Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

The Obscure Presidents: Herbert Hoover

In an era before George Gallup began polling Americans about the approval rating of their President, Herbert Hoover was probably the most unpopular president during his time in office. The Great Depression was ravaging the nation and Americans expected their President to do something to fix the problem. Contrary to popular belief, Hoover tried. But the problem was too big. As unemployment rose, banks failed and people lost their savings and their farms, people blamed Hoover. Hoover's name became synonymous with hard economic times, and an entire Hoover lexicon developed to mock the unfortunate president. Here are some examples of depression era terms that attached themselves to Hoover's name:

Hooverville: a collection of shacks or shanties in which the poor sought shelter
Hoover Wagon, Hoover Buggy or Hoover Cart: an automobile which had its engine removed and was pulled by horses
Hoover Blanket: a newspaper covering a sleeping person
Hoover Flag: a person's empty pockets pulled out
Hoover Leather: cardboard used to line a shoe when the soles wore through.

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That Hoover came to be so despised as a Chief Executive was so surprising, given the expectations for great things that he carted into office. Once, every one had wanted Hoover to President. Both political parties hoped that he would run as their candidate. It seemed that Hoover had the Midas touch, he succeeded at everything he did. He was a successful engineer, businessman, and self-made millionaire. Surely the 31st president of the United States from would be one of the greatest ever, many people thought. But the Great Depression had other ideas.

Herbert Clark Hoover was born to a Quaker family in West Branch, Iowa, in August of 1874. His father was a blacksmith and his mother was a Canadian! He was orphaned at age 10 and was raised by a paternal uncle who was a physician in Oregon. He graduated from Stanford University in 1895 with a degree in geology and took a position with a London-based mining company. His career took him all over the world, including to China where he was caught in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion. By 1914 he was worth over $4 million (over $100 million today) at a time when there weren't many millionaires in the world. After the outbreak of World War I, he became the head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, an international relief organization that provided food to occupied Belgium. When the U.S. entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to lead the Food Administration, and Hoover became known as the country's "food czar". After the war, Hoover led the American Relief Administration, which provided food to the inhabitants of Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Hoover's war-time service made him a favorite of many progressives.

After the 1920 election, President Warren G. Harding appointed Hoover as Secretary of Commerce and Hoover continued to serve under President Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in 1923. Hoover was an unusually active and visible cabinet member. He was called "Secretary of Commerce and Under-Secretary of all other departments". Hoover was a strong proponent of the development of radio and air travel. He led the federal response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In spite of this, he and Coolidge did not get along very well. Coolidge once quipped that Hoover had given him plenty of unsolicited advice, "all of it bad."

With popularity as someone who could do no wrong, Hoover won the Republican nomination in the 1928 presidential election, and decisively defeated the Democratic candidate, Al Smith. Then came the stock market crash, which occurred shortly after Hoover took office. Hoover had great plans for the nation and had predicted in his inaugural address that the end of poverty was in sight. He was wrong of course, and the Great Depression became the central issue of his presidency.

Many believe that Hoover sat back and did nothing about the depression, expecting that the market would correct itself. His Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was the real advocate of the "leave-it-alone" approach. Hoover called a number of business leaders to Washington to urge them not to lay off workers or cut wages. He began a number of public works programs, and increased the Federal Buildings program to spur public works construction. In July 1930 he approved the expenditure of a giant $915 million public works program, which included construction of what would become known as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. But none of this helped. When the Bonus Army, a group of veterans of the first world war, marched into Washington demanding early payment of money not yet owing to them, General Douglas MacArthur ordered them cleared out and some protesters were killed. The public blamed Hoover for this, even though MacArthur had exceeded his orders. They saw this as Hoover being insensitive to the poor. When this occurred, FDR knew that Hoover was toast.


Hoover was decisively defeated by Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. It was a bitter loss for Hoover and on the ride from the White House to FDR's inauguration, Hoover refused to speak to his successor. Hoover enjoyed one of the longest retirements of any former president, and he authored numerous works. But he always tried to argue that he was right in his approach to fixing the problems of the Depression. After leaving office, Hoover became increasingly conservative, and he strongly criticized Roosevelt's foreign policy and New Deal domestic agenda. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hoover's public reputation was rehabilitated as he served for Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower in various assignments, including a humanitarian project to bring relief to those starving in Europe in the aftermath of World War 2. Hoover died in 1964 at the age of 90.

Hoover was extremely unpopular when he left office after the 1932 election, and his historical reputation as President would not improve until the 1970s. Historians give Hoover good marks for his genuine belief in voluntarism and cooperation, as well as the innovation of some of his programs. But some historians believe that Hoover failed to recognize the severity of the Great Depression, while others see this criticism as an unfair one. Hoover is not well regarded for his criticism of his successor's New Deal Programs, especially among those who benefited from those programs. Historian Nicholas Lemann called Hoover "the man who managed to turn a Republican country into a Democratic one." Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Hoover in the bottom third of presidents. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Hoover as the 36th best president, the same rank he received in a 2017 C-Span poll of historians.

Although Hoover is generally considered to have had a failed presidency, he is praised for his actions as a humanitarian. His biographer Glen Jeansonne calls Hoover "one of the most extraordinary Americans of modern times". As Jeansonne puts it, Hoover "led a life that was a prototypical Horatio Alger story, except that Horatio Alger stories stop at the pinnacle of success." Another recent biographer, Kenneth Whyte, puts it like this: "The question of where Hoover belongs in the American political tradition remains a loaded one to this day. While he clearly played important roles in the development of both the progressive and conservative traditions, neither side will embrace him for fear of contamination with the other."

Hoover is remembered at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, located in West Branch, Iowa next to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. The Hoover–Minthorn House, where Hoover lived from 1885 to 1891, is another memorial to him, located in Newberg, Oregon. His Rapidan fishing camp in Virginia, which he donated to the government in 1933, is now a National Historic Landmark within the Shenandoah National Park. The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House, built in 1919 in Stanford, California, is the official residence of the president of Stanford University, and also a National Historic Landmark. Also located at Stanford is the Hoover Institution, a think tank and research institution began by Hoover.

Hoover has been memorialized in the names of several things, including the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and numerous elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States. He has even had two minor planets named after him: 932 Hooveria and 1363 Herberta. The Polish capital of Warsaw has a square named after Hoover, and the historic townsite of Gwalia, Western Australia contains the Hoover House Bed and Breakfast, where Hoover resided while managing and visiting the mine located near the community. A medicine ball game known as Hooverball is named for Hoover. It was invented by White House physician Admiral Joel T. Boone to help Hoover get some exercise while serving as president.

But like a millstone around his neck, Hoover continues to shoulder the blame for the Great Depression. In the 1976 musical Annie, set in the Depression, one of the musical numbers is entitled We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover. It sarcastically thanks Hoover for creating the conditions that the characters are living in, telling him "you made us what we are today." As one stanza goes:

In ev'ry pot he said "a chicken"
But Herbert Hoover he forgot
Not only don't we have the chicken
We ain't got the pot!
Tags: al smith, calvin coolidge, economics, franklin delano roosevelt, herbert hoover, warren harding
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