first act, call an emergency session of Congress. Extraordinary political statement about the degree of emergency that he thought the country was facing.
And the agenda for that emergency session was to pass farm relief legislation. And they created something called the Federal Farm Board, again, at Hoover's direction. And the Federal Farm Board was in a sense the first federal agency of any kind to intervene in a given market sector to support prices and to put a floor under the prosperity or the income of that particular sector.
So, in many ways it was typical of, or a prototype for what happens in the following decade in the New Deal itself.
Can you explain for people, Hoover is known for not wanting federal intervention? Can you explain that a little bit?
I think the right word is nuanced in his approach to question of the role of the federal government in the society at large. And yes, I think it's correct that we correctly associate him with the notion that, well Jeffersonian notion is that that government is best which governs least. But it did not mean that he was completely opposed to government intervention in various economic and social sectors.
Let's not forget he, his first Presidential ballot that we believe he ever cast, was for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party Ticket in 1912, which was a platform that Theodore Roosevelt ran on a platform of expanding government power to address the social and economic issues of his era. Hoover had served in the cabinet of Woodrow Wilson as Food Administrator. He was a Wilsonian, both in domestic and international policy. He was a progressive, he was in the way that term was used in the early 20th Century. And he believed there was a proper role, limited to be sure, but there was a proper role for the government to play a more active part in the management and the guarantees of security that it could bring in various economic and social sectors.
So he had a broad program when he came into office in 1929, wanting to do something about the agricultural sector, wanting to do something about government policies to offset downswings in the business cycle, wanting to do things about old age pensions and unemployment insurance, wanting to do things about better housing standards for the country. These are all programs that we associate, finally, with the New Deal. And it, in fact, it's the New Deal in Franklin Roosevelt that makes these things permanent parts of American life.
But a lot of the thinking along these lines was not exclusive to the New Deal or to Franklin Roosevelt, but it was, it was an inheritance from the earlier progressive era, and Herbert Hoover was the vessel and the vehicle of carrying a lot of those ideas forward into the mid part of the 20th Century.
That will surprise a lot of people because I think legend has it that Hoover was, in large part, a laissez-faire capitalist not an activist.
Well, yes, but one needs to put this in historical perspective, I think Hoover was an activist or an interventionist in terms of his conception of the government's role in the larger society. But, he played that part within the framework, you might say, of the old progressive ideology of the early 20th Century, which was comfortable with a certain, what we would now, looking back from our own vantage point in the 21st Century, we would think of it as a modest set of steps to bring the government into a more, the Federal Government in particular, into a more active role in the life of the society. But modesty is, I suppose a, an essential term here. It was these were relatively modest efforts to give the government a greater role.
Calvin Coolidge once said something to the effect that, if the Federal Government went out of business tomorrow the average citizen would not notice the difference for about six months, with the exception of the Postal Service that was probably a, quite an accurate statement. Hoover, for his part, once said of Coolidge that Mr. Coolidge was a fundamentalist. He said he was a fundamentalist in religion, he was a fundamentalist in economics, and he was a fundamentalist in fishing because Coolidge fished with worms and Hoover was a fly fisherman. Fly fishermen have great disdain for anybody who uses live bait.
But it, what Hoover was saying in one of his few recorded instances of humor, in that description of Coolidge, he was really saying I am not Calvin Coolidge. I have a wholly different ideology and political agenda, and I don't intend to be just a stand-pat, do-nothing laissez-faire president. I have a reform agenda.
And, in fact, another one of the very early things that he did when he was first inaugurated is he commissioned this group of social scientists, he brought them to the White House, and provided full funding, and the told them he wanted them to compile what turned out to be a thousand, two thousand page, two volume study of the social conditions in the United States. The book was published, finally, I believe in 1932 or 3, it's called Recent Social Trends. And historians ever since have used it as a rich source of data about every conceivable aspect of American life in the 1920s.
But that, the creation of that set of information, and those data about the economy, culture, politics, everything, religion, you name it was Hoover's idea, and he wanted sound data of that sort, as he said, as the basis for making Federal policy going forward. So, it, from the outset, he signaled his intention to gather the information, to make policy on a sound basis, but to make policy, he wasn't just a standpatter. He wanted to reshape, or shape, or create government institutions that would be commensurate with the scale of the social and economic issues that he saw out there.
One of the other things that I want to touch on is that Hoover was quoted, and you quote him as, railing against the orgy of mad speculation of Wall Street. What did he see as the problem on Wall Street, and how did he propose to fix it?
Well, he did not use the phrase, excessive exuberance about Wall Street speculation in the 1920s, but he certainly understood, as did a lot of people, this was not just unique to him, that there was a speculative mania that was driving stock prices to unsustainable levels. And he was quite worried about it, and his worries turned out to be quite justified. But there are a couple of things about that situation that we need to remember.
Number one, legend to the contrary, very, very few people actually owned stock in the 1920s. The best estimate is something in the range of two to three percent of the population held stock either directly or indirectly. So this was thought to be an issue of some concern, to be sure, but not one that deeply affected the broad masses of the American public. And, to a significant extent that was true.
