Of the nine Presidents who have been in office in my lifetime, none had the impact that Ronald Reagan has had. Ronald Reagan succeeded in transforming not just the office of the Presidency, but also the nature of how politics and government is viewed by the country overall. To the Republicans of today, he is revered like no one else in the party, at times outstripping Abraham Lincoln in fame. To the Democrats of today, he is mostly reviled, although sometimes begrudgingly respected.
For historians and biographers, Ronald Reagan is a popular, yet somewhat difficult subject. Edmund Morris lived with Reagan during almost all of his eight years in office. And yet, he could not truly figure out who Reagan was. So, Morris created a fictional character as the narrator for his biography of Reagan called Dutch.
Lou Cannon, a longtime reporter in Sacramento, had a career of covering Ronald Reagan. He wrote a two–volume biography of Reagan. And Cannon never came close to figuring just who Ronald Reagan was.
I opted for a shorter tome, written by San Francisco State University professor Jules Tygiel. Tygiel, who passed away in 2008, is best known for writing a history of Jackie Robinson’s experience with the Brooklyn Dodgers called Baseball’s Great Experiment. Tygiel also wrote a book on the Julian Oil scandal called The Great Los Angeles Swindle.
One of the reasons for choosing this book is that I actually had corresponded several times with Tygiel about baseball history, and found that he was very generous and giving of his time. He was always willing to help out a researcher if he could. So, since I had a gift card to a bookstore, I picked up his book, figuring that his family would get some royalties for this. (Also, I would finish this series a lot sooner.)
Tygiel’s book is, like nearly all of the others I’ve read for this blog, a synthesis of many other writers works. The book is actually intended to be used as a college textbook. Nevertheless, Tygiel injects his opinion of Reagan’s time as President frequently. To Tygiel, Reagan’s biggest contributions (as the title would indicate) were ideological, but his actual achievements may have been less than what his reputation merits. As an aside, I have found this to be the case with every President from George Washington on. The better job that a President did, the more people expect more to have been achieved.
The book takes a while to get to Reagan’s Presidency, but that is hard not to do for someone who was not inaugurated until he was 70. And Reagan’s journey through life gives insight into how he made what was an unlikely career path from studio contract actor to conservative political icon. Continue reading →
I’m going to count to 10, if you don’t like this post, just stop reading before I get to 10
Richard Milhous Nixon was the first President I ever knew. He became President when I was three years old. He left office when I was all of eight. To me, he was the image of what the President of the United States is supposed to be. You can make of that what you will.
For a man who was not easy to like, he was elected President twice, once by a slim margin and the other time in a landslide. Nixon made himself into one of the towering figures in American foreign policy. But, his legacy is one of paranoia that fueled an unprecedented abuse of power by the Executive branch. In trying to be a statesman, Richard Nixon ended up a pathetic figure, even though history seems to be treating him better now.
One person not treating Richard Nixon better now is Elizabeth Drew, the longtime Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Nixon would likely be appalled that someone like Drew, an East Coast journalist and Wellesley alumna, is trying to write about his life. Drew paints a picture of Richard Nixon as a man who was deeply troubled. He was often depressed. He was often paranoid. He drank to excess. He could not form friendships or make small talk. And in Drew’s view, he was unfit to hold office and the nation was fortunate that Nixon did not steer the nation into a disaster.
Nixon’s childhood proved to be a key to understanding him as an adult. Even Henry Kissinger would say, “He would have been a great, great man if someone had loved him.”
Richard Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. Today, Yorba Linda is a pleasant Orange County suburb that bills itself as “the Land of Gracious Living.” In 1913, Yorba Linda was a farming community. Nixon’s father tried to grow oranges, but was unsuccessful. The family moved to Whittier, which if you grew up in Southern California, you would know that it is the part of Los Angeles County that you just cannot seem to get to. Nixon’s parents were Quakers, although not the peace-loving, friendly types. Both Nixon’s father (Francis) and mother (Hannah) were rather demanding and often cruel to Richard. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis. (And there may have been an incident with a hobo. But you have to find this book. I’ve tried to read it. I have not succeeded in finishing it. Or making it through more than five or six pages.)
