Part Five


Who But Hoover?

Calvin Coolidge did not choose to run for a second term in 1928, and Old GuardRepublicans, suspicious of Hoover's activist approach to government, had little choice but to accept the popular Commerce Secretary. GOP rivals complained in the weeks leading up to the party's nominating convention in Kansas City that the nation's small town press contained nothing but publicity for Hoover and Fletcher's Castoria ads.

More seriously, the man who had fed Belgium, ran the U.S. Food Administration, revolutionized the Department of Commerce and ministered to victims of the Mississippi flood appeared an ideal candidate: more realistic than Wilson, more respectable than Harding, more imaginative than Coolidge and more purely American than his Democratic opponent, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith. Dazzled by his past achievements, few of Hoover's countrymen stopped to ask whether the Great Engineer had a political temperament.

Following Hoover's first ballot nomination (Kansas Senator Charles Curtis was named to be his vice presidential running mate) even pro-Smith liberals found grounds for optimism. Columnist Walter Lippmann concluded that Hoover was himself a reformer who, given the chance, would "purify capitalism of its...commercialism, its waste, and its squalor." Millions of Americans agreed. "Who But Hoover?" they asked, posing a question that practically answered itself.

East Side Versus West Branch

Alfred E. Smith was a colorful, charismatic product of New York's lower East Side, an urban hero to many. But as the first Catholic to be nominated for President, Al Smith was targeted by nativist elements. One group even distributed photos of New York's Lincoln Tunnel, claiming that this was to be the Pope's direct conduit to the White House. While Hoover denounced such tactics, he did not escape the mud-slinging aimed in his direction. Southern Democrats, fearful of Republican inroads into their stronghold, doctored a picture to show the Commerce Secretary dancing with a black woman at the time of his Mississippi flood relief work.

Whispering aside, the 1928 election was a contest between two self-made men, each of whom celebrated the glories of American individualism. Hoover's New Day platform included shorter working hours for labor, additional public works and a Federal Farm Board to assist hardpressed farmers. One of the few major issues dividing the candidates was Prohibition, with Hoover supporting the constitutional ban on manufactoring and selling alcoholic beverages and Smith pressing for its appeal.

Confronted with a heroic opponent who took credit for prosperity while vowing to eliminate society's imperfections, some of Smith's partisans tried portraying Hoover as the true radical. Franklin D. Roosevelt said of his Washington neighbor, "He has shown in his own department an alarming desire to issue regulations and to tell businessmen generally how to conduct their affairs."

Voters rejected the argument. On Election Day they gave Hoover 58% of the popular vote and 444 electoral votes to Smith's 87. Strangely, the victorious candidate's sense of triumph was muted. "My friends have made the American people think me a sort of superman," said Hoover in December, 1928. "They expect the impossible of me and should there arise in the land conditions with which the political machinery is unable to cope I will be the one to suffer." It was an uncanny prophecy.

The Good Neighbor

Before 1928, American presidents rarely left the shores of the United States. This was consistent with the country's traditional isolation from world affairs and its distrust of foreign involvements. As if to emphasize his desire to break with the past, three days after his election Hoover announced plans to visit eleven South American nations before Inauguration Day.

According to the president-elect, the impending journey was a visit "of one good neighbor to another." Few Latin Americans regarded the Colossus of the North as an especially good neighbor. Hoover resolved to change all that, and, in fact, everywhere the President-elect and his party went they were warmly received. Not that the journey was without incident. Potential disaster was averted when an Argentine anarchist intent on assassinating the visiting American was arrested. Hoover professed unconcern, tearing off the front page of a newspaper that revealed the plot and explaining, "It's just as well that Lou shouldn't see it."

Once in office, Hoover made good on his pledge not to interfere in Latin America's internal affairs. He withdrew U.S. troops from Haiti and Nicaragua, and together with Secretary of State Henry Stimson negotiated a border dispute between Chile and Peru. Stimson, not easily impressed, confided to his diary in latter years that Hoover had forgotten more about foreign affairs than most men ever learned.

The Inauguration

On March 4, 1929 Chief Justice William Howard Taft administered the oath of office to America's 31st president. Quaker style, Hoover "affirmed" the thirty five word oath required of every President since George Washington. Then he rode back to the White House in a driving rainstorm. Discarding the traditional inaugural ball, Washingtonians attended an affair held to benefit local charity.

In the days leading up to March 4 one of Hoover's friends warned him, "People expect more of you than they have of any other President." As if in response, Hoover's inaugural address sounded an activist note, celebrating prosperity while insisting that more could be done to spread its benefits evenly. "We want to see a nation built of homeowners and farmowners," he said. "We want to see more and more of them insured against death and accident, unemployment and old age. We want them all secure."


True to his instincts, Hoover's first months in office were a whirlwind of reform. The new president began his term by banishing the White House stables and mothballing the presidential yacht. Within thirty days of his inauguration, Hoover announced an expansion of Civil Service protection throughout the federal establishment, canceled private oil leases on government lands and directed federal law enforcement officials to focus their energies on gangster-ridden Chicago, leading to the arrest and conviction of Al Capone on tax evasion charges.

Hoover's Commission on Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain paved the way for an additional three million acres of national parks, and 2.3 million acres in national forests. In the summer of 1929 the President kept a campaign promise by convincing a special session of Congress to establish a Federal Farm Board to support farm prices. He persuaded two of the new board's members to abandon jobs that payed over $100,000 a year. Cynics sneered at such "Hoover patriots" but the new president pressed ahead with plans for a series of dams in the Tennessee Valley and in central California, tax cuts graduated to favor low-income Americans and a massive program of prison reform that stressed education and rehabilitation. In other domestic intitiatives, Hoover created the Veterans Administration and doubled veterans' hospital facilities; established the Anti-trust Division of the Justice Department to prosecute unfair competition and restraint of trade cases; required air mail carriers to improve service; and advocated federal loans for urban slum clearance.

