How To Lose The Next Election

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It was as if Hoover had begun to lose his own faith in the American people. By the end of the campaign, he seemed all but obsessed with the idea that he alone constituted a firewall against absolute anarchy. Speaking in Madison Square Garden on October 31, Hoover informed his listeners that “it is men that do wrong, not our institutions. It is men who violate the laws and public rights. It is men, not institutions, that must be punished.”

It was now the people who had failed—not programs or philosophies. Back home at Stanford, exhausted and defeated at the end of the race, he joked ruefully to a group of professors: “I, too, have tried to be a teacher during the past four years, and have sought to teach some of the elements of political economy to my fellow countrymen. What I want to impress on you teachers is this: You don’t know how fortunate you are that you do not have to be elected by your students!”

Poor Hoover! The American people had failed to properly absorb his teachings. This kind of conviction that one is indispensable, even omniscient, is nearly always fatal in statesmen. In evitably it betrays and undermines their actions. In Hoover’s case, even after he had finally bowed to reality and approved funds for the direct relief of suffering individuals, they were agonizingly slow in coming. This seems like an inexplicable failure for the man who had fed starving Europe during wartime—unless he had lost faith in the character of his own people.

This may be reading too much into the words and actions of a man reeling before a crisis that was tearing the whole world apart. Other Hoover speeches included stirring invocations of the principles the Founding Fathers had stood for, and what the American people had accomplished—and what they could accomplish still. No doubt, too, Hoover’s disgruntlement was due to a ruthless, personal smear campaign orchestrated against him by various Democratic operatives.

Smear campaigns have been with us always, though, and the best politicians are able to shrug them off. Instead Hoover let the jeers eat him up. When he was out of office, his feelings toward Roosevelt, FDR’s advisers, and their policies became relentless, paranoid, and downright ugly. The New Deal constituted a “march toward Moscow,” Social Security had “a fine demagogic flavor,” and even the Civilian Conservation Corps was suspect (it “would be infinitely better to extend naval construction than to plant trees”). He mocked “Hebraic philosophers of genius who can compound collectivism and individual rights and make the waters of life.” He confided his dark vision of the future to a few friends: “Privately, I have no expactation that a nation which has once cut loose from its moorings to definite human rights and places them at the disposal of the state will ever return to them. History does not move that way, and those who cling to such a philosophy are just part of the wreckage. We can nevertheless yell ‘help, help.’”

Fortunately, Franklin Roosevelt was never much inclined to cling to wreckage and yell for help, even in the face of the darkness that seemed about to engulf the world. In 1936, with the Nazis already on the march and the American people still staggering under the weight of the Depression, he told the nation, “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”

It was a strange, mystical, magnificent thing to say. A rendezvous with destiny. Did it have any more real meaning than, say, Bill Clinton’s ubiquitous bridge to the twentyfirst century? The precise, scientifically trained mind of Herbert Hoover never would have used such a phrase, yet Ronald Reagan did, quoting Roosevelt’s words almost verbatim during the 1980 campaign. It is the sort of thing leaders say, imbued with the divine spark that gets people to follow, when they are fearful or unsure of what lies ahead. It is what even the greatest democracies need to make the next leap into the unknown, and those who would lead us now, whatever party they belong to, would do well to remember it instead of wringing their hands at us, as if we were a nation of incorrigible children. Perhaps, with sufficient inspiration, we could even be a people that William Bennett would once again deign to defend.