With good grades in high school, Harvard and Yale beckoned to Richard Nixon. But, financial concerns forced Nixon to attend nearby Whittier College. Nixon formed his own fraternity, called the Orhtogonian Society, to combat the influence of the fraternities on campus. (“Orthogonian” is not a real word.) Nixon played on the football team despite being small and unathletic. (During Nixon’s time in college, Whittier actually played USC twice, losing 51-0 in 1933 and 40-14 in 1934.)
Nixon hoped to attend an Ivy League law school after he graduated second in his class at Whittier. Finances again did not allow that. Nixon settled for going to Duke University Law School, which offered him a scholarship. After gaining his degree, Nixon returned home to Whittier to set up his own practice.
One of Nixon’s interests was community theater. He met a woman named Thelma Ryan, who went by Pat, after being cast in a play with her. Nixon pursued her, even to the point of driving her to dates with other men. Eventually, the two married in 1940. They had two daughters, Julie and Patricia.
When World War II started, Nixon served in the Navy. While not seeing any combat, Nixon did receive commendations for his work, which was almost all logistical. When Nixon returned home, he set out on a career in politics.
Step one for Nixon was the House of Representatives. He challenged Democrat Jerry Voorhis in a district that covered a large portion of the suburbs east of Los Angeles. Nixon painted Voorhis as a tool of labor, and, by extension, possibly involved with Communism. (Nixon and Voorhis held a debate at South Pasadena Junior High, now South Pasadena Middle School, which is about four blocks from where I am presently typing this.) Nixon won the election by 15,000 votes.
Nixon immediately made a splash in Washington. He got a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He took on a State Department official named Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Communist spy. Nixon eventually produced evidence (via Whittaker Chambers) that would lead to Hiss’ conviction for perjury charges for lying to the Committee. (While some at the time thought that Nixon and HUAC had railroaded Hiss, an examination of the archives of the KGB would later reveal that Hiss may have had some espionage activities. The matter is still hotly debated.)
In 1950, Nixon decided to run for the open California Senate seat. Nixon easily won the Republican primary. The Democratic candidate was Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who upset Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy.
The Senate campaign would be a nasty one. Nixon came after Douglas hard, describing her as “the Pink Lady” because of the similarities in her voting record with Socialist Representative Vito Marcantonio. Of course, if you look at the roll call votes on any two members of the House, there will be a lot of similarities since many issues voted are procedural or the result of a compromise. Nevertheless, Nixon would claim that Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won with 59% of the vote. Drew claims that most of Nixon’s efforts (through his campaign manager Murray Chotiner) were overkill as Douglas had little chance of winning anyway as 1950 was a down year for Democrats throughout the country. Also, Douglas had lost a lot of support among California Democrats as she was viewed as being too liberal.
After just two years in the Senate, Nixon found himself on the national ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Eisenhower agreed to Nixon to satisfy the party’s conservative wing. Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were strong; and, he was not considered as divisive of a figure as Joseph McCarthy.
Nixon’s political career almost came to a sudden halt during the campaign when it was revealed that
wealthy supporters had established a slush fund for Nixon and his family. (Nixon was far from the only person in Washington with one.) However, Eisenhower was thinking of dropping Nixon from the ticket because of the furor. Nixon gave a public speech to address the problem. It went down in history as “The Checkers Speech” as Nixon insisted that the only gift he received that he did not give back was a dog named Checkers. (You can view the speech in twoparts.) The speech was a big hit. Eisenhower publicly told Nixon that “You’re my boy!” And so, Richard Nixon was able to become Vice President.
Eisenhower did not have much use for Nixon, and did not particularly like him. There was little for Nixon to do, even with Eisenhower’s questionable health. Nixon would make headlines when survived a hostile reception on a visit to Venezuela. Nixon’s motorcade was pelted with rocks. However, Nixon remained cool under pressure. In 1959, Nixon held an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev about capitalism and communism. This would be dubbed the “Kitchen Debate” as it took place in a sample kitchen at a trade show in the Soviet Union.
Nixon made his first run at the White House in 1960. Facing John F. Kennedy, Nixon narrowly lost. The 1960 campaign may be one of the most discussed in American history. And I already discussed it in the Kennedy review. So, go look over there.
