by Michael Liss
Adlai Stevenson, in the concession speech he gave after being thoroughly routed by Ike in the 1952 Election, referenced a possibly apocryphal quote by Abraham Lincoln: “He felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”
Stevenson got over it sufficiently to try again in 1956 (he stubbed a different toe, even harder), but the point remains the same. Losing stinks. Having to be gracious about it also stinks. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that having to be gracious about it when you are the incumbent stinks even more, but that’s the job. The country has made a choice, and (let us keep our eyes firmly planted in the past for now), it is incumbent on the incumbent to cooperate, even if it is not required that he suddenly adopt the policies of his soon-to-be successor.
Last month, I wrote about the fraught transition from Buchanan to Lincoln, which ended with secession and, shortly after Lincoln’s Inauguration, led to the Civil War. Lincoln, and all that he represented, was clearly anathema to Buchanan, who, when he got up the nerve, acted accordingly. This month, I’m turning to the potent clashes of ideology and ego that went into the transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Hoover was once one of the most admired men in the world. He had earned that through his service in World War I, first by aiding thousands of American tourists stranded in Europe, then, as Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, by helping to feed millions of people. He returned home in 1917 to take a role as Food Administrator for the United States, and, without much statutory authority, accomplished logistical feats on food supply and conservation. Woodrow Wilson sent him back to Europe to head the American Relief Administration, where he led economic restoration efforts after the war’s end, distributed 20 million tons of food to tens of millions across the continent, rebuilt communications, and organized shipping on sea and by rail. His efforts were so extraordinary that streets were named after him in several European cities.
All this before he was 45, and, being someone who did not lack confidence, he set his eyes on the White House in 1920. Both parties were interested in this man of extraordinary ability, but, in a political misstep that perhaps sprung from a touch of hubris, he announced that he would accept the Republican nomination if they adopted a platform reflecting his priorities. The party bosses who ruled in that time chuckled at his naiveté and exhaled a bit at their escape from the possibility of Hoover running as a Democrat. After a series of inconclusive votes at the 1920 GOP convention, they ducked into a smoke-filled room and picked the estimable Warren Harding of Ohio, with Calvin Coolidge to be his running mate.
As a consolation prize, Hoover accepted a role as Commerce Secretary, building out that department during a term in office that stretched more than seven years and through two Presidencies. In 1927, Coolidge tapped him to organize relief efforts in the Midwest after a gargantuan flood of the Mississippi covered 25 thousand square miles of normally dry land. He did superb work, once again putting his name in the public view.
Hoover won the 1928 Republican nomination, then went on to crush Al Smith (the first Catholic candidate) in the general election. His victory was comprehensive: 444 Electoral Votes to 87 (Smith didn’t even carry his home state of New York) and a Popular Vote margin of over 6.4 million. He was an extraordinarily popular man the day he took office.
Roosevelt’s path to the 1932 nomination took an entirely different route. Hoover had truly been a self-made man. FDR, not. Born to the gentry, educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia, he served (with Hoover) in Wilson’s Cabinet as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In one of the stranger ironies, he approached Hoover in 1920 to run as a ticket, with Hoover for President. After Hoover declared himself a Republican, Roosevelt pursued and got the Vice Presidential nomination behind James Cox.
In 1921, FDR contracted polio, and the arduous rehabilitation seemed to add a certain dogged toughness to his sunny personality. He gradually returned to public life, giving nominating speeches at the Democratic Conventions in 1924 and 1928, and allowed himself to be convinced to run for Governor of New York in 1928 (he expected, correctly, that Democrats would be routed). Despite the national tide, Roosevelt won by one percent. As Governor, he pushed for things like unemployment insurance and farm aid that would later be helpful in the 1932 campaign. He was a frontrunner at the 1932 Democratic Convention, eventually winning the nomination on the fourth ballot, after he was endorsed by John Nance Gardner, then Speaker of the House, soon to be the (far less powerful) Vice President.
Hoover initially misjudged Roosevelt, thinking him the easiest of the potential Democratic nominees to beat. He saw Roosevelt as unserious and ignorant of policy and thought the nascent New Deal dangerous. Hoover lacked the inner eye that the best politicians have—he was unable to judge himself and recalibrate when necessary. His early speeches, often dense, were filled with self-praise for a recovery simply not experienced by most people on the ground. In late October, after being urged by supporters to get tougher, he laced into Roosevelt in a stemwinder at Madison Square Garden (“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities”), declaring that the New Deal, would in effect, destroy the American way of life. Hoover’s closest advisors believed the tide had turned, and that California was certain and even FDR’s New York was within their grasp.
