THE WONDER BOY
Calvin Coolidge, Harding's vice president, was a very different sort - Shy where the Ohioan was expansive, suspicious where his predecessor had trusted all too easily. Yet he was not the "Silent Cal" of legend, as transcripts of his press conferences make clear. Americans tired of "the mess in Washington" overwhelmingly elected Coolidge to a full term of his own in 1924. They laughed at his Vermont witicisms and nodded approvingly over what came to be known as Coolidge Prosperity. Most of all, they liked his tax cuts and the calm he restored after the war and scandals of Harding's era. During Coolidge's presidency the national debt was cut in half - the last time in U.S. history that such a feat was even attempted.
Three new divisions were created to deal with housing, radio and aeronautics. While the Fisheries Bureau helped to save Alaska's salmon, Hoover convened a meeting of fishermen and oilmen to save Chesapeake Bay - part of a seemingly endless series of public conferences and private think tanks, all designed to educate decision makers, inspire legislation or promote grassroots cooperation.
Under Secretary Hoover, the Census Bureau was expanded into an informational treasure trove for business planners. The Railway Labor Mediation Board was established in 1926. Hoover personally raised more than a million dollars to further scientific research.
As befitting the man who insisted that all airport runways be fitted with landing lights, radio beams and other safety devices, Washington's first airfield was given Hoover's name. In 1924 the Commerce Department sponsored the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety - this after 20,000 people died in auto accidents the previous year. Hoover himself wrote the nation's first uniform highway safety code after a friend obeying District of Columbia traffic regulations was cited for twenty-four violations enroute to New York.
"Blow it out at once," replied Hoover. By itself, such an act would demonstrate Harding's personal integrity. But Warren Harding did not live to follow Hoover's advice. On the night of August 3 he suffered a fatal stroke in a San Francisco hotel room. On the other side of the continent the lights went on in a Vermont farmhouse. Calvin Coolidge was awakened by his father, a local justice of the peace, for a predawn inaugural that caught the public's fancy and launched the Coolidge legend.
Coolidge frowned on Hoover's activist approach to government. Privately he derided him as "The Wonder Boy". But Hoover's star was continuing to rise. The Chicago Daily News spoke for millions when it published the following in 1923:
Who kept the Belgians' black bread buttered?
Who fed the world when millions muttered?
Who knows the needs of every nation?
Who keeps the keys of conservation?
Who fills the bins when mines aren't earning?
Who keeps the homefires banked and burning?
Who'll never win a presidential position?
For he isn't a practical politician?
Hoover - that's all!"
Some critics found fault with homogenized goods and the deadening monotony of the assembly line. Like the engineer that he was, Hoover preferred to concentrate on the practical benefits of commerical uniformity. It made no difference to him whether his automobile resembled that of a million other motorists, so long as it got him where he wanted to go safely and speedily. "The man who has a standard electric light, a standard radio, and one and a half hours more daily leisure is more of a man," he insisted. He has "more individuality than he has without these tools for varying his life."
No American industry enjoyed such explosive growth during the 1920s as housing construction. It didn't just happen.
More than 9,000 local chapters of the Better Homes organization helped lower the average cost of a new home by one-third, while stimulating a fifty percent increase in new construction. In thousands of communities across the land members staged annual contests for the best newly erected small house. They disseminated a manual for prospective homeowners written by Hoover. They also promoted a new building code fo municipalities (another Hoover creation).
In 1920 only forty-one municipalities had zoning laws protecting homeowners from the encroachment of factories or businesses into residential areas. By 1928 there were 640. And the American Dream of homeownership was accessible to more citizens than ever before.
For example, one annual report on infant mortality challenged lawmakers to improve maternity hospitals, hire full time health officials and discharge incompetent midwives.
A special Indian Nursing Service was established. Between 1923 and 1927 "flying squads" of ACHA personnel were sent into thirty states to monitor milk supplies. Thanks to their highly publicized findings, over 250 municipalities passed ordinances requiring pasteurization. By 1930 Hoover could announce that diarrhea was no longer a leading cause of death among American infants.