Secondly, if one were in Hoover's shoes as President of the United States in 1929 and watching this speculative mania raging on Wall Street, the fact is, he had very, very few tools or policy instruments with which to deal with that. The Securities and Exchange Commission did not exist yet. The Federal Reserve Board had not fully evolved, it was only about a decade and a half old by the time, and it was still a, in some ways, a quite a young and untried institution. So there are very few mechanisms available to the Federal Government, or to anybody to really control this.
And the great dilemma was that Hoover thought that interest rates should go up in order to suppress or dampen speculative borrowing to invest in the stock market. But, of course, if interest rates go up, that suppresses not only speculative borrowing, but all kinds of other legitimate business. So, he was very hesitant to even move in that direction. And even had he chosen vigorously to go in that direction, he would have had very few policy tools available to him to accomplish it.
You also write that, contrary to legend, the stock market crash didn't cause the Depression. What did cause the Depression, in your view?
Well, the causes of the Great Depression have remained mysterious to the people that lived through it and, to some extent, a considerable extent remain mysterious to people ever since. There is no kind of deep consensus amongst historians or economic historians about this event. It's a singularity. Its scale, and its depth and duration, really are singular in the history of modern economies. So, we're still a little bit baffled by it.
But, Hoover's, Hoover had a general view of where the roots of this great crisis were. And his, starting point, in his thinking, was that it was the Great War, what we know as World War I, was the great disruptive event that had upended the, quite nicely functioning global economy of the late 19th and early 20th Century. We talk about our era as an era of globalization, but on a lot of indexes, the volume of international trade, and investment flows, and so on and so forth, the period around the turn of the 19th and 20th Century was at least as globalized as our own area in many ways.
And that system had been very, very badly shocked and shaken by the catastrophe of World War I. And many countries tried a lot of policies that didn't, weren't very effective to restore their position in the global economy of the pre-war era. Nothing seemed to be working very well because the damage that had been done to so many key world economies, the British, the French, and so on, and in the war was a, and the Germans not least of all, was so great that no remedies, really, were working.
So Hoover, beginning from that premise when the Depression finally began, when people began to understand, which doesn't really happen 'til about 1931 or so, that this is an unprecedentedly large and complicated catastrophe, of Hoover's first because of this analysis of where the whole thing had come from, his first instinct was to try to get international cooperation, to put the world economy right again. So, he was a key figure, for example, in supporting the so-called London Economic Conference, which doesn't manage to convene until 1933. But it was the, and it, the London Economic configures, is widely regarded as the last possible moment when it was at least conceivable that an international approach to the Great Depression might have been put into place, or international remedy. And it doesn't happen.
Ah, but I think most economic historians would agree that Hoover had it right in some fundamental sense. That the problem was not an American problem, it was a global problem. Which is why, among other things, all analyses of the Depression that begin with the American stock market crash are suspect. Because the American Depression was quite real and it's part of our historically and our collective memory and it was an awful event in the lives of a generation of Americans. But the great fact about the Depression was it was a global event, and had the sweep, and an impact that was way beyond the United States.
So all explanations for the Depression that emphasize purely American factors are immediately suspect.
You were talking about World War I, I think people may just assume immediately all this, the destruction of the economies rebuilding that there were debts that impacted on the world economy as well, right?
Yes. Well, yes, there, World War I generated quite a burden of debt for the victorious governments, and also, given the terms of the peace settlement at Versailles, there was quite a debt burden imposed, or a financial burden imposed on the Germans as well, to make reparations payments.
So there was this really bizarre debt cycle in the 1920s where the British and the French governments owed significant monies to the United States Treasury from loans that originated to fight World War I, and they serviced those loans, in essence, by receiving reparations money from the Germans. So, and then the Americans were investing in Germany, privately, through the 1920s to help rebuild the economy.
So, German reparations went to Britain and France, came to the U.S. Treasury, the U.S. banking houses then lent money back to Germany, so the whole cycle was really quite a bizarre unstable matter. So, when the scale of the Depression began to become obvious and Hoover under, began to understand what was going on, to some degree, one of the very first things he did was to call for a debt moratorium, to call for the scaling down of these debts, and for their, the postponement of their payment for some time. As a way of easing financial burdens, particularly on the big European economies.
This was something that he asked, Roosevelt, in fact, in the so-called interregnum period to support and to stand by him and to make it counselor that this, the debt restructuring policy would continue into the Roosevelt administration. And Roosevelt refused. And Roosevelt refused, I think for, two, are, were quite, defensible political reasons. But, as many of Roosevelt's advisors at the time, said, he was playing dice with the economy, with the global economy. He was, for his own political purposes, he was refusing to take part in these efforts to stabilize the international system.
You wrote that Hoover calling for the moratorium was an act of political courage. Why was that so courageous to do at that time?
Well, one needs to remember that by the late 1920s most Americans were deeply disillusioned with the role that the United States had played in World War I. We'd lost tens of thousands of men. We'd departed from this ancient tradition of no intervention in European affairs, isolationist tradition, and, apparently to no effect. Europe was as big a mess after the war as it had been before. In fact it was a bigger mess. There had been a Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Fascist regime come to power in Italy, and by the 1930s, they, a Nazi regime in Germany.
So, the whole atmosphere in the United States was probably the, it was probably the most isolationist moment in all of American history, an absolute of, international involvement. So in that context, in that atmosphere to propose policies that were financially lenient toward the Europeans, restructuring their debts to the United States was a very unpopular thing to do.
A lot of leading economists and financial people advised Hoover about this early on, and he would reply to them, you don't understand how politically explosive such a measure would be. Although eventually he does move in that direction, but it was sound economic policy, but in the context of the American mood in the 1920s, it was politically very risky for him.
How did the nation react? What was the effect to Hoover personally for professing that?
We'll by the time he proposes the moratorium his political stock and fortune is already so low, that it's hard to segregate out the effect of this particular action on his popularity and his general approval ratings. He had become, by 1931 or so, one of the least popular presidents in all of American history, then or since. And there are all kinds of popular signals of this. People used to talk. Well the shantytowns where unemployed people would gather were called Hoovervilles.
One of the biggest ones was in Seattle, where I grew up, and it's before my time, but it was still, part of the folklore in Seattle about this gigantic Hooverville, which had housed all these unemployed lumber mill workers, and fisherman, and so on and so forth. There was another old joke at that time where people would pull out a, invert their pocket so the empty pocket would be inside out, that was called a Hoover flag, and it signified your pocket was empty, you didn't have any money in it.
So, there were all kinds of popular expressions in a, of a kind of, some of them of quite a creative sort that signified just how unpopular Hoover had become.
When the crash descended on the country you write, that despite popular belief, he toiled valiantly to get the upper hand. In those early days, what measures did he enact, what actions did he take to get the upper hand?
Well, first of all, you have to remember when the, what we now know, historically looking back, as the Great Depression, if we date its origins to 1929, we’re, in a sense, not honoring the perception of people at that time. They didn't know it was the capital G, capital D, Great Depression, a singular even that would dominate the economic history of the whole century. They thought they were in just another of these periodic downturns in the business cycle.
In the, evidenced, at least, in late 1929 and even for much of 1930, was supportive of that analysis, that this was about the degree of difficulty that we were facing. And the last such recession, or downswing, had been in 1921 when Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. And he had taken a leading role, at that time, in turning the thing around. And he'd gathered business men in Washington D.C. and urged them not to cut payrolls and not to slash wages, and he'd urged the states to accelerate their plans for highway construction, and investment, and infrastructure, and so on.
And by those means, in 1921, '22, he had people, most people who'd observed it agreed, he had significantly foreshortened the period of that recession and brought the economy back up in relatively short order. So he did similar things in 1929, late 1929, 1930, thinking, not without reason, that he was facing a downturn of a familiar sort, and on a, to a degree and on a scale that he'd faced eight years earlier and turned around.
So what did he do? He summons governors to Washington D.C., and he asks them to accelerate any plans that they had on the shelf for new bridges and roads and buildings and so on, as a way of pumping money and employment into the economy. He calls business, leading business people to the White House and urges them to maintain wage rates, and to maintain payrolls, maintain employment as much as they could. And, to a certain extent, the people, they tried to do this. They honored his request.
But what he, neither he nor anybody else at that time could understand, was that the crisis that was brewing was on a scale and to a depth that nobody had ever seen before. So these measures were, turned out to be just about wholly inappropriate to the case at hand.
Do you think he thought the economy would self-correct?
Big, free market economies like the American economy do have a lot of self-correcting tendencies. But the, so sure the business cycle goes its course and what goes down goes up eventually. But, to quote a famous aphorism of the great British economist John Maynard Keynes in the long run we're all dead. So how long can one wait in real human terms for an economic turnaround in the face of a catastrophe like this.
It's politically untenable, I think, to simply caution that we might need to wait a decade or so before this problem rights itself. And it's, I think, humanly intolerable that kind of thing happens. So there's a very, very strong case to be made for the fact, for the justifiability of government intervention in the case of a downturn like this.
If he thought it was just a normal downturn, why was he so aggressive, or when did he become so aggressive, and what did he do that was so outside of the norm?
Well he did a number of things that were quite unprecedented. And, again, measured against the legacy of the so-called progressive period in the first two decades of the century, one sees the roots of his policies in 1929, '30, '31, in that earlier so-called progressive period. And all these, the many of his undertakings went in the direction of increasing the government’s role, not just in this moment of crisis, but permanently, building permanent institutions that would give the government an ongoing role in the life of the economy and the society.
So, for example, he calls these bankers and financial people to the White House, and asks them to, urges them to form a pool, in which they could cover the weaker bank, and banking houses and investment houses over the short term by making funds available to meet short term obligations and so on. This is a pretty miserable failure. And, out of that then comes the, his proposal to create something called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Which in fact becomes one of the major vehicles or engines of New Deal approaches to economic recovery.
But the Reconstruction Finance Corporation is actually created in the Hoover administration. It provides government monies to banks and to certain other economic sectors, rail roads in particular new investment and for servicing their debt and so on. It's a way to put the liquidity of the government's borrowing power at the service of private capital in order to tide it over in hard times.
So this was a major innovation in the American economy, and it really put the government in business in a given economic sector, in this case the financial sector of a sort that, in classic laissez-faire economics simply doesn't allow for. But that was I think highly justified on, in the circumstances of the time.
