Great American presidents are often remembered for how they steered the country through crisis.
Abraham Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War, during which he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Roosevelt led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. John F. Kennedy remained cool and diplomatic during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These presidents are remembered for their steely resolve and creative action; two of them have monuments on the National Mall in Washington.
And then there are presidents remembered for their abject failure in the face of crisis. Most of these ― Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, to name a few ― are easily forgotten. Others are still alive with some control over their presidential narrative, like Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush. But not Herbert Hoover.
The nation’s 31st president became the patron saint of failure in office after his inept response to the Great Depression led to his landslide defeat in 1932, shattered the power of the era’s conservative ideology, and made him a political whipping boy for decades to come. Even today, no president wants their name brought up in the same sentence as his ― but President Donald Trump’s blustering, blundering and bullying response to the coronavirus pandemic is being compared to Hoover’s incompetence.
HuffPost asked University of California-Davis history professor Eric Rauchway, author of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, to talk about the comparisons between Trump and Hoover.
(The conversation has been edited for clarity.)
Hoover has sort of become this archetype or a symbol for failed presidents. And I wanted to ask you how did that happen? How did Hoover become the Hoover that we think of when we hear his name now?
Eric Rauchway: Well, of course, we generally date the beginning of the Great Depression from around sometime in the autumn of 1929 or the late summer of 1929. And that’s just a few months into Hoover’s term in the presidency. And then it lasts throughout the rest of his presidency. Everything he did was inadequate to the task of turning things around. In fact, the official business cycle dates say that things turn around right when Roosevelt came into office in March of 1933. So, generally speaking, Hoover had a very long time to try to do things, and he didn’t do things.
Now, we could go on from there to say, well, maybe there wasn’t much that could be done ― and possibly that’s true. You can say several things in mitigation of Hoover’s record. Certainly, the U.S. government had never faced a crisis like this before. Certainly, the federal budget wasn’t anything like what it is now. Certainly, the federal government had never before taken over state and local functions in the way that proved to be necessary. Still, I think the most charitable thing you could say about Hoover, therefore, is that he lacked imagination. And that’s too charitable, to be honest with you, because of course people told him he needed to do these things increasingly through the course of his presidency. Increasingly not even just what we might call bleeding heart liberals, but people who are of Hoover’s own social circle or people whom he appointed to advise him on these tasks, and he refused to do them.
That’s where we really get into the current situation, or a comparison to the current situation. You have a president who is willfully refusing to exercise power that people tell him he has and that he ought to exercise. In the case of President Trump, that he has the power to authorise the manufacture for the federal government of the appropriate goods ― in this case, it will be medical equipment. And he’s declined repeatedly to do that while also saying he isn’t declining it. But that’s a whole other thing.
Hoover was in a very similar situation in two respects, I think. First of all, in terms of federal aid to the unemployed. And I suppose that has a parallel to the current moment, too. Hoover adamantly refused to authorise anything like adequate federal aid to the unemployed. And what little public works he did sign onto he did very reluctantly. He thought that such actions would lead, ultimately, as he wrote, to socialism and collectivism, which of course he was against.
You know, this is not just saying, “Oh well, it’s traditionally the states’ job and the states can take care of it.” It’s saying that even if the states can’t take care of it, I don’t think the federal government should do it for ideological reasons. And you can find the same thing in the case of the bank panic ― or the last of the series of bank panics ― that occurred during Hoover’s presidency. There’s the big one that began just before the November ’32 election and lasted to the end of Hoover’s presidency (in early March of 1933, when inaugurations then occurred).
During this time, repeatedly ― people who were, again, not lefties, people who were high up in the Federal Reserve told Hoover that a) he had the authority to close the banks, and b) he ought to exercise his power over and over and over again during the waning months of his presidency. And he adamantly refused to do so. He said, it’s my job to keep the banks open. So, again, this is sort of him feeling like he didn’t have the authority to do something. He was told repeatedly that he did, even though he sort of fished for people to tell them he didn’t. And he just didn’t want to do it. And he didn’t do it.
Even in the late part of February ― this is the last time the president was inaugurated in March. So there was a long time after the election of ’32 before Roosevelt became president. But in the middle or near the end of February, Roosevelt’s people told Hoover’s people that the first thing Roosevelt was going to do upon coming into office was to close the banks. And so Hoover knew it was going to happen. You know, he might as well have done it, but he refused to do it.
You mentioned that a lot of Hoover’s failures stemmed from his ideological predilections. What exactly was he ideologically opposed to and how did that hamper his response?
He regarded government intervention in the economy, at least in these ways, as a step on the road to socialism, or as he would have said, collectivism. But he meant basically the same thing. And he would go on to say that the things that Roosevelt did put the United States on the road to Moscow. So, he felt that anything resembling what we come to call the New Deal was essentially a step toward communism. He was ― I guess you’d call that the modern version of American conservatism is what you’d call that, right? Very resistant to the idea that government ought to intervene with aid to the unemployed or to check in any way capitalism. Unless, of course, it was aiding capitalism in the way that capitalists wanted to be aided is what he was saying.
When Hoover was elected he was seen as a successful manager of large projects, having overseen post-World War I relief efforts. He had a different image than Donald Trump
Well, look, Hoover was a vastly more successful businessman than Donald Trump. That is absolutely true. And, he had entered public service, if not quite government, as a genuine do-gooder in terms of organising the Belgian relief efforts during World War I and entering the Woodrow Wilson administration as the food administrator in terms of rationing. And by all accounts, he did that certainly competently.
