Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Electing FDR

With shadows from 1929 appearing -- seemingly -- on the business (and front) pages every day, it is perhaps instructive to look back at the true "Great Depression", and the election held in 1932. (It is worth noting that there appears to be an increase in interest in the FDR era in pop culture at this time as well, from AMC's "Mad Men" and the "Hobo Code" to John McCain's memories of Pearl Harbor in his RNC Nomination Speech.)

Donald Ritchie's "Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932" begins with the rise of Herbert Hoover, self-made man, shortly after the turn of the century. By the end of the First World War, Hoover (then just 43 years old) was entrusted with the Food Administration, and had become a national figure. By 1920, some Washington wags were discussing a potential Hoover-FDR ticket on the Democratic side; Hoover demurred, and eventually declared himself a Republican. (It was interesting to learn that Hoover and Roosevelt were social acquaintances.)

By 1927, Hoover helped organize relief for the Mississippi River flood (the previous 'big one' that was referenced during Hurricane Katrina), and became the GOP nominee in 1928. Facing Al Smith, the New York Governor and first Catholic to head a party ticket, Hoover won with the promise of a "chicken in every pot, a car in every garage."

Four years later, promises of the "Hoover economy" had collapsed into the bitterness of "Hoovervilles" and "Hoover blankets" (newspapers). But he was relieved when FDR won the Democratic nomination in Chicago (holding off a challenge from his former mentor, Al Smith); Hoover felt that FDR would not be a tough opponent.

FDR for his part did not underestimate the incumbent, although Hoover did not campaign vigorously (employing the Rose Garden strategy) until very near the end. Moreover events moved against Hoover: a "Bonus March" of WWI veterans was broken up -- albeit over Hoover's orders for non-violence -- by calvary commanded by Douglas MacArthur (with assistance from Dwight D. Eisenhower). Public opinion -- which incredibly seemed split evenly between FDR and Hoover, although polling was in its infancy -- began to move against the sitting President.

In the end, the country was ready to turn to a fresh leader (although one with a familiar name). FDR tallied 22.8M votes against just 15.7M for Hoover.

The transition, which lasted through March, when FDR was sworn in, was marked by a near assassination (in Miami, when Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was struck and eventually died; the assassin was convicted and executed within 33 days after the shooting); and increasing tension between former associates Hoover and FDR.

Although the Depression would linger for much of the rest of the 1930s, the country was clearly headed in a new direction. Hoover's reluctant campaigning and bad luck (as evidenced by the Bonus March), combined with the crushing economic climate, made the result a foregone conclusion (in retrospect).

But the backstory -- and the personal relationship between the two combatants -- made the re-telling an interesting one, especially given the current business headlines.

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