He also signed this Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. What was Smoot-Hawley and what impact did it have on the economy and on his political career?
Well, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff episode is one of the really awful moments, I think, in Hoover's general political career. It comes out of that same emergency session of Congress that he called in 1929 to enact farm relief legislation. But the Congress then got the bit in its teeth and decided to enact this forbiddingly high protective tariff.
The Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the long and the short of it is, it's the, it enacts the highest tariffs, virtually the highest tariffs in all of American history. Makes it virtually impossible for foreign vendors to sell into the American market. And it's an, in the global scene, by 1930, it's another instance of what a lot of countries did, which was to batten down the hatches, shut the doors, and try to sustain or, or re-float their own nevertheless economies without reference to the international economy. So, the, this nationalist reflex, the British Empire did it in something called the Ottawa Agreements in which they more or less sealed off the British Empire as a closed, trading area, sealed vessel, which other people couldn't participate.
So many countries did this. And most economic historians looking back would agree, that the, what we would, today I suppose would call the siloing or stove piping of all these various national economies really just absolutely struck the global economy a paralytic blow, and made, is what helps ensure the depth and duration of the Great Depression. The United States is part of that general policy regime with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
But it wasn't really Hoover's idea. It got away from him. The Congress ran away with this matter, and people at that time, including Walter Lippmann, again, said this was an instance where we see the limits of Hoover's political acumen. That he was a great technician, and a great technical analyst of policy matters, and a great institution builder, but he didn't have that kind of a common touch that the kind of political savvy that allowed him to deflect the Congress from taking this very, very bad policy decision with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
There's a story that used to circulate about a pair of stories about Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. And the story goes that you could name a county in the United States and Hoover could tell you what the leading banking institutions were, what the leading products were in that county that underlay the financial and employment system, and you could go from, you could draw a line across the United States and go from county to county, and he had the data in his head about the economic situation, financial situation in each of these counties.
Franklin Roosevelt's little story goes, in turn you could draw a line across the United States, in fact, by some accounts, Roosevelt used to do this as a power game with visitors. He'd say, draw a line across this map and then I'll tell you what's going on in every place along the line. But when Roosevelt was tell, would tell you was, who's the mayor of this town, who's the city councilmen, who's the Congressman, who's the Senator, who's the rising political figure in this party and that party. He had a sense for the, that kind of hugger-mugger, the nitty-gritty of the political life of the country, whereas Hoover's approach was to understand the, the technical data about the financial institutions - very, very different outlook on the world.
And it's, the stories go to the same point, that the, Hoover was the great technician, the great engineer, but a crummy politician.
Well, and towards the end of, I think it's '31, the great drought in the country, apparently much bigger disaster than the '27 flood, Mississippi flood. He was such a hero of the Mississippi flood, but I think in '31, people are starting to really turn on Hoover. When did he, when do you think Hoover lost the nation, their confidence? And how did that affect him personally?
Well, I think he lost his political leverage almost immediately. He's inaugurated in March of 1929 and about a year and a half later or so, November of 1930, the Congress goes Democratic. So he's in the position of sitting in the White House and is a representative of one party, but a different party controls the Congress. So he had very, very little prospect of, you might say, united federal government action. The Democrats simply weren't going to cooperate with him in any way that would, disadvantage them at what they saw as their great opportunity.
Because the economy was tanking, again, nobody quite knew how badly yet. And this would create an opportunity for them to take the White House and have, control the entire Federal Government in the election, upcoming election of 1932. So, he's just, he's in a bind, he doesn't preside over a federal government with a lot of instruments or policy tools available to it anyway; and politically he, the opposition party is in control of Congress, and he just doesn't have a lot a wiggle room.
Well the fact I that the Federal Government simply did not have the institutional structure that it later would have, which gave Hoover, as President, or any President at that time, the range of policy tools and opportunities to deal with a crisis like this. And, also, at the same time, after 1930, the Congress was Democratic. And, of course, Hoover's a Republican President. And, in the natural course of political events, the Democrats weren't about to do anything to give up the advantage that they thought this economic downturn was going to hand to them in the 1932 Presidential elections.
They didn't cooperate with Hoover and it was a standoff.
What was he doing specifically for the people? What was the government doing in terms of, for individuals?
Well, again, the most human face of the onsetting Depression, of course, was the unemployment situation - people going jobless. And unemployment eventually mounts to truly catastrophic proportions. By 1932, the last full year of Hoover's Presidency, we think there were 25% of the workforce was unemployed, so, 13,000,000 people. It's also worth remembering that given the demography of the workplace and social values and cultural habits of that time, 25% unemployment- very, very few married women worked. So 25% unemployment meant effectively that 25% of all households, not just all workers, were without wage income.
So, this was a really deep, awful crisis that blighted millions upon millions of households. So as this, the unemployment crisis mounted in 1931, 1932, there were proposals for more structured and focused unemployment relief of one kind or another. And, again, Hoover in his, I suppose, typically fashion, his first resort is to try to stimulate more voluntary or philanthropic activity aimed at the unemployed. So he creates these successive commissions, unemployment relief, but their real job is simply to propagandize people who did have a little extra dough to actually direct it toward feeding the unemployed and taking care of them.
