Let’s return to our March Madness Presidential Pool. I’d begun to work on a series of blog posts for a presidential bracket. I think it is a fun way to look at some of the lesser known attributes of some of our Chief Executives, to think about what makes a good president, and to perhaps rethink some of our own prejudices and notions about America’s political history. 44 presidents (including two Grover Clevelands) rounded out the field (Zack Taylor, Barack Obama and William Harrison have already exited the tournament) and compete in four different regions for the title of best president of all time. The Rose Garden Region wrapped up the play-in games in my last post–today we will move on to the West Wing Region. Things to consider:
- Problems that the president faced internationally or domestically and how he dealt with them.
- Problems that he caused internationally or domestically and how he dealt with them.
- How the president affected the prestige of the office or conducted himself.
- Short term positive or negative effects of the presidency.
- Long term positive or negative effects of the presidency.
- How did the president upheld the oath of office?
- How did he use presidential power?
- How the president changed or shaped the presidency–was he shaped by events or did he control the narrative?
The West Wing Region:
Benjamin Harrison (8) v. Herbert Hoover (9)
This matchup might seem a little lopsided since Herbert Hoover is widely recognized as the cause of the Great Depression, prohibition and polio too. It is unclear from his memoirs if true, but Hoover is also widely suspected of being a vampire. Prototypical Republican. The criticism and suspicion of poor Herbert Hoover knows no end. In addition to being the renowned developer of Hooverville mobile homes, for years (according to presidential historian Robert Ferrell) it was even widely (and erroneously) believed that Hoover had once tried to flee the country with a suitcase full of gold bullion stolen from Fort Knox!
Hoover was a brilliant economic (and geological) engineer by most counts and had worked in the Wilson Administration’s post-war efforts in Europe to feed refugees (Lyons 25). Hoover coordinated the feeding of millions of starving people, so perhaps the charges of being a super-villian might be displaced and a re-examination of his presidency in order? Is Hoover a talented underachiever or under-appreciated major conference also-ran?
The Great Depression that began a year after Hoover was elected cast a pall over his presidency and ultimately ended it. The times, it is said by James David Barber, are “the political air the President has the breathe.” (7)* In this sense, Hoover was doomed from October of 1929 on, no matter what he did. Otherwise well educated historians are taught even today that Hoover’s failure was because of his inaction and staunch belief in limited government. This is, however, untrue. This myth likely stems from the book written under Hoover’s name in 1922 called ‘American Individualism’ (it was written by someone else). As Robert Ferrell explains, Hoover believed that the government should spend tax dollars on scientific research, highways and other “great major purposes”, even supporting the subsidizing of industries if there was a great public purpose. Subsidizing services, Hoover however believed, would create special interest groups and would destroy America (152). Prophetic, no?.
This is not how Herbert Hoover governed. Hoover intervened in the stock market in 1931, issued a moratorium of war debt owed by Europe to the U.S., issued tax deductions and reductions and supported the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Agricultural Reform and Glass-Steagall Acts. Hoover attempted to implement a 2.5 percent Federal sales tax, urged massive public works expansions and stable wage-rates, and increased Federal public expenditures by $500,000,000. Hoover also signed into law the largest tax increase in history which raised the top marginal rate by 200%, as Landmark Legal Foundation founder Mark Levin details in his book ‘Liberty and Tyranny’. Hoover’s policies at the time were even termed “limited socialism.” (Allen 52)
There were three major periods in Hoover’s presidency. The 8 months of supposed prosperity before the Crash, the first Depression following October of 1929, and the second Depression caused by the European crisis. Even before the Stock Crash, Hoover was aware of its imminence and even though this was not considered a presidential power, he, along with the Federal Reserve Board tried to prune back speculation by convincing banks to keep rates high. They didn’t. The storm clouds broke in October, and it was not Hoover’s fault–the causes of the Great Depression lay, surprisingly, in the Great War. William Meyers writes that the Depression was undoubtedly caused by Woodrow Wilson’s World War, which influenced the various monetary, credit, and fiscal proclivities which led to the Depression.
It is in how Hoover handled his disasters that he fell short. Hoover, like much of America, believed that “Happy Days Are Here Again” (the song penned in November following the Crash). Hoover thought that the Depression might merely be but a national headache, but the contagion spread and was in actuality more like a virulent flu. In 1930, however, a poll revealed that unemployment still only registered 18th place on Americans’ list of problems for the country, and still only fourth by 1931(Allen 31). So, Hoover was not alone. The 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff bill Hoover signed, coupled with a money supply diminished by 30% over the next three years by the Reserve and by Congress cutting off lines of available credit, ignited a trade war and deepened the Depression.
