Thirty-first President of the United States
Herbert Hoover, served March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933
Hoover (August 10, 1874 – October 20, 1964) was the 31st President of the United States (1929-33). Hoover was originally a professional mining engineer and author. As the United States Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he promoted partnerships between government and business under the rubric “economic modernization”. In the presidential election of 1928, Hoover easily won the Republican nomination, despite having no previous elected-office experience. Hoover is the most recent cabinet secretary to be elected President of the United States, as well as one of only two Presidents (along with William Howard Taft) to have been elected without previous electoral experience or high military rank. America was prosperous and optimistic at the time, leading to a landslide victory for Hoover over Democrat Al Smith.
Herbert Clark Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa. He was the first president born west of the Mississippi River and remains the only Iowan President. His father, Jessie Hoover, was a blacksmith and farm implement store owner who was of German (Pfautz, Wehmeyer) and German-Swiss (Huber, Burkhart) descent. Hoover’s mother, Hulda Randall (Minthorn) Hoover (1849-84), was born in Norwich, Ontario, Canada, of English and Irish descent. Both were Quakers.
Hoover entered Stanford University in 1891, the new California college’s first year. The first-year students were not required to pay tuition. Hoover claimed to be the first student ever at Stanford, by virtue of having been the first person in the first class to sleep in the dormitory. While at the university, he was the student manager of both the baseball and football teams and was a part of the inaugural Big Game versus rival University of California (Stanford won). In one game in 1894, as manager of the baseball team, Hoover found the receipts were short. Hoover graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology.
When World War I began in August 1914, Hoover helped organize the return of 120,000 Americans from Europe. He led 500 volunteers in distributing food, clothing, steamship tickets and cash. “I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life.” Hoover liked to say that the difference between dictatorship and democracy was simple: dictators organize from the top down, democracies from the bottom up.
After the United States entered the war in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. Food Administration. Hoover believed “food will win the war”, and beginning on September 29, this slogan was introduced and put into frequent use. Hoover established set days to encourage people to avoid eating particular foods to save them for soldiers’ rations: meatless Mondays, wheatless Wednesdays, and “when in doubt, eat potatoes.” This program helped reduce consumption of foodstuffs needed overseas and avoided rationing at home. It was dubbed “Hooverizing” by government publicists, in spite of Hoover’s continual orders that publicity should not mention him by name.
Hoover rejected Democratic overtures in 1920. He had been a registered Republican before the war, though in 1912 he had supported Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Progressive Party. Now he declared himself a Republican and a candidate for the Presidency.
He placed his name on the ballot in the California state primary election, where he came close to beating popular Senator Hiram Johnson. But having lost in his home state, Hoover was not considered a serious contender at the convention. Even when it deadlocked for several ballots between Illinois Governor Frank Lowden and General Leonard Wood, few delegates seriously considered Hoover as a compromise choice. Although he had personal misgivings about the capability of the nominee, Warren G. Harding, Hoover publicly endorsed him and made two speeches for Harding.
After being elected, Harding rewarded Hoover for his support, offering to appoint him either Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Commerce. Hoover ultimately chose Commerce. Commerce had existed for just eight years, since the division of the earlier Department of Commerce and Labor. Commerce was considered a minor Cabinet post, with limited and vaguely defined responsibilities.
To gain Republican votes in Southern states, Hoover pioneered an electoral tactic later known as the “Southern Strategy”. Hoover’s appeal to white voters yielded substantial results, including Republican victories in Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Texas. It marked the first time that a Republican candidate for president had carried Texas. This outraged the black leadership, which largely broke from the Republican Party, and began seeking candidates who supported civil rights within the Democratic Party.
When Calvin Coolidge announced in 1928 that he would not seek a full term of office in the 1928 Presidential Election, Hoover became the leading Republican candidate, despite the fact Coolidge was lukewarm on Hoover, often deriding his ambitious and popular Commerce Secretary as “Wonder Boy”. His only real challenger was Frank Orren Lowden. Hoover received much favorable press coverage in the months leading up to the convention. Lowden’s campaign manager complained that newspapers were full of “nothing but advertisements for Herbert Hoover and Fletcher’s Castoria”. Hoover’s reputation, experience, and popularity coalesced to give him the nomination on the first ballot, with Senator Charles Curtis named as his running mate.
Hoover campaigned for efficiency and the Republican record of prosperity against Democrat Alfred E. Smith. Smith likewise was a proponent of efficiency earned as governor of New York. Both candidates were pro-business, and each promised to improve conditions for farmers, reform immigration laws, and maintain America’s isolationist foreign policy. Where they differed was on the Volstead Act which outlawed the sale of liquor and beer. Smith was a “wet” who called for its repeal, whereas Hoover gave limited support for prohibition, calling it an “experiment noble in purpose”. His use of “experiment” suggested it was not permanent. While Smith won extra support among Catholics in the big cities Smith was the target of intense anti-Catholicism from some Protestant communities, especially as Southern Baptists and German Lutherans. Overall the religious factor worked to the advantage of Hoover, although he took no part in it.