That doesn't work very well, not least of all because there's not enough surplus money around to do the job; the scale of the problems is too big. So there, begin to emerge, proposals in Congress to, for federal monies to be appropriated for unemployment relief of one kind of another. Senator Wagner from New York was one of the principal proponents of this kind of a bill. Hoover, I think reflexively and ideologically opposed it. He, just, he was very wary of the idea of creating a permanent dole, to people who couldn't otherwise, subsist or make their own way. And I daresay, eventually, even Franklin Roosevelt turns out to be quite wary and nervous about creating a permanent welfare class.
And, indeed, our culture right down to the present day in this society is nervous about such a thing. It's why we, we have a very different definition in our country of what the welfare state means, than Europeans do, for example. But, in any case, among the many problems, other than just purely ideological, that beset the attempt to put in place unemployment relief, is nobody was quite sure what the scale of the problem was. There were no, again, it's another example of how thin was the, just the institutional apparatus of the Federal Government.
There were no reliable statistics, what the size of the problem was. Were there 3,000,000 unemployed people, or 6,000,000, or 2.4 million, or what? So, when these bills would come forward in the Congress, the Wagner bill in particular, the obvious question that had to be asked was, well, how much money do we need, how many people are we talking about here? Nobody could say with certainty. So it made it politically very difficult for anybody, not just Herbert Hoover, to embrace a policy that might be so open-ended and create commitment so large that the federal budget simply couldn't sustain it.
I've read and it's during the drought that he was more than willing to give aid for farmers for feed, for animal feed, yet he would not give aid for direct food for people. Why would this man who had saved Belgium and would go on to save millions and millions of people the world over after World War II, why did he find it so hard to feed his own country?
They all had just, that puts the question in, it's a good way to put it. I think, you know, to understand Hoover deeply, you have to go back to something he wrote, a book, a little book that he wrote in the 1920s called American Individualism. And it was a book that came out of his reflection on what was unique and distinctive about American society. And it, we're talking here about a person who had lived outside the United States, up to that point, for most of his adult life. He lived in Australia, China, and Europe, principally.
And he came back to the United States for the first time in a long time on a permanent basis only in 1917, 1918, to run the, the Food Administration of the Wilson War Cabinet. And it inspired him to think about what's, what's different about my country. So he wrote this little book. And in many ways, it's a kind of a restatement of a Jeffersonian philosophy. It's, it finds the distinctiveness of American culture and society in the vitality of what political theorists would call civil society, not in the genius of government, or in the structure of government itself.
And he thought this is really where the, this is the realm of freedom, this is the realm of liberty, this is the realm of energy and entrepreneurship and opportunity, and so on. It's not government that provides these things. Government can protect them and create situations in which they can flourish, but the real life of the society resides in the health of civil society as distinguished from politics. And, so this is a deep ideological taproot of Hoover's thinking about everything.
So when he approaches the Great Depression, he, it's counselor, coming out of this kind of, intellectual background, his thinking is jacketed and limited by the constraint that he doesn't want to create, to the extent that he possibly can, he doesn't want to create institutions what will permanently encroach upon the robust vitality of civil society. So, creating a permanent welfare class, a class that is long-term dependent on federal largess for its daily bread, is something that he just fights shy of.
And, again, it's worth remembering in this regard, he, Hoover has, acquired, over the years, a reputation as a heartless laissez-faire person because he wouldn't feed his own country when he fed the starving Belgians and so on. But the Roosevelt administration has within it, and including Franklin Roosevelt himself, people who have the same kinds of reservations. They're not as strong these reservations, but Roosevelt was, repeatedly, Franklin Roosevelt would say, we are not going to create a dole.
So the very first New Deal measures to bring relief to the unemployed Civil Works Administration in particular and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1933 are quickly supplanted by work relief programs, like WPA, and CCC. Which make people work, at least nominally, for whatever federal payment they're going to get. And this again is a, is, it reflects the cultures, not just Hoover's, but the culture's great wariness of creating a permanently politically dependant class.
FDR, as early as 1932, I believe, wasn't he campaigning on the principle that it was governments’ responsibility to take care of their citizens?
Yes. I mean this is the great difference between Roosevelt and Hoover is Roosevelt, for all that he shares in the general culture's wariness about creating a permanently dependent class, is less constrained by that. He, the, his anxiety is just lesser, has a lower valence than others, in particular Hoover's. So he's, Roosevelt is not unconstrained by this kind of thinking, but he's less powerfully constrained than Hoover was.
I know that Hoover was very committed to maintaining the gold standard. Can you talk about why he was and what impact it ultimately had?
Well, yes, the gold standard is one of these mysterious, arcane kinds of issues that the eyes glaze over as soon as you say the phrase gold standard. But I think what's important to understand about Hoover and the gold standard is, for him the gold stand, keeping the United States on the gold standard was one among many ways to keep the United States engaged in the international economy.
The countries that did not stay on the gold standard had currencies whose value was unpredictable and were, was susceptible to manipulation. So the gold standard served as a way to keep all the worlds various currencies more or less in the same trading band and to guarantee the stability of their value, and thus underwriting the stability of international, commercial flows. If you were going to sell goods into Germany, for example, you wanted to be sure that when the bill came due, 90 or 120 days later, that the value of the currency you were being paid in was approximately what it was when you made the original transaction.
