A History of the First Iowa Caucus (and why winning in Iowa may not matter)

By Kaleena Fraga

And they’re off! After years (years) of political posturing by the Democrats, the campaign of 2020 will begin in earnest today, in Iowa.

What did the first Iowa caucus look like? And does winning in Iowa even matter in the general election?

Iowa Caucus of 1972: The Players

Participating in primaries became newly important after the chaotic campaign of 1968. In 1972 the Democrats gathered in Iowa to give this form of politicking a serious try.

Their goal? To excise the ghosts of 1968 and to make Richard Nixon a one-term president. (They would fail—Nixon’s sweeping reelection victory gave him every state but Massachusetts.)

And in fact the election of 1972 contained significant echoes of 1968. Three of the ’68 candidates, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern, had decided to run again. “Run” is a tricky word here. Of the three, only Eugene McCarthy had participated in the ’68 primaries. Humphrey joined the race in April, too late to participate, and McGovern didn’t join the campaign until after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

(This time, there would be no Kennedy in the race. In July of 1969, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge, killing his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. ‎Kennedy would run for president in 1980, unsuccessfully.)

Humphrey had won the nomination in 1968. It was a tough victory, marred by Kennedy’s assassination in June, the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and Humphrey’s association with an unpopular president, Lyndon Johnson. Still, he’d lost the general election by less than 1% of the vote and wanted another go.

In 1972, the alums of the 1968 election were joined by Edmund Muskie, a Senator from Maine.

Who won the Iowa caucus in 1972?

As to who would win the day in Iowa? Drumroll, please—

No one.

Technically, Muskie won with 35.5% of the vote. But 35.8% of Iowa voters signaled that they were uncommitted.

Muskie had a healthy lead over the runner up, George McGovern, who earned 22.6% of the vote. Fascinatingly, Muskie fell into a common pitfall of Iowa victors: The win wasn’t enough. In fact, it was a bad sign. The New York Times noted:

But the victory of the Maine Democrat, widely considered the front‐runner for his party’s Presidential nomination, was clouded by the unexpectedly strong showing of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.

The real victory, wrote the Times belonged to McGovern:

For Mr. McGovern, who has struggled since January, 1970, to convince the press and the public that he is something more than a fringe candidate, the Iowa results provided a lift in the final weeks before the New Hampshire primary on March 7.

McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, called McGovern’s victory a “moral” one.

All of this goes to show how tricky Iowa can be. A victory is not a victory; a defeat is not a defeat. Beating expectations is often more powerful than an outright win.

Of course, losing can be tricky, too. Just ask Howard Dean.

What does a victory in Iowa mean? Not much

In fact, many candidates who win in Iowa find defeat further down the trail. Muskie’s campaign would fall apart in New Hampshire, when he was accused of crying in front of the press. (Muskie blamed snow on his face.)

Gerald Ford won the Republican’s first Iowa caucus in 1976, but lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter. The trend started by Ford and Muskie, of winning in Iowa only to lose later on, was continued by Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, Tom Harkin (the eventual nominee, Bill Clinton, got less than 3% of the vote), Al Gore, John Kerry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz. In Iowa, victory is often-short lived.

Those who won Iowa and then the presidency are a smaller group: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama won both in Iowa and in the general election.

So what does the Iowa caucus really mean? Nothing—and everything. Since 1972, we’ve certainly seen that anything can happen. And anything can mean anything, depending on how you can spin your results.

What Did the World Look Like in 1920?

2020 is already off to a dynamic start. What was the state of the world 100 years ago, as it rolled into a new decade?

By Kaleena Fraga

The new year has certainly gotten off to an eventful start. In the first month of 2020, we’ve seen massive fires, sabre rattling, an impeachment trial in the United States, and the end (or the beginning?) of the Brexit saga in the EU. Whew. So what did the world look like 100 years ago? Did people at the time feel that the 1920s started on a similarly chaotic foot?

Obviously (obviously) we’re all about the presidential side of things. So what was the White House situation in January of 1920?

The presidency in January 1920

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson was completing his second term in office. Or, was he? While rallying support for his League of Nations plan in October 1919, the president suffered a debilitating stroke. His wife, Edith effectively took control.

Without the 25th amendment, which would not be ratified for another half-century, there was no way to remove Wilson from office. Not that many people knew about his stroke—in the pre-social media age, Edith Wilson was effectively able to keep her husband’s condition under wraps.

The president’s wife later denied that she’d ever served as president herself, but she did acknowledge her “stewardship” of Wilson’s last year in office.

The average American had no idea. They weren’t habitually checking Twitter like some of us do today.

Presidential campaigns in 1920

As in 2020, 1920 was an election year. Wilson, a Democrat, had broken up a reign of Republicans that had existed since the Civil War. (Wilson and Grover Cleveland were the only Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932.)

Americans wondered who their candidates would be—especially because Theodore Roosevelt, who had energetically barnstormed for a third term in 1912, had died one year earlier, in January 1919. (A Roosevelt would be on the ticket in 1920—Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats.) In January 1920, it seemed that the country might see William Jennings Bryan run—again.