Hoover held a press conference on his first day in office, promising a “new phase of press relations”. He asked the group of journalists to elect a committee to recommend improvements to the White House press conference. Hoover declined to use a spokesman, instead asking reporters to directly quote him and giving them handouts with his statements ahead of time. In his first 120 days in office, he held more regular and frequent press conferences than any other President, before or since. However, he changed his press policies after the 1929 stock market crash, screening reporters and greatly reducing his availability.
Hoover had long been a proponent of the concept that public-private cooperation was the way to achieve high long-term growth. Hoover feared that too much intervention or coercion by the government would destroy individuality and self-reliance, which he considered to be important American values. Both his ideals and the economy were put to the test with the onset of the Great Depression.
Although Hoover is regularly criticized for his laissez-faire approach to the Depression, in his memoirs, Hoover claims that he rejected Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s suggested “leave-it-alone” approach, and called many business leaders to Washington to urge them not to lay off workers or cut wages.
Although Hoover had come to detest the presidency, he agreed to run again in 1932, not only as a matter of pride, but also because he feared that no other likely Republican candidate would deal with the depression without resorting to what Hoover considered dangerously radical measures.
Hoover was nominated by the Republicans for a second term. He had originally planned to make only one or two major speeches, and to leave the rest of the campaigning to proxies, but when polls showed the entire Republican ticket facing a resounding defeat at the polls, Hoover agreed to an expanded schedule of public addresses. In his nine major radio addresses Hoover primarily defended his administration and his philosophy. The apologetic approach did not allow Hoover to refute Democratic nominee Franklin Roosevelt’s charge that he was personally responsible for the depression.
In his campaign trips around the country, Hoover was faced with perhaps the most hostile crowds of any sitting president. Besides having his train and motorcades pelted with eggs and rotten fruit, he was often heckled while speaking, and on several occasions, the Secret Service halted attempts to kill Hoover by disgruntled citizens, including capturing one man nearing Hoover carrying sticks of dynamite, and another already having removed several spikes from the rails in front of the President’s train.
Despite the late campaign endeavors, Hoover sustained a large defeat in the election, having procured only 39.7 percent of the popular vote to Roosevelt’s 57.4 percent. Hoover’s popular vote was reduced by 26 percentage points from his result in the 1928 election. In the electoral college he carried only Pennsylvania, Delaware, and four other Northeastern states to lose 59-472. The Democrats extended their control over the U.S. House and gained control of the U.S. Senate.
After the election, Hoover requested that Roosevelt retain the Gold standard as the basis of the US currency, and in effect, continue many of the Hoover Administration’s economic policies. Roosevelt refused.
Hoover departed from Washington in March 1933 with some bitterness, disappointed both that he had been repudiated by the voters and unappreciated for his best efforts. The Hoovers went first to New York City, where they stayed for a while in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Later that spring, they returned to California to their Palo Alto residence. Hoover enjoyed returning to the men’s clubs that he had long been involved with, including the Bohemian Club, the Pacific-Union Club, and the University Club in San Francisco.
In 1936, Hoover entertained hopes of receiving the Republican presidential nomination again, and thus facing Roosevelt in a rematch. However, although he retained strong support among some delegates, there was never much hope of his being selected. He publicly endorsed the nominee, Kansas Governor Alf Landon. But Hoover might as well have been the nominee, since the Democrats virtually ignored Landon, and they ran against the former President himself, constantly attacking him in speeches and warning that a Landon victory would put Hoover back in the White House as the secret power “behind the throne”. Roosevelt won 46 of the 48 states, burying Landon in the Electoral College, and the Republican Party in Congress in another landslide.
In 1960 Hoover appeared at his final Republican National Convention. Since the 1948 convention, he had been feted as the guest of “farewell” ceremonies (the unspoken assumption being that the aging former President might not survive until the next convention). Joking to the delegates, he said, “Apparently, my last three good-byes didn’t take.” Although he lived to see the 1964 convention, ill health prevented him from attending. The Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater acknowledged Hoover’s absence in his acceptance speech.
Hoover died following massive internal bleeding at the age of 90 in his New York City suite at 11:35 a.m. on October 20, 1964, 31 years and seven months, sixteen days after leaving office. To date, he has the longest retirement of any President. Former President Jimmy Carter will surpass the length of Hoover’s retirement on September 7, 2012. At the time of his death he was the second longest-lived president after John Adams; both were since surpassed by Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. He had outlived by 20 years his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, who had died in 1944, and he was the last living member of the Coolidge administration. He also outlived both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt who died in 1945 and 1962, respectively. By the time of his death, he had rehabilitated his image.
Read more about Herbert Hoover here.