And the gold standard was one very, very powerful means to keep those currency fluctuations within a relatively narrow trading range. So it's not gold, the mystique of gold itself, it's the stability of international currency exchanges that the gold standard underwrites. That, was the, that makes us understand why Hoover was so loyal to it.
Hoover it seems did have some concern on assuming office that his friends had built him up so much in the national opinion that if some unforeseen cataclysms hit he'd be hard pressed to live up to those very high expectations.
Well, you know, he was a reasonably well read and educated person and he understood how fickle and unpredictable history is and that who knows what awaits you around the corner of the future. Yeah, he just got absolutely slammed by a global crisis on a scale that he nor anyone else could possibly have imagined.
Some say it was timing. Hoover would have been a great President he was just the right man at the wrong time. But what responsibility does the President have as a leader to be able to fight against those kinds of circumstances that are unforeseen?
Well, sure. But, you know, life overwhelms us all and it, many times, and it's, I can understand our longing to have leaders, presidents, kings, dukes, princes, whatever they might be, who are superior to the, and able to dominate the circumstances they confront. But the fact is that doesn't always happen. It, circumstances can get the upper hand, and it's certainly what happened in the case of Hoover.
It's worth remembering, you know, that Hoover tried a bunch of things that through the depression did not succeed. Franklin Roosevelt comes to office in 1933, he has the example of, in front of him, of what Hoover has tried, he has that limited bit of data about what works and what doesn't work. So he tries his own things, and, eight years later, 1941, the eve of World War II, the depression is still thick on the land. So, neither one of these Presidents, neither Hoover nor Roosevelt, fully overcame this great crisis.
What were the major components of his second program and how were they different philosophically?
Well, sometime, in my view, probably in late 1931, it's hard to pinpoint an exact date, but by the end of 1931, it now has become obvious to a lot of people, including Hoover, that the economic crisis they're facing does not have a precedent. That it's, it is not just the 1921 economic downturn replayed, that this thing is bigger and uglier than anybody had imagined when it started.
And this compels Hoover to begin looking to other means to combat this thing. So in his initial efforts, 1929, 1930, early 1931, he's inclined, as he had been in 1921, to rely on voluntary means, on persuasion, on cajoling business people, investors to behavior in certain ways, to cajole the banks into making their own insurance people to carry the weaker members and so on.
But by the end of 1931 it becomes compellingly obvious that these voluntary measures simply aren't going to work, and he has to move into an arena where he has to adopt measures that were ideologically a bit alien to him, but he now begins to understand is necessary. Like creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, calling for the international debt moratorium, embracing at least the possibility of some kind of federal unemployment relief.
These are all measures now that would have been, he would have resisted in the early days, but now become increasingly, he regards them as increasingly necessary.
What impact did they have?
Well they, the fact is they had a very little impact. And, again, we need to compare the effect of his initiatives at this point with what happens immediately thereafter, once we get a different political party, the Democrat party, and a different President, Franklin Roosevelt, there's a much greater scale of action along these kinds of lines, and unemployment does go down a bit in 1933, 1934.
But the average for the whole decade of the 1930s, the average unemployment rate is 17% per year. Now the low point, to be sure, is at the end of the Hoover administration where it's 25% in 1932. But, even the New Deal doesn't manage to get the unemployment rate down very, very substantially. So we, the Depression lasted the entire decade of the '30s. It's not just a Hoover phenomenon. And there, there's a kind of a uncritical tendency, I think, in a lot of the, you know, casual accounts of this period, what we might call textbook accounts, to assume that the Depression is this awful thing, it happens on Hoover's watch; Roosevelt comes to power, it's a whole new day and all the energy of the hundred days and so on, and all the alphabet soup agencies and so on and so forth, and the whole crisis is solved.
Well the record won't sustain that interpretation. That, in fact, the Depression lingers through the entire decade of the 1930s. So it's not just Hoover's inadequacy in the face of this monster that we're talking about here, it's the, political system's inadequacy.
Do you have any knowledge of the personal impact or consequence that he suffered by coming off of his American individualism and impacting these policies? Did it take a toll on him at all?
Well, by all the accounts we have of people around him as his Presidency went on, he got more and more burdened and stressed and his complexion went pallid and his, what, his phenomenal historic legendary energy, it seemed to seep out of him. I wouldn't say it broke him as an individual but it certainly weighed heavily upon him. And all kinds of people around him noticed that.
And I think, in a sense it also, this is a harder proposition to prove, but I think that experience and the way he was overwhelmingly politically repudiated in the election of 1932, to some degree embittered him, and led him, as life went on thereafter, to say things and to take ideological positions and so on, of a kind of cranky and curmudgeonly sort. I mean he almost becomes a caricature of himself in later life, and becomes the very thing that he criticized in Coolidge. He becomes, he appears to be, at least, a spokesperson for unqualified laissez-faire and against all forms of government intervention in the economy and the society.
It's not really the person he was as a young progressive in the teens and twenties, and as President, at least in his first year or so in office.
I have read that there was obviously something different about these two men [Hoover and FDR] that really captured the country’s imagination. Any opinion about or can you expand upon the difference in their styles?