Despite his health, Wilson hoped for a third term. It wouldn’t be. He received little support from the party and died four years later. In any case, Wilson believed that campaigns required vigorous time on the stump. As Jeffrey Normand Bourdon so eloquently describes in his book From Garfield to Harding: The Success of Midwest Porch Campaigns working the stump resulted in victory for Wilson 3/4 times. But in 1920, the ill president could hardly pick up the reins of his old campaign technique.

Which resulted in a fascinating twist. Although the campaign would not start in earnest until the summer (reminder: the 2020 campaign has been dragging on for two years), the Republican nominee and eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, resorted to front-porch campaigning. This technique, as Bourdon describes, had served as a happy medium between seeking the presidency and letting “the office choose the man”—i.e., displaying none of the presidential ambition that was considered fatal in the 19th century.

Popular in the late 19th century, front porch campaigning had lost its shine as great orators like Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan made their mark on American presidential campaigns. But it had proven effective for James Garfield and William McKinley, and Harding went this direction as well.

Harding campaigned on a “Return to Normalcy” and “America First” following the end of WWI. His campaign marketed him as a patriotic family man. Waving to crowds from his front-porch, this was easy for voters to accept. His opponent, James Cox, was divorced. This made Harding’s front-porch persona all the more appetizing.

Harding’s status as a married man gave him a special boost in 1920, the first year American women could vote. The divorced Cox, at a disadvantaged, was portrayed as desperate for women’s votes. A judge involved with Cox’s case told the Los Angeles Times he believed the candidate’s divorce would cost Mr. Cox “a million votes.”

In the end, Harding carried the day by about seven million votes. The victory would be short lived. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, elevating his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to the White House.

The state of the world in 1920

But what did the world look like in 1920? Did the year burst into being with the same cascade of events that we’ve seen in 2020?

The new year picked up to a brisk start. Billy Joel could write a song about it. In January alone, an earthquake hit Mexico; the Treaty of Versailles was ratified (without the United States); Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees, Prohibition began, launching an era of bootlegs and speakeasies—the list goes on and on. The war had ended in November of 1918, but the world was still untangling the results. We all know how that turned out.

In summary, life continued to charge forward. In 1920, as in 2020, each day brought an avalanche of something different. But maybe it felt slower. After all, people in 1920 couldn’t spend all day watching events unfold across their phone screen.

The President and the Radio: FDR’s First Fireside Chat

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the first of his famous fireside chats.

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

It had never been done before. Or, it had, but not like this. On March 12, 1933, sixty million Americans listened to Roosevelt’s first radio address. Thus began a tradition that continued throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. The “fireside chats,” as journalist Robert Trout coined them, became a cornerstone of American life, as the country struggled with the Great Depression and toppled towards war.

Roosevelt wasn’t the first president to use radio to communicate with the country. Calvin Coolidge had given the first ever White House radio address, when he eulogized Warren G. Harding. Herbert Hoover had also used radio, both as a campaign tool and to give radio addresses, but he came across as much more formal than Roosevelt.

For example, during a radio address that Hoover gave on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1931, a little over a year since the markets had crashed, Hoover started like this:

“The Federal Government has assumed many new responsibilities since Lincoln’s time, and will probably assume more in the future when the States and local communities cannot alone cure abuse or bear the entire cost of national programs, but there is an essential principle that should be maintained in these matter.”

By contrast, Roosevelt’s first fireside chat started like this:

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks.”

After Roosevelt’s address, letters poured into the White House in support of the president.

Virginia Miller wrote: “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your splendid explanation of the Bank situation on last evening’s broadcast.”

Viola Hazelberger wrote: “I have regained faith in the banks due to your earnest beliefs.”

And James A. Green said: “You have a marvelous radio voice, distinct and clear. It almost seemed the other night, sitting in my easy chair in the library, that you were across the room from me.”

Suddenly the president seemed accessible. Whereas Herbert Hoover had averaged about 5,000 letters a week, the number of people writing to Roosevelt leapt to 50,000.

It’s no wonder, then, that Trout announced to Americans: “the president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat.” The title stuck. It did feel, to many people, as if the president was sitting in their parlor.

Roosevelt came at the right time. The radio age had just begun, and it only grew during his twelve years in office. About forty percent of Americans had a radio at the beginning of FDR’s term—five years in, almost ninety percent of Americans had a radio.

Certainly it was one thing to have a radio and a large audience, but quite another to speak with the eloquence and clarity that FDR used while speaking to the country (just ask Herbert Hoover). Roosevelt succeeded in reaching a great number of Americans, and giving a boost to their confidence.

Other presidents have similarly used new technologies to communicate with a mass audience. An obvious example is President Trump’s use of Twitter. President Obama used Facebook, and even appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to promote his health care legislation. President Kennedy, too, used the new power of television to reach more Americans. Kennedy gave the first live televised press conference.

