February/March 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 1
“I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values,” lamented Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist—and coiner of the very phrase moral majority —soon after the effort to impeach President Clinton collapsed. William Bennett, the former Education Secretary who made virtue a profit-making concern, announced that he was giving up on the American people: “I will not defend the public. Absolutely not. If people want to pander to the public and say they’re right they can. But they’re not right on this one.”
Such sentiments may sound a tad hysterical, but they’re easy enough to understand. The particular rope-a-dope political wizardry of Bill Clinton has a tendency to drive both opponents and supporters off the deep end from time to time. Then there’s the way American politics is constructed. No matter where you stand, some 40 percent of the people are almost certain to be with you on the side of the angels, another 40 percent linger among the hopelessly deluded, and the remaining, crucial 20 percent, the ones who decide nearly every election, don’t much care. It’s hard not to despair when you have to pitch all your appeals to the perennially uninterested.
And yet, Republican candidates eager to loosen the Democratic hold on the White House in 2000 would be well advised to forget the jeremiads. Americans have often responded favorably to leaders who inspired, cajoled, or flattered them, but they have never much liked being chastised.
The most widely remembered presidential scold was soon sent packing. Jimmy Carter never actually used the word malaise , but in a 1979 speech he did tell the nation that it was suffering from “a moral and spiritual crisis” and that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Estimable as he was in so many ways, within two years Carter would be replaced by perhaps the most unruffled optimist in presidential history.
There is no more striking example of just how much difference attitude makes in the nation’s highest office than that embodied in the contrasting presidential careers of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Probably no figure in American history has been as unfairly in American history has been as unfairly maligned as Herbert Hoover. Up to the time he was sworn in as Chief Executive his life might best be described as something out of Horatio Alger by way of Indiana Jones. Orphaned at the age of eight, Hoover was worth an estimated four million dollars by the time he was thirty-nine. He scraped his way into the first graduating class at Stanford, built his first business as an undergraduate, and then commenced a mining career that took him through one high adventure after another, all over the world.
Soon after the outbreak of World War I, Hoover ended his career in business and began one in public service that proved even more remarkable. Through his relief efforts in Europe during and after the war, he probably saved more people from death by disease or hunger than any other single individual in human history. He swept to victory in the 1928 presidential campaign. Running as a progressive Republican, he foresaw a day when poverty would be all but extinguished in the United States; no man seemed better suited to make this vision a reality.
As many historians have pointed out—most recently David M. Kennedy in his fine work
Still, the success of one who did do better illustrates just how much attitude counts in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt was able to summon extraordinary courage and perseverance on behalf of the people he served, but always, even at the worst crises of his tumultuous twelve years in office, at least some part of him seems to have viewed the whole thing as glorious good fun.
During the first months after the Crash, Hoover maintained his equanimity; yet as the Depression lingered, a certain bitterness is increasingly evident. Commentator after commentator remarked upon his grim, dour demeanor and taut temper. By the 1932 election the frustration of the Great Engineer with this new, elusive enemy had begun to seep inexorably into his solemn, stuffy speeches.
On August 11 he warned that “it is not the function of the government to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors.”
Stern words, but to whom was he talking? Some three years into the worst economic meltdown in modern times, just who was failing to meet their responsibilities? Schoolteachers in Chicago who continued to teach even though they had not been paid in six months and the city authorities had begun to confiscate their homes for nonpayment of property taxes? Farmers dumping their milk in the road because they couldn’t afford to take it to market?
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.