Well they're Roosevelt and Hoover are just completely different personalities and different temperaments. As William James, the great American philosopher once said, all differences in philosophy ultimately come down to differences in temperament. And these, their two different political philosophies are rooted, I think, and they're very different in temperaments.
Hoover was reserved. He was quiet. He was analytical. He was not a gregarious personality. Roosevelt was just the opposite. Roosevelt was, he, like [sounds like] Antae's touching the earth. He got his energy and his vitality out of working the crowd and being with people. And he was this naturally gregarious and he was a natural born and highly gifted politician. One way to gauge this is to look at the reaction to Roosevelt's first so-called fireside chat. He'd only been in office a few days. He goes on the radio on a Sunday evening and he tells the country about this new emergency-banking bill that the Congress has just passed. It was essentially a bill that had been written by Hoover's treasury officials. It was a, in all its details, it was a Hoover piece of legislation, but Hoover doesn't get the credit for it, Roosevelt does.
But anyway, in that week, in the week following that radio address, the White House received hundreds of thousands of letters from individual Americans. The Hoover White House had had one person in the mailroom to handle unsolicited, just generally spontaneous correspondence. The Roosevelt administration had to hire several people to handle this volume of correspondence. So Roosevelt struck a chord, a resonant chord of empathy and sympathy and connection with the American people that really was quite mysterious.
I mean looking back on it even now it's hard to explain fully what he did to achieve that effect. But Hoover just was incapable of that he was temperamentally incapable. He listened to the radio addresses. Radio was a pretty new technology. First radio broadcast was in the early 1920s, so by the time Hoover becomes President, the radio's out there, and he uses it and he makes radio addresses as President. But if you listen to them, they're stiff and they're formal and they're, he's loquacting, he's not really speaking to the people in a conversational voice. You listen to Roosevelt and he's, it's like, you know, having your favorite uncle sitting in the living room explaining the world to you. It's a completely different tone.
So they, the two of them use the same technology, but one of them mastered it, that's Roosevelt, and Hoover just never really figured out how to make his voice come out the radio the way he put it in at the microphone, in a way that would really touch the hearts and the minds of his countrymen, and the way that Roosevelt was just naturally capable of doing it.
In 1932, in the summer of '32, FDR proclaims that Hoover's just lost the election with his handling of the Bonus Army in Washington. Can you describe to us what the Bonus Army was and how Hoover handled the situation?
Well the Bonus Army was made up of World War I veterans who, in legislation following the War, had been promised an eventual payment for their, there was a term of [sounds like] art used at the time, it alludes me at the moment, their deferred compensation, I think it was, for monies that their income, wages they'd given up that they could have been earning at home when they were actually serving in the armed forces in World War I.
And the schedule called for this deferred compensation to be paid, I believe in 1945, interestingly enough. But a lot of veterans got the idea into their head in 1931, '32 that, you know, we're due this money. It's promised to us, and we don't want to wait 'til 1945. We want it now, because we're unemployed and we need the dough. So, a lot of them joined this cross-country march that eventually came to Washington D.C., and they camped out on Anacostia Flats and other places around the District. They squatted in a lot of buildings that were unoccupied and made themselves a presence trying to pressure the Congress into early passage of their so-called bonus from World War I.
This was bad fiscal policy and, in fact, a few years later, a bonus bill passes the Congress over Franklin Roosevelt's veto. He vetoed the same exact proposition in 1937, but it passed anyway. Hoover opposed, and then, as a public safety measure, he asked the chief of police, Washington D.C. to clear these people out of the buildings in which they were squatting. And the chief of police of Washington D.C. asked for a contingent of army troops to help with this effort. And the person put in charge was Douglas MacArthur, who was a very senior military officer at that time.
And MacArthur exceeded his brief rather considerably. He did not just roust the people out of the occupied buildings, but he followed them all the way back down Anacostia Flats and then put the torch to this kind of shanty town where these people had put up their quarters.
Now I've always thought that this is another instance of, I don't know what else to call it other than political courage on Hoover's part, that he could have easily and accurately have laid the blame for this off onto MacArthur Douglas MacArthur, but he didn't. He, Hoover remained essentially solid about the episode and allowed the impression to be formed in the press and in the public, that he had personally authorized this action.
And Franklin Roosevelt uses that impression very, very artfully. Eventually he sends Eleanor Roosevelt at, the population that was left on Anacostia Flats, and she leads them in singing songs and so on and so forth. And politically it was a masterstroke on Roosevelt's part, to reach out to these people, to be seen as sympathetic with them and so on. Hoover was not unsympathetic to them as human beings. He thought their specific demand was fiscally unsound and irresponsible. And he thought that they should be cleared out of the buildings they were squatting in Washington D.C., but he at no time ordered the burning of their encampment that was MacArthur's idea. And Roosevelt, pardon me, Hoover took the blame for it as it were.
Well, who knows why he allowed that to happen. He may have understood that his political fortunes were already at such a low ebb that he couldn't do anything to retrieve them. MacArthur was then, as later, a kind of legendary character in the national consciousness. Maybe he just didn't want to take that on. Again, Franklin Roosevelt has difficulty taking Douglas MacArthur on a decade later in World War II, as does Harry Truman, eventually, even later. MacArthur was a formidable figure.