Hoover also established the Federal Bureau of Prisons and reorganized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to protect Native Americans from exploitation. He proposed a federal Department of Education, as well as $50-a-month pensions for Americans over 65 the last proposal falling by the wayside after Wall Street crashed. In November 1930, Hoover presided over a pioneering White House Conference on Child Health and Protection which lead to numerous child welfare reforms at the state and local level. A second White House conference the following year focused on homebuilding and home ownership.

On the international scene, Hoover took steps to halt the arms race through the 1930 London Naval Conference and the 1932 World Disarmament Conference in Geneva. He imposed an arms embargo to Latin America, proposed a one-third cut in the number of submarines and battleships and sought unsuccessfully to eliminate all bombers, tanks, and chemical warfare. The administration negotiated a treaty authorizing construction of the St. Lawrence-Seaway along the U.S. Canadian border, but the Senate failed to ratify the pact. (Not until 1957 would the project be completed) In January 1932, the United States rejected Japan's invasion of Manchuria, a dress rehearsal for World War II. Through the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine the administration tried to mobilize world opinion to restore Chinese sovereignty.

The Nation's Social Center

The greatest crisis since the Civil War complicated but could not halt the social demands placed upon a President and his First Lady. Guests at the Hoover White House included the King and Queen of Siam, Charles Lindbergh, British Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald and Helen Keller, who identified a bust of George Washington by running her hands over the smooth marble and who crawled on her hands and knees to touch the Great Seal woven into a foyer rug.

Resenting ceremonial demands on his time, Hoover complained that while the country was burning, loquacious congressmen wanted him to cut ribbons. On January 1, 1930, he shook 9,000 hands at the traditional New Year's Day reception. He did manage to eliminate the daily public receptions where hundreds of citizens filed by for a presidential handshake. Most evenings a formally dressed president dined with guests and poured White Rock water from a bottle wrapped in a towel, champagne style. Afterwards he sat with his eyes closed at the East Room musicales featuring the likes of Rosa Ponselle and Jascha Heifetz.

Inevitably much of the social burden fell to Lou Hoover. Staff members were instructed to make awed visitors feel at home. "Well, don't ever worry," Lou explained to a young assistant concerned over protocol. "You just always do what will make the other fellow feel comfortable, at ease, and then you will be all right."

The First Lady proved a woman of her word. One day her husband announced that instead of four guests for dinner he was bringing home forty. Lou directed the kitchen staff to grind up everything in the White House freezers for croquettes. The resulting recipe for "White House Surprise Supreme" could never be recreated - for obvious reasons. The President Relaxes

"I have discovered that even the work of the government can be improved by leisurely discussions out under the trees," said Hoover. At the same time he joked that there were only two activities in which a president could enjoy some measure of privacy, fishing and prayer and no man could pray all the time. In between nibbles at Camp Rapidan, the fishing camp he built with $120,000 of his own money, the embattled president held front-porch conferences with congressmen and economic advisers. One weekend in 1932 he spent twelve hours on a long-distance hookup, personally directing a rush order of $35 million so that a major Chicago bank could open on Monday morning.

After White House physician Joel T. Boone urged Hoover to lose weight, Boone's patient adapted a game of medicine ball he had first played on a battleship off Rio de Janeiro during his Latin American journey. For thirty minutes each day, seven days a week, Hoover and his "Medicine Ball Cabinet" relished a game that burned up three times as many calories as tennis and six times that of golf.

This sports-loving president rarely unbent in public. He did stop one afternoon to watch a sandlot ball game, cheering on the kids at play and informally chatting with them when the game ended. Colleagues urged the president to return the next day and be photographed. It would be good for his public image. Hoover would do nothing of the kind, for the same reason that he banned pictures of his daily medicine ball game. It was one thing to relax, however infrequently, quite another to perform.

Personal and Family

The White House into which President and Mrs. Hoover moved in March 1929 reflected the chilly austerity of their predecessors. "Bleak as a New England barn," said Hoover of the upstairs family quarters. It did not take long for Lou to replace the dreary furnishings with cherished pieces from their own homes. On a more formal note she refurbished some of James Monroe's elegant Empire furniture (giving rise to complaints in the Congressional Record) for the ceremonial East Room.

Prior to the First World War, presidents devoted as little as two hours a day to office work, with another two or three spent in receiving visitors and the press. Depression era demands led to four presidential secretaries in place of one. Hoover became the first chief executive to install a telephone in his office. Among the "valuable privileges attached to being President," he wrote later, was the right to terminate all interviews, conferences, social parties, and receptions. A president "can go to bed whenever he likes. I liked ten o'clock, as I had to rise at seven and read a great deal during the night."

Herbert Hoover was one of two American presidents to give away his salary (John F. Kennedy being the other). He anonymously donated $25,000 a year to aid victims of the Depression and raised $500,000 toward the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Welfare. Yet surprisingly, given his special feelings toward young people, the president kept his own family shielded from view.

Young Allan, a student at Stanford, appeared infrequently at the White House. And when Herbert, Junior was confined to a North Carolina treatment center for tuberculosis, his father could only spare time for a single visit to the son he called Bub. During this period the president's daughter-in-law, Margaret, and her children, Peggy Ann and Herbert III (known as Pete) came to live at the White House. Advisers wanted the youngsters brought into the spotlight, if only to soften their grandfather's somewhat down image, but Hoover flatly refused to exploit his family.

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