Only 47 years old, Nixon did not want to leave politics. He went back to California, wrote a memoir called Six Crises, and took on incumbent governor Pat Brown. Nixon felt that these activities were needed the position to establish national credibility again. However, Brown clobbered Nixon by over 300,000 votes. After the election, Nixon gave a rambling speech to the press declaring “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
The losses to Kennedy and Brown reinforced for Nixon that the main reason he could not advance in politics was that the “Establishment” was out to stop him. This group consisted of Ivy Leaguers (like Kennedy) or the media (all forms of them whom Nixon felt were out to keep him from office and distort his views.) Later on, Nixon would begin to include Jews among his enemies.
Nixon then started one of the country’s most remarkable political comebacks. First, Nixon moved to New York to increase his earning potential as a senior partner in a law firm. Nixon endorsed Republican congressional candidates. Nixon targeted 1968 as the year to start his comeback.
With the country deeply divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other social upheavals, the Republican nominee was going to have a good shot at winning the White House. Nixon’s principal competitors for the nomination were Michigan governor George Romney, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and California governor Ronald Reagan. All the competitors had their shortcomings. Romney was too weak. Rockefeller had too much baggage. Reagan was too inexperienced. Nixon won the nomination fairly easily.
Much to the surprise of political pundits of the day, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Agnew had almost no national profile; but, Nixon liked some statements Agnew had made that made him appear to be tough on crime. Also, Nixon was trying for a “Southern Strategy” and hoped that Agnew would appeal to Southern conservatives.
The 1968 campaign saw Nixon not try to do too much since he had a substantial lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey. Nixon claimed he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam, but would not give its details. (It would be dubbed his “secret plan” even though it wasn’t secret or even a plan.) Nixon also stressed “law and order.” Nixon would “bring us together.”
Late in the campaign, Humphrey broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and publicly declared his intention to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Around this time, Nixon’s campaign, using Anna Chenault as a conduit, got word to the South Vietnamese negotiators in Paris that Johnson and Humphrey wanted to end the war. The South Vietnamese pulled out of the peace talks. The war in Vietnam would continue well past Election Day 1968.
Nixon won the election in 1968, but by a narrow margin, 43.4% to 42.7%. This worked out to a little over 500,000 votes nationwide. Nixon earned 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey. George Wallace won the other 45.
Now that Nixon was in office, he had to face the task of running the country. The problem was that Nixon was more interested in the process of becoming President than actually being President. He appointed a Cabinet that was made up of lesser lights in the Republican Party. There were no Ivy Leaguers in the group with the exception of George Shultz, who was the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, would be routinely ignored by Nixon. The Attorney General, John Mitchell, wanted to emphasize that the Justice Department was a law enforcement agency, even though he would turn out to be violating Federal laws in the process.
Early on, Nixon had the chance to appoint a new Chief Justice. He chose Warren Burger, a conservative from Minnesota, whom Nixon thought would start to reverse the more liberal decisions of his predecessor, Earl Warren. In 1970, Nixon tried to appoint two different Southerners to another vacant seat on the Supreme Court: Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, but both were rejected for a combination of reasons, but primarily both of the men were considered incompetent. Nixon would finally appoint Harry Blackmun to the seat. And Blackmun would go on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.
Drew examines Nixon’s attitude toward domestic policies and found them lacking. Nixon’s policies were actually quite liberal. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were created under Nixon and consumer protection laws were greatly expanded. Under the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, welfare and poverty programs were revamped.
The economy was in a strong inflationary period and unemployment was rising. Nixon tried to respond to this by imposing wage and price controls. He took the dollar off of the gold standard.
Drew does not believe that Nixon actually thought much about domestic policy, except he just wanted to adopt plans that were politically popular. There was no overarching idea for what Nixon was trying to accomplish. She insists that Nixon’s domestic policy was the result of cynicism and political calculation and little else.
What Nixon cared more about domestically were his political enemies. The White House became obsessed with monitoring the activities of Vietnam War protesters and other political opponents. Some of the ideas that Nixon and his aides developed for monitoring the opposition were considered too invasive even for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tastes.