I, historically don't know, I don't know the inner history of Hoover's thinking at that moment well enough to say with any definitiveness why he didn't set the record straight at that time.
So what ultimately decided the 1932 election?
Well I believe that the Democratic Party in 1932, they could have nominated anybody, 'lil Abner then a popular cartoon character, just about anybody, would have won on the Democratic side, because the existing administration, the sitting administration, the Republican administration of Hoover was so thoroughly, completely and unqualifiedly discredited by what was then the, we were at the bottom, the low point of the Depression with 13,000,000 people out of work and a country just in a God awful state, every bank in the country closed and so on.
It wasn't just Hoover's personal deficiencies, nor even Franklin Roosevelt's great political talents that decided the 1932 election, it was circumstance, it was the fact that the party in power was doomed to be seen out of power in that kind of a situation.
Describe the interregnum. The U.S. is spiraling into a banking crisis at the end of 1932. After he'd lost the election how does Hoover propose handling that banking crisis?
You're taking it back to the level of detail here that I have written about, but I'm not sure I can recollect it. But Hoover does and Hoover's treasury department officials do draft emergency legislation to get the banks operating again. And he asks Roosevelt to support it and support a number of other international measures as well. And Roosevelt simply doesn't respond or, in effect says, and I'll run my own show once I'm President, nothing until then.
And again, for purely political calculus, it's easy to understand why Roosevelt would take this position, he wants the credit and he wants it for himself and his party, if there's going be any alleviation of this crisis eventually. And he does get the credit, and that's why there's so much mythology about things like the Hundred Days. But the actual policies that the Hundred Days enacts are, in many ways repeats, or implementations of things that Hoover himself had either done or advocated.
Not least of all, one of the most famous New Deal creations, the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933 is patterned precisely on the Federal Farm Board legislation that Hoover had presided over in 1929. And, again, it grows out of the same perception that the sickest sector in the American economy is the agriculture sector, and that's the first place we must look to re-float the economy.
Why did Hoover, in that period, feel like he needed to enlist Roosevelt? That was unprecedented from what I understand.
Well, yes, the effort, Hoover's efforts in the interregnum to enlist Roosevelt to get behind his policies, again, I think bespeaks Hoover's technical acuity and his political naiveté. He understood these were good policies, and they're going do some good and it would be important if the incoming President would get behind him, then the Democratic Congress would pass them and then we'd have the policies in place and the country could get on with things.
But politically it was absolutely naive to presume that his victorious opponent in this recent election was going to give him any measure of credit or the Republican party any measure of credit for whatever relief might be over the horizon. So, it's another reminder of how analytically astute Hoover could be; but how politically, he was really kind of a babe in the woods. And he, the, if you can use the old metaphor about the lemon, I mean the, if the Depression can be likened to a lemon, the lemon is handed to both Hoover and to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt makes lemonade.
What was their personal relationship like during this period and particularly on Inauguration Day?
Again, it's something I don't know a lot about, but from what I do know about it, their personal relationships were very coolly cordial, very formal, very standoffish. There's that famous photograph of them in the open limousine headed to the Inaugural ceremony and Roosevelt is beaming, and obviously is filled with, brimming with confidence and joie de vivre and so on, and Hoover looks absolutely glum. And that photograph captures a lot, I think, about the moods of the two men and their fates in the history books.
What do you think is the most important thing is to be aware of and understand about Hoover?
Well I think a couple things. I suppose the bottom line lesson is that even formidable human intelligences and formidably capable people like Hoover can be crushed by circumstance. And it's another reminder of how, you know, we strut our, upon the stage of history all of this, but sometimes we deal with forces way beyond our control. We simply can't control our individual lives in many cases and certainly our collective life, even when we're a President as competent and as capable as Hoover was. So that, that's one thing, it's a reminder of the humility of the human condition, I think.
And it's also, I think Hoover's career, particularly is, the Presidential part of it is a reminder of the way in which we mythologize or in this case, I suppose, demythologize our presidents for whatever purpose. I think most historical accounts of Hoover's Presidency have not been fair to him. And they’re the tendency in most historical accounts to demonize Hoover or to make him look ridiculous or ineffectual, are really going to the point of bolstering the reputation of the person that succeeded him, Franklin Roosevelt, by drawing the contrast between the incompetent and failed Hoover Presidency and then the successful New Deal Presidency.
And that's a story that in some ways is true, but I think has been hugely exaggerated to the detriment of Hoover's own reputation and to the, I think to the fidelity of the historical record to what he actually did.
What should his legacy be?
What should his legacy be? Well I think it's instructive in the terms of the longer term history of our political culture to appreciate, in Hoover's case, how even somebody who was a legatee of that progressive inheritance, who really believed in a lot of it, the Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson legacy, how constrained even someone of that persuasion was and moving very far down the road of making government a more intrusive presence in American life.
This is deep in our cultural DNA. In fact I can make a case that even the New Deal, on close examination, is remarkable for the ways in which it tried to align its policy innovations with the prerogatives of the free market economy rather than to overcome them. So, Hoover is a reminder of just how, how deep that constraint is in our political, our inherited political culture.