They were all deluding themselves. The 1932 Presidential Election was nothing if not decisive. Election Day brought Roosevelt 472 Electoral Votes to Hoover’s 59, and a popular vote margin of over 7.1 million. Looking closer at some of the states, you can see that there were huge swings from Hoover to FDR, some as much as 20%. California was particularly cruel, as FDR flipped the state, with a nearly one million vote differential from 1928. By midday, Hoover, on his way back to his home on the Stanford campus, knew he’d lost. He conceded, by telegram, at about 1:00 AM New York time.
If transition effectively begins the minute the result is clear, what’s truly fascinating is how little stock Hoover put in what was clearly a brutal personal repudiation. It’s not that he claimed fraud or tried to undermine the results. He just believed that the public was foolish, that his policies were the only rational response to the Depression, and (more quietly but equally firmly) that FDR was a lightweight unable to fill his shoes. In Hoover’s mind, his duty was clear: convince (or manipulate) FDR into adopting those Hooverian policies until 1936, when the genuine article could be restored to his rightful place in the White House. His closest advisors agreed; the public was too emotional to think clearly.
As in Buchanan’s transition to Lincoln, FDR’s Inauguration was still four months distant. In Hoover’s mind, those were four months where he could make his case to the public that they have erred, instruct FDR in the finer points of his policies, and tarnish FDR’s halo just a bit before he even got started.
Hoover saw an opportunity almost immediately with the issue of Britain and France’s debt payments to the United States. Hoover had previously suspended those payments and, for a variety of reasons, wanted that policy continued. He knew this was unpopular domestically, and, if he could get FDR on board supporting his policy, he could tag him with it. An exchange of telegrams raised the issue, and a meeting was set for November 22, 1932 at the White House.
What is so interesting here is how the two men seemed to size each other up instinctively. Hoover simply didn’t trust Roosevelt. Standing instructions were that any calls or meetings would require a stenographer and at least one “second.” There was a reason for this beyond Hoover’s almost irrational dislike of the man. Roosevelt was very skilled at being aimiable, but noncommittal, a talent which ended up being amply on display.
Hoover prepared obsessively before the meeting. After a few obligatory courtesies, the President launched into an hour-long soliloquy on international economic issues, while FDR sat quietly, pleasantly smiling and nodding. Hoover’s intention here, beyond further taking Roosevelt’s measure, was to use the appearance of access (a “joint board”) in return for FDR’s giving Hoover a free hand to set policy. Hoover thought he had FDR hooked, but the following day learned that Roosevelt had rejected the idea. Roosevelt’s message was clear: Hoover was still President for the next few months and should set his own course, as FDR would when he took office.
Hoover tried again in December, attempting to interest FDR in appointing a delegation to a World Economic Conference in London. Roosevelt demurred, and Hoover struck back by releasing the telegrams between the two men, hoping to make Roosevelt look bad in the press.
There were deeper issues than just public relations. As 1932 was drawing to a close, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, with the Nazis gaining in influence. FDR wanted to discuss foreign policy, and Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, wanted to discuss it with him. The problem was that Hoover didn’t want the exchange of information to take place, and, despite all of Stimson’s requests, even to Hoover’s patriotism and sense of duty, he refused. Finally, a telegram to Hoover from Walter Edge, the Ambassador to France, broke the impasse by conveying Edge’s threat to resign unless talks were permitted. Word was sent to Roosevelt to ask Hoover respectfully for the meeting, giving the President the opportunity to gracefully agree.
On February 15, 1933, matters took a darker turn, as an assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, fired at Roosevelt, who was sitting in an open limo with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. A woman in the crowd grabbed Zangara’s hand just before he shot. He missed FDR, but fatally wounded Cermak.
Hoover was shaken by this, and quickly telegraphed FDR his concern, but he was not done with legacy-building. On February 18, he hand-wrote a long personal missive to FDR and had it delivered to his hotel in New York. The letter, perhaps a tad too pushy for the moment, warned Roosevelt of an impending catastrophe which could only be averted by his declaring for, and adopting, whole, Hoover’s policies. FDR sat on his response for 12 days before politely rejecting Hoover’s advice.