The White House under Nixon was an odd place. The President would send formal memos to his wife about how to arrange the living quarters. The memos would be addressed to “Mrs. Nixon.” Drew relates that Nixon, through the assistance of some of his well-heeled supporters, used Dilantin, an anticonvulsant, as an anti-anxiety medication, washed down with helpings of Scotch. (Dilantin is not prescribed for anxiety and all anticonvulsants now come with warning labels telling you two or three times not to mix it with alcohol.) Nixon was showing signs of erratic behavior very quickly into his Administration.
Nixon always wanted to be viewed as a master of foreign policy. He relished the chance of negotiating with world leaders. And in this arena, Nixon tends to get the most praise from historians. Nixon also tended to give a lot of praise to himself in this field. Nearly all foreign policy initiatives from Nixon were orchestrated by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the only person Nixon trusted in this field.
The Vietnam War was far from over when Nixon was inaugurated. Nixon had promised to reduce troop levels in Vietnam in a process he described as “Vietnamization.” At the same time, Nixon ordered an expansion of the war into Cambodia. Protests over the expansion of the war into Cambodia turned into even more protests than during the Johnson Administration. A protest at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 resulted in the deaths of four people when Ohio National Guard troops fired on them. Ten days later, two student protesters were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Nixon would eventually end the military draft. Kissinger negotiated an end to American involvement in Vietnam that went into effect in early 1973. Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Le Duc Tho declined the prize, the only person to ever do so with a Peace Prize.)
Other parts of the world were undergoing turmoil. Bangladesh was winning its independence from Pakistan in a bloody civil war that also involved India. Nixon, who did not like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sided with Pakistan. It turned out that America’s desire to help Pakistan stemmed from a desire to use that country as an entree to an even bigger goal: relations with China.
During a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger disappeared from public view for a spell with what was called “stomach flu.” Actually, Kissinger was negotiating a trip by Nixon to China. Before Nixon visited, the Chinese invited an American table tennis team to come visit and participate in exhibitions. This would be dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy.” (Except by the International Table Tennis Federation perhaps.)
In February of 1972, Nixon traveled to China, where he conducted high level meetings almost entirely on his own. Nixon went as far to use the translators that the Chinese provided instead of State Department translators, whom he did not trust. The visit began the process of starting the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the world’s most populous country.
The visit to China also made the Soviet Union more eager to negotiate with the U.S. on nuclear arms control. In May of 1972, Nixon went to Moscow. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) would be the results of these trips.
Despite Nixon’s good standings in the polls, he was worried about domestic enemies. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers, an in depth examination of the Vietnam War during the Johnson Administration, seemed to set off Nixon. Nixon wanted to tighten up internal security procedures and identify people who leaked information to the press. To stop these leaks, a group was formed in the White House that would become known as “The Plumbers.”
The Plumbers talked a much bigger game than they actually performed. The group, led by men like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, (to join the group you had to not like your original first name it seemed), fancied themselves to be world-class spies. However, their incompetence would be Nixon’s undoing.
One plan the Plumbers came up with was to firebomb the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. The plan was to steal safes that were supposed to contain leaked information about the Vietnam War that scholars at the facility. However, the scholars neither had safes nor did they have any leaked confidential information.
Another plan involved breaking into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon employee responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. That proved to be a fruitless endeavor.
On June 17, 1972, five men, including a White House official named Robert McCord were arrested at the Watergate Hotel trying to bug the office of Democratic National Party chairman Lawrence O’Brien. Six days after the break in, Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman held the discussion linked here.
The Watergate Scandal is far too complicated for me to describe here (not that I don’t like to talk about.) It turned out to be more than just the break in at the hotel. It turned in to a major Constitutional crisis. Nixon, despite being reelected in a landslide in 1972 against George McGovern, would soon lose the confidence of the nation. A pattern of criminal behavior in the Executive Branch was revealed. (It probably wasn’t as cinematic as this though.)
A Senate Committee was set up to investigate the scandal and it seemed that new revelations turned up every week. Some geeky kids, like this seven-year old, enjoyed sitting in front of the TV set with his mother and grandmother listening to the testimony of John Dean and others. Ahh, good times. (At the same time as this was going on, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to income tax evasion charges on kickbacks he received while governor of Maryland. Gerald Ford replaced Agnew.)
In the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court battle to keep the tapes from being subpoenaed, a group of prominent Republicans in Congress visited Nixon and told him that he had to resign for the sake of the country. Hesitant at first to quit, Nixon relented. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective the next day.