I think, though, there are signs of the later Hoover (before he became president). He really felt that the thing to do was to manipulate public discourse. He said, “The world lives by phrases.” He was really fascinated with what became the modern art of public relations. And so that really shows up in his 1927-28 stint as the flood relief coordinator during the Mississippi River flood for the Coolidge administration.
He was very keen that there’d be films of him walking around the flood zone and lots of reports about him doing great stuff, even though he really didn’t do that much. You know, he rounded up money to be spent on reconstruction that was never spent and he was conspicuously not particularly good for Black residents of the region, which is something that the NAACP held against him for a long time.
Hoover was definitely not without talents. But he certainly had an overwhelming talent for trying to manage his public image. Maybe this was probably his best ability. And maybe that is kind of similar to the current president’s fascination with his ratings.
And turning to Trump, how do you view his response in any kind of comparison to Hoover or other presidents responding to these kinds of cataclysmic events?
Well, I think that there’s a definite and unfortunate parallel to the onset of the Depression, which is saying, “Oh, well this thing isn’t the thing. This thing that is a thing is not as bad as you think it’s going to be. This thing that is a thing that is starting to look very bad is the foreigner’s fault. And there’s nothing we can really do about it now anyway.” That is pretty much the Hoover playbook for the Great Depression. And I guess you can map that onto the current administration’s response, I imagine.
Would you say that there’s an ideological point of view here? Trump has refused to invoke the Defense Production Act, at times saying that this isn’t the federal government’s job. And then there’s the bizarre statement by Jared Kushner at Thursday’s White House briefing that the national stockpile of medical supplies is for the federal government and not the states.
Apparently they’re going to dispense it all to Guam and Puerto Rico is what that means. I have no idea. That was sarcasm ... I wasn’t offering my scholarly analysis of the situation. You know, ideology and the current president are a vexed issue ― it’s always hard to say. But I think that his personal interest seems to map onto broader ideological convictions in the modern Republican Party. That’s why he’s sustained in power, doing things that otherwise another president wouldn’t get away with. I think that’s generally true. So whether he’s personally ideological or not, in the way that Hoover clearly was, I don’t know.
But his antipathy to expertise, which may stem from his personality, goes very nicely with the broader Republican wish to shrink the government. So, he’s gotten rid of a lot of capacity that we might have had to deal with a situation like this one. And his unwillingness to plan and to recognise the oncoming crisis may again have something to do with his personal psychology, but it certainly maps on to the broader Republican wish not to ― I mean, there was that op-ed, I think it was in the Wall Street Journal by [Steve] Forbes and a couple other guys who presumably don’t have whatever Trump’s personality is, but it did say we don’t want to pay too much to the unemployed. [Forbes, Art Laffer and Steven Moore made a joint statement opposing the expansion of unemployment insurance on March 18. Laffer and Moore made the same argument in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on March 20.]
That’s an ideological position and is going to help to account for our incapacity to deal with the current level of unemployment, I’m afraid.
You mention that Hoover sort of laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement, certainly its economic ethos. And these are people expressing that. Is there anything to say about that at this moment where maybe that is not going to be enough to meet the crisis?
Well, I think there’s something about Hoover as a bridge to the modern moment that probably tells us something about that. You know, he was defeated for the presidency in ’32 by Roosevelt and then he lived into 1964. So he had to live for the latter 32 years of his life with liberalism ascendant, even during the Eisenhower administration. I think it would be fair to say that. And although he was deeply conservative himself, he also wanted to rehabilitate himself personally. And so he did a lot to ingratiate himself publicly with liberals, to reconcile himself publicly to liberalism in a way that he wouldn’t do, let’s say if he had lived from ’64 another 32 years after that in the years when conservatism came roaring back.
One of his real legacies, therefore, was to kind of establish himself as a moderate publicly while continuing to be vituperative in his conservatism privately and to regard the New Deal as a form of treason, to use his own words, which was a view that he said Richard Nixon had inherited from him. Barry Goldwater regarded Hoover as an inspiration. And of course, just after Hoover’s death, they really began to reshape American politics ― Goldwater and Nixon did, ultimately successfully.
The question I guess you would want to ask is, were they able to do this in part because liberalism had become so entrenched and the sort of competent government had become so entrenched that they could chip away at it for a good long time before it became a catastrophe? To paraphrase Adam Smith, maybe there’s a lot of ruin in the liberal establishment. But we may have gotten to the point where there ain’t enough of it left that we could afford that kind of thing.
What about the particular moment now where we have skyrocketing unemployment due to the pandemic. It seems that maybe these Hooverian conservative views aren’t going to meet the moment. Is this a potential turning point as 1932 was, or 1980 even, in terms of American politics?
Well, you know, I have to offer you the caveat that historians don’t do the future, we do the past. But it could well be. I mean, that’s sort of what I was kind of edging around saying, we may have reached the point where we can no longer start to shave away the old liberal establishment. We have to start rebuilding it.
I don’t know if you saw the article, I think it was in Politico (Friday), about the unemployment apparatus in Florida. Which, basically, it was designed to not pay unemployment claims ― which is fine, one of the sources said, at the times when unemployment is below 3%. Let’s bracket that, it obviously isn’t fine, but it is a catastrophe now. If it is actually revealed to be a catastrophe while people like (Sen.) Rick Scott (R) and (Gov.) Ron DeSantis (R) are in charge of the state of Florida, you may see a tipping point there. And as you know, maybe a tipping point in Florida is all it’s gonna take to tip the balance more generally with our political system that we have. But I can’t say.