For Franklin D. Roosevelt to be elected President four times, he had to be elected a first time. Donald Ritchie’s book gives a quick look at how this happened. Ritchie spends more time writing about the loser in 1932, Herbert Hoover, than Roosevelt, and tries to make the case that Roosevelt’s win in 1932 was not exactly a foregone conclusion.
Herbert Hoover was probably happy that he lived in an era before polls about approval ratings of Presidents existed. If so, Harry Truman would probably not be known as the President with the lowest recorded rating. Hoover became President just a few months before the Great Depression started. During it, Hoover declined to mobilize much of anything in a Federal response to the massive unemployment and bank failures and economic dislocation. His personality made him hard to like as he always thought he was the smartest man in the room. (Such are the problems with electing someone who went to Stanford.)
Hoover’s missteps during the Depression were numerous. He signed a bill raising the tariff to ridiculously high protectionist levels. During periods of great hunger in the country, he would only support Federal funds for seeds and food for livestock, not food already made for people to eat. He felt that would be teaching people to rely on the government to eat. Instead of starving to death. They may die, but at least they learned a lesson.
The biggest fiasco was the Bonus Army. In June 1932, a large group of unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand an early payment of a bonus they were supposed to receive for their service. It was budgeted for 1944. And Hoover thought they should wait to 1944. Hoover wanted the Bonus Army removed from Washington. He ordered the Army, under the leadership of Douglas MacArthur to evict the group. Hoover ordered that no weapons be used. But, MacArthur, claiming that they were all Communists, sent his troops marching in with sabers and used tanks as well. Even in an era before television, the images were devastating to Hoover’s image.
The Democrats had earned a small majority in the House in the 1930 elections, elevating John Nance Garner of Texas to the Speakership. The Republicans still held a small majority in the Senate, but Hoover asked the Democrats to caucus as the majority because he thought they would be easier to deal with. The Republicans declined to do this.
Democrats started to line up to run against Hoover in 1932. Garner was one candidate, but he hated actually running for office. He had a safe district and he liked being Speaker. But, he still had ambitions.
The other candidate was the charismatic governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had won the governorship in 1928, replacing Al Smith, who had lost to Hoover in 1928. Smith expected Roosevelt to ask him for advice frequently. Roosevelt didn’t and the two men headed on a path to estrangement. Al Smith may have been the Happy Warrior, but he was also rather petulant.
When the Democrats convened in Chicago in 1932, Roosevelt came in with momentum, winning most of the primaries, although few of those produced much in the way of delegates. Still, Garner, along with Smith, did not arrive with much support either. But, the Democrats still required any nominee to get 2/3 of the delegates to be nominated.
Roosevelt’s supporters assumed he could hold on to his support for three or four ballots at most. It took five ballots to nominate Roosevelt, spurred by California’s William McAdoo (who was one of the losers in the 1924 deadlock), who threw California’s support to Roosevelt. Smith finished second and was so peeved that he declined to let his delegates make the nomination unanimous. Garner was given the second slot. Roosevelt broke with tradition by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. Previously, candidates would give their acceptance speeches either in writing or a few weeks after the convention.
Hoover assumed he wouldn’t have to campaign much. He assumed that the American people would assume that he was too brilliant and too hard-working that he didn’t have to sully himself with going out on the hustings. That idea was soon discarded when the Republicans realized that they were in big trouble.
Roosevelt campaigned all over the country, which helped to dispel the notion that he was too disabled from polio to be an effective leader. Roosevelt campaigned on a plan called “The New Deal” which would include numerous government programs to help get Americans working. There were also plans to create Federally owned power companies and even more liberal ideas, all crafted by a coterie of liberal intellectuals who advised the campaign.
Hoover had no firm plan, counting on private charities to help with short-term needs like hunger and shelter. When Hoover campaigned, he found crowds hostile to him, something that he couldn’t understand. Why would anyone be mad at him? Hoover majored in geology at Stanford, not self-awareness.
As the campaign moved on, the Democrats became more confident in their chances. The Republican congressional candidates ran away from Hoover. There was no sophisticated polling at the time, but it wasn’t hard to tell who was going to win. Most newspapers were endorsing Roosevelt, including those run by William Randolph Hearst.
The election was not close. Hoover suffered the biggest loss by any incumbent in American history up to that time. Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote and had 472 electoral votes to Hoover 39.6% and 59 electoral votes, all of them in the Northeast.
The book finishes up with a discussion of Hoover’s declining political career and dislike of Roosevelt. (The two men barely spoke after the election or on Inauguration Day.) Hoover thought the Republicans might draft him to run again in 1936 or 1940, but his name was political poison. Hoover may have been the sorest loser in a Presidential election ever except for the two Adamses. [Update: Donald Trump has since surpassed all known sore loser records and will likely keep that title for the rest of his life, my life, and the lives of children not yet born.]
Hoover would be rehabilitated in public opinion when Harry Truman became President. Truman asked Hoover to head up a government efficiency commission. (Hoover loved to look for inefficiency, it was pretty much the only thing he was good at.) When the Republicans regained the White House under Dwight Eisenhower, Hoover thought he might get some other duties. But, Eisenhower did not like Hoover. It wasn’t until Richard Nixon ran in 1960 did Hoover find a Republican candidate that looked up to him.
In Washington now, there is a memorial dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt on the National Mall. It has statues depicting events in the life of Roosevelt, including the Depression and World War II. It is quite heroic. The Department of Commerce Building is named for Herbert Hoover. It has a nice food court.