Nixon’s final days in the White House were not pleasant. His drinking became more severe. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the Chiefs of Staff to run any orders from Nixon past him before enacting them. Schlesinger feared that an increasingly unstable Nixon could potentially involve the United States in a catastrophic war.
After leaving office, new President Gerald Ford would issue Nixon a pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Nixon retreated for a time to his home in San Clemente, California.
Nixon had one more comeback of sorts left in him. After making a considerable sum of money for a series of interviews with David Frost, Nixon left California to move back to New York. Back in New York, Nixon would hold court and take on the role of the senior statesman. He wrote his memoirs and several other books on foreign policy.
In 1981, Nixon, along with former Presidents Ford and Carter, flew to Egypt for the funeral of the assassinated Anwar Sadat. Nixon would offer advice to Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Even when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, moved into the White House in 1993, Nixon was still trying to influence foreign policy. On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a severe stroke. Four days later, he passed away. He was buried on the grounds of his museum in Yorba Linda. President Clinton delivered a eulogy. Nixon could no longer see people kick him around.
Drew concludes her book with the examination of Nixon’s Presidency. She calls it the “Yes, but” question. Would Nixon have been a great President, if not for Watergate. According to Drew, the answer is no. Nixon’s mental instability and extreme paranoia almost destroyed the country. Nixon wanted his legacy to be his foreign policy success in China and Russia. But, Nixon’s legacy is mainly just an almost complete distrust in our leaders by the American public.
Nevertheless, Nixon’s historical profile is improving. The Ivy Leaguers that Nixon envied (or just hated) seem to be showing him more respect. Why this is so remains a puzzle to me.
Other stuff: Because of a dispute between Nixon and the National Archives, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was originally run by a private foundation. The National Archives took over the facility in 2007. Many parts of the museum are being renovated, including the section on Watergate. The facility is in Yorba Linda.
Richard Nixon was considered to be a California resident when he was chosen Vice President; but, he was considered a New Yorker when he ran for President. In his three runs for the Presidency, Nixon received over 113 million popular votes, about 1 million more than George W. Bush had in his two successful runs for the White House.
The Pac-10 goes to the White House and is not Invited Back
Herbert Hoover seemingly had everything you would want from a President. He was well-educated, with a degree in geology from Stanford. He had traveled the world. He was a successful businessman. He showed he could organize people all over the world to ward off famine.
And when he became President, he was awful. Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis (that was not his fault), Hoover, in crude test pilot/astronaut speech, screwed the pooch. Whatever Hoover had accomplished before in life, was forgotten under the weight of massive unemployment and a shrinking economy,
William E. Leuchtenburg, who has written extensively on the history of the Great Depression, does not paint a sympathetic portrait of Hoover. Instead, Hoover comes across as vainglorious, although tempered by a desire to serve the public. But, Hoover wanted the public to respect him and love him because he was Herbert Hoover. Out of office, Hoover turned into a bitter reactionary. But, as Hoover would say in his retirement (he lived until he was 90) about how endured all the taunts, “I just outlived all the bastards.”
Herbert Clark Hoover was born into a Quaker family on August 10, 1874 in West Branch, Iowa. He was orphaned at the age of 10 and sent off to live with an uncle in Oregon. Not surprisingly, Hoover had a very unhappy childhood. His uncle, who had recently lost his son, didn’t find Herbert Hoover a suitable replacement. But, Hoover did get an education. And, in 1891, Hoover was admitted to the first ever class of a new university in California: Leland Stanford Junior University. Hoover’s field of study was geology.
While at Stanford, Hoover found the eye of another woman who was in the geology major. Actually, she was the ONLY woman in the geology major at the time. Her name was Lou (short for Louise) Henry. The two would eventually marry in 1899. In addition to raising two children, Herbert and Lou collaborated on an English translation of the 16th Century textbook on metallurgy called De re metallica.
Hoover was also the student manager of the football team. He is credited with coming up with the idea for the first Cal-Stanford Big Game in March of 1892. Stanford won the first meeting 14-10, although the game was delayed supposedly because Hoover neglected to bring a football with him.
