When Presidents Lose
Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.
From our perspective it is laughable to think of Herbert Hoover winning re-election in 1932 after the Stock Market crash. But Hoover thought he would win.
Almost always incumbents have believed they would win. They are not deluded simpletons. Power hasn't corrupted them and turned their brains into mush. None as far as I know should have been committed.
But they are so used to winning -- they won the presidency after all, didn't they? -- that they find it hard to believe in their gut that they won't win.
Hoover had been a great success his whole life. An orphan, he had become a millionaire by the age of 30 (as he had intended) and then gone on to become the widely heralded hero of Belgium after he saved a generation from starvation at the end of World War I. In 1928 he swept to victory over the hapless Al Smith.
In 1932 he campaigned hard and went on an 11,000 train trip across the country to rally his supporters. Even on election day he campaigned.
That night, at his home near Stanford University, he retreated to a room to review the incoming telegrams providing news about the election. As Gene Smith tells the story in his fascinating book about Hoover, the president was devastated by the returns. He was losing in a landslide.
By the time he went downstairs to meet guests invited for a celebration with his old neighbors he was beside himself, so gaunt that he appeared to his old friends to be in a state of shock. They described his face as ashen and said that he seemed bewildered.
He went outside to greet a group of cheering students. He had to retreat quickly after he began to cry.
Bush I also was shocked to lose. He had believed in his heart that he would somehow pull out a victory. When the exit polls told a different story it was his eldest son, George W., who was sent in to tell the president he had lost.
As for the winners .... one imagines that they are delirious with joy. but few have been. More common was the reaction of FDR and Wilson. While others danced jigs in celebration, they wore stony faces as the sobering news settled in that they had become president.
FDR went over to see his mother, who declared that this was the happiest day of her life. But FDR was deeply troubled. That night as his son Jimmy helped him into bed, the president-elect mentioned that he had only had one fear in life: fire. As a polio victim he worried that he could not escape the flames should a conflagration occur. But as he lay down to sleep tonight he confessed that he felt a new fear. He worried that he did not have the strength to meet the challenge of being president.
It is strange to think of FDR as fearful. We remember him most perhaps for his clarion call to courage: "The only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself."