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The Wrong Man At The Wrong Time
For all his previous successes, President Herbert Hoover proved incapable of arresting the economic free fall of the Depression— or soothing the fears of a distressed nation
Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
Investigators found that Hoover’s reliance on municipal capacity was also illusory. One hundred cities in 1932 appropriated no money at all for the indigent while he single-mindedly concentrated not on aid to the bereft but on balancing the budget. Whatever members of Congress proposed—not only federal relief, but also modest efforts such as gathering statistics on job losses or modernizing employment exchanges—he set himself sternly against, admonishing that “We cannot . . squander ourselves into prosperity.” On May 31, 1932, he took the unusual step of appearing in the U.S. Senate chamber to scold legislators for considering costly relief and public works measures. “The course of unbalanced budgets is the road to ruin,” he declared, in urging Congress to pare the deficit by raising taxes. That plea resulted in the Revenue Act of 1932—a law that has been condemned by economists ever since for further draining the nation’s meager purchasing power.
But so great was the pressure from progressives in both parties for aid to the jobless that Hoover capitulated and in July signed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, which provided $300 million in loans to states for succoring “needy and distressed people” and empowered a government agency to finance $1.5 billion for income-producing public works such as toll roads. In addition, it authorized over $300 million for emergencies. Never before had Congress enacted a statute of this nature or of these dimensions.
At Hoover’s behest, however, federal officials administered the law so stingily that the tens of thousands of jobs the country had been promised were never created. “These loans are to be based upon absolute need and evidence of financial exhaustion,” the president said. “I do not expect any state to resort to it except as a last extremity.” When the governor of Pennsylvania asked for enough money to give 13 cents a day to those who were down and out, the government granted a sum that yielded just three cents a day. By mid-October, only three of the 243 applications received for public works projects had been approved.
As the 1932 campaign got under way, few observers saw even a glimmer of possibility that the president could win a second term. Unhappily for Hoover, the Democrats had picked a formidable nominee in Franklin D. Roosevelt, though it took some time for the president to acknowledge this. Even when Hoover did recognize that the ebullient governor of the country’s then most populous state was no pushover, he failed to comprehend that his rival’s attitude toward help for the impoverished would give FDR the advantage.
Roosevelt had told the New York legislature that relief “must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty; the State accepts the task cheerfully because it believes that it will help restore that close relationship with its people which is necessary to preserve our democratic form of government.”
In contrast, Hoover conducted a lackluster campaign from the furthest point of the respectable right. No one applauded at the end of his acceptance address, because, reported a British journalist, of “the dispiriting influence of Mr. Hoover’s personality, his unprepossessing exterior, his sour, puckered face of a bilious baby, his dreary, nasal monotone reading interminably, and, for the most part inaudibly, from a typescript without a single inflection of a voice or gesture to relieve the tedium.” When the Republican campaign train rolled into Detroit, where many thousands of autoworkers had been discharged, angry crowds shook their fists and chanted, “Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover! Hang Hoover!” His face ashen, his eyes bloodshot, his hands trembling, he soldiered on, convinced that he carried the fate of the republic with him.
On his final campaign leg—west to California—his train was halted in Wisconsin after a man was detected ripping out spikes; near a critical Nevada rail crossing, watchmen came upon two men toting sticks of dynamite. After tomatoes spattered his train in Kansas, he told his wife, “I can’t go on with it anymore.” When he crossed the California border, Hoover took comfort in knowing he was in his home state—but in Oakland, the terminus of the line, crowds jeered him, and on Market Street, the main artery of San Francisco, stink bombs fouled the air. By the time he got to Palo Alto, he seemed to be a “walking corpse.” A telegram he opened there recommended: “Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous.”
On election night, November 8, 1932, one wire after another revealed how many rock-ribbed Republican strongholds had turned against him. Hoover was stunned— visibly aging before his neighbors’ eyes. In 1928 he had carried 40 states; in 1932, with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, only six. Not for 80 years had there been such an avalanche of Democratic ballots. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Democrat to enter the White House with a popular majority since Franklin Pierce in 1853. Save for 1912, when the party had been divided between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supporters, 1932 marked the worst defeat in the history of the GOP. The Hoover years wrenched many lifelong Republican voters from their moorings.