Fresh out of college, Hoover managed to get a job with the English mining firm of Bewick, Moening, and Company. He traveled the world inspecting mines for the company. He became an expert at getting mines that were not meeting production quotas up to speed. By the age of 27, Hoover was a full partner in the firm and moved to London fulltime.
In 1908, Hoover left Bewick and became a consultant. He made millions hopping around the globe trying to get mines to produce more. His style was autocratic, but highly successful.
Leuchtenburg points out that despite Hoover being orphaned at a young age, he didn’t try to be much of a parent to his own two sons. While on his frequent travels, he would communicate infrequently with his children and even his wife.
When World War I began in 1914, Hoover’s public profile shot up. Hoover helped finance the journeys of numerous American expatriates back to the United States. Many had found their lines of credit cut off by banks because of the war. But, the biggest problem Europe faced was hunger.
Belgium was the country where much of the initial fighting took place, and, according, it suffered the most. Hoover managed to convince both the British and German to allow him to bring in relief supplies to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Hoover was also determined to make sure that the relief went directly to the people who needed it, and was not siphoned off to any army. Hoover’s efforts in Belgium made him a worldwide figure.
Once the United States entered the war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson summoned Hoover back to the United States to head up the newly created Food Administration. Hoover was charged with keeping America’s food supply going to meet the added demand of a war.
Hoover did not want to have to resort to rationing. Instead, he created a small army of volunteers (nearly all of the women) to go door to door to encourage people to forego meat on Mondays or wheat products on Wednesdays. Hoover was given wide latitude by Congress and the President to act as he saw fit. He was dubbed “the food czar.” No matter what the title was, Hoover got results. The United States did not have to force the rationing of food during World War I.
When the war was over, Hoover was possibly the most popular political figure in the United States. Hoover supported Wilson’s efforts during the negotiations at Versailles. He came out in favor of the League of Nations. He opposed the stepped up prosecutions of Communists by Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. Hoover was the darling of the Progressive movement. One prominent Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hoped that the party could convince Hoover to run for President in 1920.
There was one problem: nobody knew what party Hoover belonged to. Hoover had never explicitly said so. Finally, in the summer of 1920, Hoover announced that he was a Republican. One reason for this was that Hoover did not wish to be identified with racist Southern Democrats. Also, Hoover could see that the Democrats were sure losers in 1920.
After Warren Harding swept into office in the 1920 election, Hoover was offered his choice of Cabinet positions. Hoover opted for the job of Secretary of Commerce. This was an unusual choice as the job had little cachet attached to it. (Can you name the current Secretary of Commerce?)
Hoover revolutionized the office of Secretary of Commerce. He was able to convince the President and Congress to add more responsibilities to the job. Under Hoover, the Commerce Department took control of the Census, the regulation of air travel, and the regulation of radio frequencies. Hoover established commissions to study pretty much any issue that he felt that the Commerce Department might have some responsibility for.
After Calvin Coolidge became President after the death of Harding, Hoover remained in the job. Coolidge did not particularly care for Hoover, sarcastically referring to him as “the Boy Wonder.” But, Hoover could not be replaced. He had made himself indispensible in the eyes of the public.
During the great famine of 1921 in the Soviet Union, Hoover led a relief effort there, despite the objections of many who wanted nothing to do with the Communist regime there. Ironically, Hoover may have done more harm than good. Soviet foreign policy expert George Kennan would later claim that Hoover’s efforts in the USSR served only to legitimize the leadership of Lenin. Hoover would be one of the few Republicans who wanted to normalize relations with the USSR. (This wouldn’t happen until 1933.)
In 1927, one of the largest natural disasters ever to befall the United States hit. It was the Mississippi River Flood. Over 700,000 people had to leave their homes. 27,000 square miles of land were flooded. Over 200 people died.
Hoover was tabbed by Coolidge to head up the relief efforts. This was an area where Hoover did his best. He traveled throughout the affected areas, ordering people to fix problems, not in a week, not in a day, but NOW. Orders were given by Hoover. He expected them to be obeyed. Hoover also made sure that aid was equally distributed to both white and black victims of the flood. This earned him the enmity of some in the South, but further burnished his image with Progressives.
When Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for another term in 1928, Hoover was the presumptive Republican nominee for President. He faced little opposition and had to do little campaigning to win the nomination. Although the Republican Convention was held in Kansas City, it was still not the practice at the time for the candidate to be present to receive the nomination. So, Hoover gave his acceptance speech at Stanford Stadium.
The election of 1928 was no contest. The Democrats nominated New York governor Al Smith, who was the first Catholic nominee from a major party. America was not ready to elect a Catholic, especially one who favored the repeal of Prohibition. Hoover won 58% of the popular vote and 40 of the 48 states. Hoover even won four states of the Confederacy, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee, which was quite a feat for that era.
Hoover’s inaugural address was full of high-flying language.
We are steadily building a new race—a new civilization great in its own attainments. The influence and high purposes of our Nation are respected among the peoples of the world. We aspire to distinction in the world, but to a distinction based upon confidence in our sense of justice as well as our accomplishments within our own borders and in our own lives.
This is not the time and place for extended discussion. The questions before our country are problems of progress to higher standards; they are not the problems of degeneration. They demand thought and they serve to quicken the conscience and enlist our sense of responsibility for their settlement. And that responsibility rests upon you, my countrymen, as much as upon those of us who have been selected for office.
Ours is a land rich in resources; stimulating in its glorious beauty; filled with millions of happy homes; blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure. In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.
Hoover had big plans for his Administration. He wanted to streamline government regulations and was prepared to establish numerous commissions to accomplish this. (This has been a popular technique since). There was a proposal to build what would become the St. Lawrence Seaway, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a dam in Boulder Canyon of the Colorado River (which would become Hoover Dam). There were also plans to reform the Federal prison system. Hoover also canceled all leases for oil drilling on Federal lands.
Note: Half-assed attempts at explaining economics follow. Any resemblance between my writing and actual economic theory is entirely coincidental.
Ten days later, Black Thursday hit Wall Street. Over 12 million shares (besting the previous high by 4 million) were traded at the New York Stock Exchange on October 24, 1929. The Dow Jones average dropped from 305 to 299. But, Wall Street said that there was little to worry about. On the following Monday, the Dow dropped to 260. And on Tuesday, it was 230. The slide would continue until 1932. The Dow lost 89% compared to its high on September 3, 1929.
The Wall Street Crash was just one symptom of the many problems of the Great Depression. Banks began to rein in credit (or simply just fail) and foreclose on homes and farms. Industries cut back on wages or laid off employees. People saw their life savings disappear.
Hoover, faced with an unprecedented crisis, took steps that most economists believed only exacerbated the problems. One of the biggest blunders was his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in June of 1930. This bill raised tariffs to unprecedented levels. The result was a sharp decline in imports. Also, other nations passed their own protective tariff measures.
Despite his background in humanitarian causes, Hoover gave the impression that he didn’t care much about the problems that many Americans were facing. Part of this was from the fact that Hoover was now a President. He had to work with Congress and politicians with different agendas. He found himself in a position where he had less authority to get things done. Hoover was also strongly opposed to any Federal government handouts, feeling that they contrary to the spirit of individualism that he was trying to build in the country.
Hoover was also convinced that the biggest problem with the economy was the Federal Government’s budget deficit. Hoover raised income taxes and sharply curtailed Federal spending. The net effect of this was to suck even more money out of the economy. (For a dissenting opinion, you can read this book.)
By October of 1931, when Hoover returned to Shibe Park to see the Philadelphia Athletics play the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, he was booed. Few Presidents had ever received such a public reaction like that at that time. (It’s not unusual now. Here’s the reaction George W. Bush got in 2001. By 2008, the reaction was different. Barack Obama’s reception at the 2009 All-Star Game could be described as “mixed.”) A growing number of homeless people formed communities that were dubbed “Hoovervilles.”
Despite his wide travels in the world, Hoover was not an expert on foreign policy. He hoped to ease tensions between the United States and Latin America, but ended up sending troops using troops to prop up a right wing regime in Nicaragua, setting up the long battle between the Somoza regime and the Sandinistas that would last until the Reagan years. (Hoover would withdraw the troops before he left office.) Hoover, like most other world leaders of the time, did not do much of anything to stem the rise of German fascism or Japanese militarism.
