The Boom-to-Bust Presidents--Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover
The Roaring Twenties: economic prosperity, Jazz, flappers, Art Deco, radio, silent movies, automobiles, commercial aviation, and unprecedented industrial growth. Riding the crest was our 29th president, who jumped-started the slumping post-war economy by lowering taxes and enacting protective tariffs. The party mood inside the White House, like the booming economy, was destined not to last.
WARREN G. HARDING (1921-1923) — Warren Gamaliel Harding was not the first president known for malapropisms, merely the most famous. His campaign slogan was “A Return to Normalcy.” The New York press said there was no such word in the dictionary, that the actual word listed was “normality.” In language Donald Trump would appreciate, Harding blamed the media. It was they who were wrong, not he. “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary and I do not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I did find, and it is a good word.” Thanks to our 29th president, “normalcy” is now listed in American dictionaries, just ahead of “normality.” You could say it was President Harding’s greatest triumph in an administration known for mediocrity, corruption, and, alas, two more words forever associated with his presidency: "Teapot Dome".
Nominated by the Republican Party as a compromise candidate after an undistinguished career as a senator from Ohio, Harding swept into office by promising “a return to normalcy” after the trauma of World War I and the progressive upheavals of the past four presidencies. And while he did keep a number of campaign promises—lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, raising tariffs to protect American business, limiting immigration, and reducing the size of government—he looked the other way while corrupt cronies known as the Ohio Gang turned the White House into their personal fiefdom, extracting bribes, “loans,” and a variety of other awards from anyone who could be persuaded to deposit money into their personal bank accounts. The most egregious example was the scandal known as Teapot Dome, the region in Wyoming used by Harding’s secretary of the interior to extract bribes from several oil companies in exchange for granting them the leases to drill there. Add these scandals to rumors of Harding’s extra-marital affairs (one of which produced a child out of wedlock) and his excessive drinking in the White House, and it’s easy to see why historians rank him just ahead of James Buchanan on the scale of worst presidents ever.
CALVIN COOLIDGE (1923-29) — Calvin Coolidge has the distinction of being the only president to be sworn into office by his father, a local notary in Vermont, where Coolidge happened to be when he learned of Harding’s untimely death. Known as Silent Cal, our 30th president knew what he was about. He was about frugality and small government. He cut taxes three times, including lowering the top marginal rate from 58% to 25%. He resorted to the pocket veto 50 times. He limited immigration, refused federal aid to farmers, and declined to use government power to check the economic boom. He was paraphrased as saying, “The business of America is business.” What he actually said was, “The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” The economy responded to Coolidge’s tax cuts with 4% real growth, unemployment below 5%, and a large government surplus. On Coolidge’s watch “The Roaring Twenties” kicked into high gear. More people than ever before had money to spend and leisure time to fill.
Despite his reputation as a quiet and even reclusive politician, Coolidge made himself available to reporters, giving 520 press conferences, meeting with reporters more regularly than any president before or since. He also made use of the new medium of radio on a number of occasions. His second inauguration was the first presidential inauguration broadcast on radio.
Throughout his term, Coolidge viewed with approval the steadily rising stock market and saw no sign of the coming stock market crash. In fact, the president believed the surging prosperity of the time validated his philosophy of governing. When his first full term came to an end in 1928, the country was still thriving, but Coolidge decided not to run for re-election. “Ten years in Washington is enough for any man,” he said. Coolidge returned to his Vermont home where he fished, wrote a column for the newspaper, and, having seen the economy come crashing down, died in 1933. Today’s conservatives look back and see another Ronald Reagan and wonder why he is not rated higher on the scale of presidential greatness. Currently he is rated 26th, behind Gerald R. Ford and ahead of Rutherford B. Hayes.
HERBERT HOOVER (1929-1933) — Prior to running for president, Herbert Hoover served under Presidents Harding and Coolidge as Secretary of Commerce. By most accounts, he did an outstanding job. Coolidge, however, was reluctant to endorse him for president. On one occasion he remarked, "For six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad.” Warren Harding described Herbert Hoover as “dictatorial and autocratic.” One wonders if such criticism would have received attention if Hoover’s presidency had not been overwhelmed by the Great Depression.
Prior to being elected president, Herbert Hoover had a reputation for being a can-do guy. He made his fortune in mining, and his reputation in humanitarian work. During World War I, his humanitarian efforts included organizing the return of 120,000 Americans from Europe, and administering the distribution of over two million tons of food to nine million war victims. At its peak, Hoover’s American Relief Administration fed 10.5 million people daily. After the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head up the U.S. Food Administration. Hoover’s philosophy: “Food will win the war.” After the war, Hoover organized shipments of food for millions of starving people in Central Europe and to famine-stricken, Bolshevik-controlled areas of Russia, despite opposition from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republican leaders. Asked if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover replied, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.”
After World War I, Hoover was faced with a host of political possibilities. The Democrats saw him as a potential presidential candidate, and President Wilson privately preferred Hoover as his successor. “There could not be a finer one,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a rising star in New York. Hoover considered being a Democrat, but he had been a registered Republican since before the war and believed that 1920 would be a Republican year. Despite having no experience in elected office, he ran for that party’s nomination, only to lose to Warren G. Harding. Believing Harding was woefully inadequate for the job, Hoover nonetheless campaigned for him. In turn, Harding made him Secretary of Commerce.
Hoover’s skill as a manager of relief efforts was put to use once more, during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Water burst from the banks and levies of the lower Mississippi River to flood millions of acres and leaving 1.5 million people displaced from their homes. Although disaster relief did not fall under the duties of the Commerce Department, the governors of six states along the Mississippi River specifically asked for Hoover to head up the government’s relief effort. President Coolidge agreed. Hoover mobilized state and local authorities, militia, army engineers, the Coast Guard, and the America Red Cross. He also set up health units in flooded areas which stamped out malaria, pellagra, and typhoid fever.
With his name in the headlines, Hoover ran for president once more, promising “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” This time he was elected—overwhelmingly. After eight months in office, the stock market nose dived, ultimately putting millions out of work, and Hoover was faced with yet another relief program. He enacted large-scale government public works, projects such as the Hoover Dam, and called on industry to keep wages high.
Two decisions, however, proved toxic to any hope of reviving the economy: (1) he reluctantly approved the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, the result of which sent foreign trade spiraling downward, and (2) because he believed it was essential to balance the budget despite falling tax revenue, he raised the tax rate. Combined, these decisions sent the economy tumbling downward and unemployment soaring upward to 25%. Heavy industry, mining and wheat and cotton farming were hit hardest.
With a quarter of the nation out of work, combined with his support for prohibition that had lost favor, the stage was set for Hoover’s crushing defeat in 1932 by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hoover hadn’t caused the Great Depression, but as one of three Republican presidencies leading up to it, the nation held him accountable. However misleading, the impression persisted that he lived high while doing nothing to revive the nation’s stalled economy. That, coupled with the image of displaced Americans residing in shanty “Hoovervilles” across the country, sealed his fate.
After World War II, Hoover’s image received a boost from a suprising source. Learning that the ex-president was in Washington, staying at a hotel, President Harry Truman (a democrate) telephoned Hoover and asked if he would like to come and see his “old home.” Hoover accepted, so Truman sent a car to pick him up. Hoover walked into the White House and broke into tears when Truman asked him to survey world food supplies. “Mr President,” he said, “since 1932, no one has asked me to do anything for my country. You are the first one.” In 1947, Truman put Hoover on a commission to reorganize executive departments; the panel elected him to be their chairman. Eisenhower appointed him to a similar commission in 1953.
Hoover passed away in 1964, age 90, his public service having spanned five decades.