Literally days before the Inauguration, the economic situation was growing increasingly dire, and as it did, Hoover’s outreach to FDR grew more intense. The pitch was always the same: Roosevelt must publicly renounce the New Deal in order to instill confidence. While this standoff was taking place, the banking crisis was getting more acute on almost a moment-by-moment basis. Hundreds of banks had already failed, in many cases taking their depositors’ life savings with them. Now thousands more were ready to follow. Hoover had refused to step in, saying that the market would sort out winners and losers, and the strongest banks would survive. Desperation grew for a bank holiday—a nationwide closure for a period of time, so that outflows would cease long enough to determine which banks could survive (with propping up, if necessary) and which would need to fold. The Federal Reserve Board went on record asking Hoover for one, and the old Congress, on its last days, stayed open to process a request from the President. One state after another declared bank holidays or restrictions on withdrawals, but, without a national policy, these efforts weren’t enough. Hoover wouldn’t do it—all he would consent to was to forward a request by Roosevelt and his team, and to send yet another letter to Roosevelt asking him effectively to renounce the New Deal.
FDR wouldn’t bite, and he was right. In just a few days, he would be sworn in, and could set policy (and accept responsibility) as he chose.
Hoover tried one more time. He scheduled a tea the day before the Inauguration, which quickly veered from the ceremonial to the substantive, as Hoover had brought along the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Board Chair for additional leverage. The meeting deteriorated rapidly, as Hoover pressed FDR to agree to make a joint announcement on a bank holiday. It was a fascinating endgame. The meeting broke up with more than a little anger, but Hoover kept at it, phoning FDR well into the night to ask him to agree. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board, frustrated with Hoover’s insistence that FDR must sign on, regardless of whether he had any statutory authority, drafted a letter to the President with a proposed proclamation. Hoover wouldn’t sign it. To the end, he wanted the bank-holiday policy to appear to be FDR’s.
Why? What possible reason could Hoover have had to extend the crisis? Stimson believed that Hoover had given in to his anger at being ousted and could not bring himself to do the right thing. It’s also reasonable to think that Hoover utterly despised FDR, who possessed in abundance the political gifts that Hoover never had.
Yet, to just look at the last few moments of a failed Presidency is to miss something larger. What had happened to the humanitarian Hoover of 1917-20, who worked tirelessly to ameliorate the suffering of literally hundreds of millions of Europeans? Where was Hoover in 1929, after the Crash, and in 1930-32, with massive unemployment, collapsing purchasing power, devastated farms? Why did he not act?
There is a tendency now to think of him as true to a cohesive economic philosophy, principled although wrong. But even this falls short: Hoover unquestionably deepened the Depression by doing things that a true free-market capitalist would never have done: He signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which inevitably led other nations to retaliate. Hoover also raised taxes, supported a tight money policy (when money was already desperately scarce), and walked away from the banking crisis. It’s not hard to see an astringent logic to Hoover’s approach—wash out the weaker hands; let the strongest survive; let the system right itself. Yet, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of the scold in Hoover—he’s the type who thought a lecture, a cold bath, and going to sleep without supper brought out the spine in a man. It was not just the transition, his dislike of FDR, and his bitterness at losing. The uncomfortable conclusion one can draw is that Hoover didn’t act in 1933 for the same reasons he didn’t act in 1930: because he didn’t want to, and, as President, he had the luxury of compelling his country to endure his particularized philosophical and personal morality.
The political historian Richard Neustadt wrote that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” At this fraught moment in American life, the public was persuaded by Roosevelt. His extraordinary gift for communication, for speaking in a language that was both intimate, yet conveyed seriousness, was something that Greatest Generation people would remember more than a half-century later. Above all, Roosevelt wouldn’t just speak, he would act. His team would relentlessly experiment, sometimes hitting, often missing, but with a purposefulness from which the country drew strength. The public found the choice between the two men easy to make.
On March 4, 1933, literally just hours after his last call to FDR to convince him of the error of his ways, Hoover joined Roosevelt in an open car as it made its way to what should be the last stop of all Presidential transitions, the podium at the Capitol. There, in a moment of political grace, the outgoing President is given the opportunity to remind us of the gesture of George Washington, and publicly and voluntarily yield to his successor. In this final act, Herbert Hoover played his part. Franklin Roosevelt then rose, and rose to the occasion, delivering an Inaugural Address punctuated by a single phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The 100,000 in attendance cheered him, and the hope that he brought.
Special thanks to fellow @3QD author Bill Murray, who sent me Professor Eric Rauchway’s “Winter War” after reading my piece on FDR’s Fala Speech. He rekindled an interest in Presidential transitions, and particularly this one, with its unique intellectual and political struggle between winner and loser.