Mellon pulled the whistle,
Hoover rang the bell,
Wall Street gave the signal,
And the country went to hell.
I went to the library last week and picked up a bunch of exciting books; one of the most riveting in my selection was Herbert Hoover in the White House: the Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye. I didn’t know much about Herbert Hoover besides the Hoover Dam being named after him and Christina knew even less – asking whether he was the Hoover vacuum guy. I think the average citizen would be on par with my wife and maybe the rare few would remember he was a crappy president during the start of the Great Depression. To my surprise, Hoover was a very complex man who tried his best – with the tools he had – to fight a perfect storm of economic collapse.
This election year has a few similarities with the election of Hoover in 1928. Hoover was a political outsider who had never been elected to an office (that’s where the similarity ends). After eight years of the roaring twenties, the country was ready to sober up and elect a non-conventional candidate who had avoided political scandals in the past and could keep the economy humming along. Hoover gained his popularity through his effective work as a humanitarian in Europe during WWI and his domestic relief programs after natural disasters. He was so popular in 1920 that both parties brought his name up as a nominee for president. When he did get nominated on the Republican ticket in 1928, he barely campaigned and won by a landslide over his democratic opponent.
All was going well for Hoover in the first few months of his presidency until the greatest stock market crash in history, Black Tuesday, sent the country into an economic-downward spiral. The interesting thing about the Great Depression is that during the first year after the crash, a large majority of people didn’t think the economy was in that bad of shape. Hoover downplayed the hardships of the people because he wanted to reverse any pessimistic attitudes about the economy – which could cause even more panic. Added to this, Hoover lacked empathy for the downtrodden because he was a poor orphan who lived in complete poverty as a child; with this background he compared his upward mobility with the potential of all men.
As the country came to grips with its economic situation, Hoover began to enlist the help of private institutions like the Red Cross to provide aid. Hoover, like most presidents before him, believed the government should not dole out money for things like hunger or poverty; those services were historically always covered by private institutions. This mentality framed his strategy for lifting up the American citizen by limiting direct welfare subsistence and instead using government funds to help lift up the major pillars of the economy – businesses and banks. The Great Depression saw a record number of bank closures which strapped credit, froze assets, and dramatically slowed business growth. To reverse these developments, Hoover created government loans to get the banks back on their feet (similar, but much smaller, to the bailouts in 2008). This made sense economically but it was a PR nightmare for Hoover because it looked like he cared only for the rich.
Added to this image was the fact that Hoover hated the press and in turn he isolated himself from the public. He appeared cold, stern, unsympathetic, and harsh to the average American during a time when a charismatic leader was needed to reassure the suffering public. His policies were extremely conservative and his vice grip on the gold standard helped to prolong the Great Depression. Hoover was in the crosshairs of an old and new government – one in the past that had limited influence, due to the size of the population and economy, now needed to step in and fill the holes that private institutions could no longer fill. Hoover did his best with the tools that he had. He had the work ethic but could only get so far with a wooden hammer when he really needed a jack hammer. Yes, his style of isolated-cold leadership was not helpful in the crises. But I don’t believe any man at that time in history could have done much better with the economy. I see Hoover as a president who came into office either 4 years too early or 4 years too late. Hoover was too conservative and too detached of a leader but he was never a president who didn’t try or didn’t care about the greater good of the people or the country as a whole.