As president, Hoover increased the budget of the Children's Bureau and called a landmark White House Conference on the Health and Protection of Children. The nineteen point "Children's Charter" that came out of this gathering was in many ways an extension of the Child's Bill of Rights first published by the American Child Health Association in 1923.
In the course of his activities, Secretary Hoover received an angry telegram from radio preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. "Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone," it commanded. "You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wavelength nonsense. When I offer my prayers to Him, I must fit in with His wave reception." McPherson eventually eloped with the Commerce Department representative dispatched to explain the realities of federal regulation.
Another religious sect asked Hoover for permission to build a station from which to disseminate warnings of the world's imminent end. He told them to spend their money for air time on existing outlets; if the world was really going to end in a month, it would be a far wiser investment.
Two hundred miles away, sixty men gathered in the midtown Manhattan laboratory of A.T. & T., listened and watched as Hoover gazed into a small black box and spoke into an ordinary telephone receptacle. No one could predict how the new technology might be applied, said Hoover. "All we can say today is that there has been created a marvelous agency for whatever use the future may find with the full realization that every great and fundamental discovery of the past has been followed by use far beyond the vision of its creator."
Hoover's television appearance won rave reviews. Said The New York Times, "It was fun as if a photograph had suddenly come to life and begun to talk, smile, nod its head and look this way and that..." Hoover himself was less thrilled by the subsequent development of the new medium. He generally limited his viewing to baseball games. Yet even there he was unable to avoid the single worst thing about TV - its singing commercials!
Theodore Roosevelt had tried and failed to get Congress to approve a flood relief program. Then in 1921, Herbert Hoover became Chairman of the Colorado River Commission. Quick to grasp the river's power and irrigation possibilities, Hoover summoned officials from each of the affected states. At round-the-clock meetings held in a remote mountaintop lodge in New Mexico, he did his best to balance conflicting interests, claims of state sovereignty, and Indian tribal rights.
For eighteen days they talked. When greedy Californians refused to compromise their demands, the secretary announced, "I'm going to disband this conference...and (say) that you are the people who killed Cock Robin." The Californians left, but the other delegates stayed long enough to hammer out a historic compact dividing water and power on a pre-arranged formula. Private power companies spent huge sums to defeat the plan in Congress. But after a five year lobbying effort by Hoover's Commerce Department, the Colorado River Compact was approved.
In 1931, construction work began on Hoover Dam, one of the engineering marvels of the modern age.
Hoover rushed to the scene to assess needs and direct resources where most needed. He went on the radio to raise $15,000,000 for the Red Cross. Coordinating the efforts of eight separate government agencies as well as the Red Cross, the Secretary of Commerce assembled an armada of 600 ships, ordered a trainload of feed from Chicago (promising, "We'll settle this later"), and organized vast tent cities for tens of thousands of refugees. Hoover's relief was color-blind; in one southern city he brusquely told a group of white businessmen that unless they produced $5 million by the time his train left he would start transporting neglected Blacks north that same night.
Visiting ninety-one communities, Hoover's message was the same in each: "A couple of thousand refugees are coming. They've got to have accommodations. Huts. Watermains. Sewers. Streets. Dining halls. Meals. Doctors. Everything. And you haven't got months to do it. You haven't got weeks. You've got hours. That's my train."
"I suppose I could have called in the whole of the Army," said Hoover later. "But what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself."
Yet American individualism was unlike any other. Tempered by equality of opportunity and a sense of obligation to one's neighbors, "Its stimulus is competition. Its safeguard is education. Its greatest mentor is free speech and voluntary organization for the public good."
It wasn't difficult to trace the origin of his faith. Out of his Quaker background came Hoover's insistence on the spark of divinity within each person. His personal struggle for success had convinced him that "human leadership cannot be replenished by selection like queen bees, by divine right or bureaucracies." At the same time his humanitarian work had instilled a passionate belief in voluntary association for the common good. By the 1920's Hoover's unique brand of individualism - generous enough to promote social justice and self-confident enough to ward off the deadening hand of government dictation - was being applied throughout America. Red Crosses, Community Chests, YMCAs and settlement houses; here were the building blocks of what Hoover called the Individualizing State.