The nadir of his unpopularity may have been in July of 1932 when a group of World War I veterans marched to Washington asking Congress to pay them a promised bonus for their military service a few years early. The ragtag group camped out in Washington, but Hoover ordered the Army to clear them out. Under the direction of Douglas MacArthur, the Army routed the so called “Bonus Army” from their encampment. The Army was portrayed as using brutal means to accomplish this, although most accounts agree that it didn’t take much force to get the protesters to move. Also, rolling tanks down the streets of Washington tend to make people less inclined to protest.
There was one forward looking project that Hoover tried in an effort to provide some help. In the summer of 1932, Hoover started a program called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. It was a government entity that would provide loans to state and local government, along with banks and other financial institutions. But, the program was bogged down in bureaucracy and little of the money that the RFC was authorized to lend was spent during Hoover’s term in office.
Hoover was pleased that the Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt for President in 1932, feeling that he had a much better chance of beating him in November. Hoover thought that Roosevelt was an intellectual lightweight. But, Hoover could not overcome his unpopularity. He was also no match for Roosevelt as a campaigner. Roosevelt seemed energetic and positive. Hoover was dour and stuffy.
After winning 40 states in 1928, Hoover would win just six in 1932. Hoover received just 39% of the popular vote and only 59 electoral votes, 36 of them from Pennsylvania. Hoover’s home state of California gave him just 37% of the vote.
During the campaign, Hoover was personally hurt by Roosevelt’s claim that Hoover had encouraged reckless speculation in the stock market. (In fact, Hoover had done the opposite as Secretary of Commerce.) Hoover wanted to have Roosevelt work with him during the transition to calm the financial markets. But, Roosevelt refused and remained silent.
On March 4, 1933, Hoover had to hold in his emotions as Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office. He felt as if his life’s work had all been for naught.
After remaining quiet for about a year after the election, Hoover began to speak out against Roosevelt. He denounced the New Deal programs as socialistic. (Ironically, one of Hoover’s closest friends overseas was British Prime Minister James Ramsay McDonald, one of the most leftward leaning PMs in history.) He considered Roosevelt to be one of the most dangerous men to ever be President. Roosevelt responded in not so subtle ways. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes had the name of Hoover Dam changed to Boulder Dam (it would be later changed back.)
After Roosevelt’s death, Hoover headed up a commission for President Harry Truman that examined government waste and inefficiency. This job won Hoover some plaudits.
Eventually, Hoover took on the air of a beloved elder statesman. The Republicans held “farewell” celebrations for him at their conventions in 1952, 1956, and 1960. The Senate honored Hoover in 1957 with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy feting the former President. Hoover was too ill to attend the 1964 convention, although nominee Barry Goldwater offered his respects.
Hoover was working on his own biography of Franklin Roosevelt before his death. It has never been published or even released to scholars for inspection because, according to Leuchtenburg, its tone is so strident that it would tarnish Hoover’s reputation more than Roosevelt’s.
Herbert Hoover died on October 20, 1964 in New York City at the age of 90. He was buried back in his native Iowa alongside his wife Lou, who had died in 1944.
Leuchtenburg has penned an interesting biography of a man who was very hard to know. The private side of Hoover was seldom revealed, even to people in his own family. Leuchtenburg tries to shed light on an almost entirely opaque figure.
Hoover was someone who Americans, at least for a while, admired. But they didn’t seem to actually like him. Hoover didn’t want to be liked. He wanted to get things done, but he never could figure out how to get things done as President. When you become President, you have to know how to work with people, not just order them around. Hoover likely came to the White House expecting to do great things, but the Great Depression ended those hopes.
Would Hoover had fared better during a time of prosperity? We don’t know. But, you can only judge Hoover by what he did with the situation he was given. In a country that was losing hope, Hoover offered almost none.
Please note a correction above marked by strikeout and italic type.
After World War I, Hoover started a research institute at Stanford to study the cause of the war. Since then, the Hoover Institution has become of the one most influential conservative think tanks in the United States, covering all aspects of public policy. Some of its fellows have included Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, Edwin Meese, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell.
Hoover was the last sitting Cabinet member to be elected President and only the fourth one overall. The other three were James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, all of whom were Secretaries of State.
The only other candidate from the two major parties who attended a Pac-10 university was Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater attended, but did not graduate from the University of Arizona.