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William E. Leuchtenburg: Bush Is No Hoover

Roundup: Historians' Take




[William E. Leuchtenburg is the author of In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush. Times Books/Henry Holt will publish his biography of Herbert Hoover in January.]

At various points throughout his administration, George W. Bush has been likened to Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, to Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley. But during his second term, a consensus has been forming on the president he most brings to mind. As early as the fall of 2006, historian Douglas Brinkley wrote that Bush "has joined [Herbert] Hoover as a case study on how not to be president," and the comparison has only become more commonplace since then. A television ad sponsored by MoveOn.org asserted, "George Bush is going to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to lead an economy that loses jobs," and Senator Charles Schumer of New York declared, "The president's hands-off attitude is reminiscent of Herbert Hoover in 1929 and 1930."

Not until the credit meltdown of the past few weeks raised new doubts about Republican policies, however, did the analogy reach its current pitch of intensity. On ABC's This Week, Cokie Roberts remarked, "Whenever Republicans get into this kind of mess ... the specter of Herbert Hoover comes out to haunt them." During the debate on the bailout, conservative Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, after saying that "this bill offends my principles," announced he was going to vote for it. "This is a Herbert Hoover moment," he explained. "He made some big mistakes in the Great Depression, and we have lived with those consequences for decades. Let's not make that mistake."

But these statements about Hoover provide a grossly distorted view of history. In contrast to George W. Bush, who, as the Yale historian Beverly Gage has said, "stood by and didn't forge a clear direction" as the housing market collapsed around him, President Hoover moved in unprecedented ways to cope with economic calamity. Two days after entering the White House in March 1929, Hoover, who for years had been warning about "the fever of speculation," exhorted Federal Reserve officials to rein in brokers and investment bankers. Following the Black Monday stock market crash that October, he summoned leaders of industry and finance to the White House, where he implored them to maintain wage rates; he urged Congress and state and local governments to accelerate public works spending; he prodded the Federal Reserve Board to expand credit; and he encouraged a newly created Federal Farm Board to bolster crop prices.

Hoover also took pains to assure the nation that "the fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis." In recent days, Bush has echoed these words--as any president seeking to sustain public confidence should. But there is a difference. Hoover spoke less than a year after his landslide victory, near the peak of his prestige. People listened. Bush has been speaking in the waning days of his presidency, and his approval ratings are abysmal. Few heed.

The Depression entered a second phase in the spring of 1931 when the collapse of Austria's foremost bank, Kreditanstalt, sent shock waves through Europe, and, once again, Hoover took command. Alarmed that extremists might seize power in Germany, he hazarded bold initiatives: a moratorium on World War I debts payment and approval of the charter of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an unparalleled intervention into the market by the federal government in peacetime. To supplement the RFC, he advocated legislation to undergird mortgages and to liberalize requirements for the issue of Federal Reserve notes. Today these measures seem modest, but, at the time, Business Week called the law to ease credit "perhaps the most powerful dose of monetary medicine that has ever been applied to the strengthening of the banking system in a similar period."

So conspicuous was the activism of a man reputed to be a do-nothing president that some historians perceive Hoover to be the progenitor of the New Deal. But that view is absurd. Even during the first two phases of the Depression, Hoover exhibited an almost pathological fear of granting federal relief to the impoverished. By the time the Depression had entered its third phase--the banking crisis of his last weeks in office--he had become a prisoner of economic orthodoxy, obsessed with balancing the budget.

Indeed, Hoover does resemble Bush in a number of regrettable ways. He was stubborn and often myopic. He rejected counsel that did not accord with his misconceptions, and he deceived himself that conditions were far better than they were. He agreed to a massive federal program only after a long period of resistance, and he appointed men to administer it who had small sympathy for government intrusion into the private sector. He favored aid to financial institutions, but not to the victims of hard times. He was nonplused about how to stanch the hemorrhaging when the financial illness became an epidemic. Furthermore, he failed to inspirit the nation. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, said, "If you put a rose in Hoover's hand, it would wilt." Even revisionist historians who view Hoover kindly concede that his was a failed presidency.

Still, it's unfortunate that commentators and politicians are employing "Hoover" as an epithet for inaction. ...
Read entire article at New Republic

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Randll Reese Besch - 10/24/2008

Bush supports business over state and individual lives. He would rather people starve and be homeless than take one cent from the grotesquely wealthy. To me that is Herbert Hoover. Not inaction.

Just look at the Bushvilles growing in California.