By the time the economy began to recover, the European crisis of 1931 plunged the world back into Depression, deeper and darker than before, in part due to the government interventions preceding it. 12 to 13 million found themselves unemployed in 1932 (Allen 57) and the Bonus Army fiasco, where thousands of unemployed veterans marched on Washington making Hoover a prisoner in his own White House sealed Hoover’s fate. Even though over the last 6 months of his term the economy began to slowly recover, it was not fast enough and FDR won election and implemented many of the very same policies Hoover had fashioned himself, to a now much more receptive electorate.
Hoover’s was a presidency of preparation for the welfare state to come. His presidency and the events that transpired during it conditioned Americans for the changes to come during FDR’s reign. At the time, Congress, the people, Hoover, nor even FDR had the stomach for the massive Federal expenditures that were eventually seen during FDR’s term and which are now seen (erroneously) as the remedy to the Depression (WWII ended the Depression and unemployment had risen to 18% by 1938). FDR had even campaigned in 1932 on his promise to slash Federal expenditures by 25% and to balance the budget, though this never happened and FDR later denied ever having promised to do so (Ferrell 154).
Still, it is generally accepted in casual historical parlance that it was Hoover’s lack of action that deepened the Depression and FDR’s promise of a more expansive welfare state that remedied it. Hoover’s limited socialism was replaced by FDR’s full-blown (Eduard Bernstein-styled) socialism–and America’s subsequent state capitalism. The system-threatening events caused by government interventions into the markets caused further interventions, and have given us the modern welfare state, despite Hoover’s reputation for opposing it.
Hoover worked tirelessly if ineffectually to end the Depression that shaped his presidency. He was trained as an engineer, not as a politician–he failed to shape Congressional policy and the national ethos at times when that was exactly what was needed. America did not need an Administrator only, they needed a salesman and a showman. Hoover was neither sales nor showman, and stubbornly refused to be so. During the economic crisis, the Bonus Army fiasco and other instances, Hoover demonstrated a lack of influence and a lack of savvy that became a hallmark of successful presidencies afterward. It is this that was the fatal flaw in Hoover’s presidency.
Republican Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland by 100,000 votes but carried a sizable Electoral College majority into his presidency. A lawyer at heart and in deed, Harrison promised a “Legal Deal”, appointing lawyers and businessmen primarily to his cabinet (King, Presidential Leadership 116). He detested the spoils system that was popular in politics at the time and was committed in principle to both the Constitution and the rule of law. A fine lawyer, indeed.
Six states entered the Union during Harrison’s term, North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming. Harrison proposed and passed a billion dollar peacetime appropriation to construct steamships and increase the strength of the Navy and internationally was able to avoid conflicts with several potential adversaries. Long term, Harrison appointed four Supreme Court Justices in his four years, influencing the Court significantly.
Harrison was, however, blindsided in 1893 by the second worst Depression in U.S. history and according to Jessica King, a Harrison scholar, the Depression was in large part due to the silver purchase and the McKinley Tariff, which was passed by a Democratic Congress and was supported by the president. His term was ended when Cleveland returned for another go around and became the first president to win the popular vote three times.
Harrison might be viewed as a mediocre, perhaps even halfway decent president had the policies he supported not led the country into a devastating Depression. Harrison was thereby a pretty bad president, and the short term effects of his tenure were terrible–but the long term implications of his presidency were relatively small.
In this way, determining which president deserves to advance is difficult. Hoover was not really responsible for the worst Depression in history, but he directly exacerbated it through his policies and his lack of leadership. However, Harrison’s meddling in the economy was a direct cause of just the second worst Depression ever. Where this matchup should perhaps be decided is in overtime. The long term effects of Harrison’s presidency were fairly innocuous. Hoover’s long term effects damaged the national psyche and ushered in a century of statism. Harrison wins at the buzzer.
Next: John Q. Adams (8) v. Andrew Johnson (11)
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Since Yesterday. Harper & Brothers Publishing: New York,
• Barber, James David. The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance In the
White House. 4th Ed. Prentice Hall, 1992.
Ferrell, Robert in Presidential Leadership. The Wall Street Journal and Free Press: New York, 2005.
• Lyons, Eugene. Our Unknown Ex-President: A Portrait of Herbert Hoover. Garden
City: Doubleday, 1948.
Myers, William S., and Walter H. Newton. The Hoover Administration: A
Documented Narrative. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1936.