Having won the presidency in 1920 and overcome a post-war economic depression, to then survive the Teapot Dome and other Harding Administration scandals to win the presidency again in 1924, the Republicans went for a third try in 1928, nominating a man who had never been elected to any previous public office, but whose name was known in every household going back to World War I – Hoover.
In the late Teens’ Americans had been “Hooverizing,” by carefully appropriating their daily intake of food on “wheatless” and “meatless” days so Herbert Hoover, as Democratic President Woodrow Wilson‘s Food Administrator, could manage the nation’s food supplies so American troops and European refugees could survive. Now, the former Commerce Secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, was being touted as the man who promised Americans “achicken in every pot” if he was elected President. Furthermore, the economy under two successive Republicans had been so strong, that this third one now ventured the startling intention of eradicating poverty entirely.
Hoover greatly innovated campaigning, becoming the first major party candidate to undertake an extensive “whistlestop” tour around the nation, speaking to voters from the back platform of a railroad train.
Most notably, his professional life as an engineer had intrigued him early on with the technology of radio and he operated his own – which he was able to fix and adjust.
More importantly, he used radio to deliver a series of campaign speeches and also had his rallies broadcasted.
Even though his words were cautious and his speaking style almost purposefully dull, the novelty of it only furthered his image as a forward-looking leader.
In an increasingly mechanized world, Hoover’s “big brain” was often touted for its ability to easily grasp technical matters and his personal success as a millionaire spoke to a certain business efficiency he promised to bring to his presidency. It was a tone perfectly captured in the almost imperialistic Hoover campaign song, Hail Herbert Hoover, which put new lyrics to an old tune, with a hard, engineered beat:
So hip was he to what was trending that Hoover was the first to have his film biography crafted for voting audiences, entitled Master of Emergencies. It is rather lengthy and focuses on his humanitarian work in Belgium and during the Mississippi floods where he worked his magic as Secretary of Commerce. With typical modesty, Hoover doesn’t appear as the presidential candidate until the very end. Here it is:
It so well-produced, it often left crowds overcome with emotion, showing his visually steel demeanor combined with a super-human compassion helping those in need.
On Election Day, Hoover managed to even win five of the solidly Democratic southern states, largely on the anti-Catholicism and “dry” attitude among fundamentalist Protestants there towards the party’s candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, a Roman Catholic and overt supporter of overturning Prohibition, making him a “wet.”
One preacher warned the righteous on the radio that Al Smith was part of the movement associated with ”card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, nude art, prize-fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism.”
Six months after his March 1929 Inauguration as President, Hoover was faced with the great Wall Street crash, the dive in the stock market, the closing of businesses and the highest unemployment and most widespread homeless crisis the U.S. had ever faced. Not even his experience is saving much of Europe’s population after World War I prepared him for it and though he took actions, it proved too little, too late. The media depiction of the technocratic engineer suddenly morphed into a cold mechanic.
- 1928: Smith vs. Hoover (foreignaffairs.com)
- When Three Presidents Ran Against Each Other But Whiskey Won the Election: The 1912 Campaign Songs (carlanthonyonline.com)
- What Happened to Virtue? (sgtreport.com)
- Hoover May Haunt Romney, but Not Ryan (bloomberg.com)
- Incumbency Amid A Sagging Economy: Why Obama Is Hoover, Not Roosevelt (forbes.com)