Eight-six years ago in 1933, Roosevelt ended his address like this:

“After all, there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.

It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

Garfield, Guiteau & the Unrealized Presidency

By Molly Bloom

“This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever; not even for a day.” James A. Garfield reportedly spoke these words on the night before his inauguration as President of the United States in 1881. In a field of ambitious career politicians and war heroes, including former president Ulysses S. Grant, Garfield inexplicably received the Republican nomination without participating in a campaign or even desiring to run in the first place.

Garfield’s upbringing was practically the inspiration for a Horatio Alger novel. (In fact, Alger wrote a “biography” of Garfield, From Canal Boy to President, which was more similar to Alger’s fictionalized narratives than factual). Garfield was born in a log cabin and grew up on a small farm in Ohio. His father had died before Garfield turned two; as a result, his family was so impoverished that he did not own a pair of shoes until he was four years old. Garfield was raised by his widowed mother and older siblings before leaving to work on the Erie Canal when he was 16, but he always sought to better himself through education. He worked as a teacher before and after attending Williams College and graduated salutatorian. He went on to pass the bar in Ohio, became a colonel in the Union Army, and served in Congress as a Republican at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln.

After seventeen years as a congressman, Garfield was seen as a political leader in the Republican Party, and yet he continually turned down requests to run for a higher office. During the Republican nomination of 1880, Garfield was in attendance to deliver the speech announcing the nomination of fellow Ohioan John Sherman. After 35 ballots in which no candidate reached the necessary 379 votes for the nomination, the 36th vote led to Garfield’s surprise nomination as the Republican candidate, eventually leading to his election as president.

james garfield memorial
Garfield memorial in Cleveland, OH

It is generally believed that Garfield would have been an excellent and progressive president, had he been given the chance. As a supporter of civil rights, he was endorsed by Frederick Douglass and secured votes from many freed slaves. Education, free trade, and civil liberties were all causes that Garfield believed were important for the progress of the nation following the Civil War. Yet, his presidency was cut short by an assassination attempt by Charles Guiteau and the poor medical treatment that he received in the aftermath. No one can say for sure if Garfield would have secured his place as one of the most effective US presidents- he was shot approximately four months into his term.

Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau may have seen much of himself in the presient. Both born into poverty in the Midwest, the two men were drawn to Christianity and education as a means to learn more about the world around them and advance their lives. While Garfield’s education drove him to serve in the Union Army and enter the House of Representatives, Guiteau joined a cult. He moved to the Oneida Community in upstate New York to follow the religious tenets of the community’s leader, John Humphrey Noyes.

The Oneida Community was a utopian commune founded, as most cults are, by an egotistical and religiously fanatic leader. Noyes believed that he was a flawless human who was granted by God the mission of helping others reach similar perfection. One concern in the commune was humans’ tendency toward monogamy; therefore, cult members practiced free love and sex to ensure that they stay away from monogamous relationships and avoid connecting too strongly to one person.

Despite Guiteau’s initial interest in the cult, he never quite fit into the community. Other members saw him as strange and egotistical. Guiteau felt that he, not Noyes, was the person to whom God spoke and believed that the commune members should be indebted to him and his power. Guiteau eventually left the cult, as he felt that he was unable to carry out the mission that God had set forth for him.

charles guiteau
Charles Guiteau

After leaving the Oneida Community, Guiteau continued from one profession to another, attempting to feed his delusions of grandeur and receive recognition. Even his family believed that he was mentally ill and tried to have him committed to an asylum; however, Guiteau eventually turned his interest to politics. He wrote a speech “Grant vs. Hancock” for the anticipated campaign in 1880, but once Garfield emerged as the Republican nominee, Guiteau made a few small adjustments so that the speech would fit Garfield, instead. Guiteau was given the chance to deliver the speech to an audience in New York, but he was only able to speak for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and leaving the scene. Continuing his pattern of misplaced self-importance, he felt that his speech was a major factor in Garfield’s election and that there should be a proportionate reward. After being rejected by various government staff, he decided to shoot Garfield in a manic state where he believed God willed the outcome and that a fellow member of the Stalwart faction of Republicans, Vice President Chester Arthur, ought to become president.

On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield twice, once grazing his arm and once in his back, at the Baltimore and Potomac railway station in Washington D.C. The New York Times reported that Guiteau stated, “I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”

After carrying Garfield on a mattress into a private room, doctors began to search for the bullet, which was the standard medical practice at the time. Many doctors used unhygienic tools and fingers to reach into the gunshot wound and attempted to locate and remove the bullet. Furthermore, when the president was bandaged, the dressings were not sterile. This lack of care was fatal to Garfield.

The most tragic part of the story is that Garfield could have recovered from his injuries had doctors been more careful and thoughtful in the aftermath of the gunshot wound. As Candice Millard writes in Destiny of the Republic, “Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital. Even had Garfield been simply left alone, he almost certainly would have survived” (178). The poor medical care and resulting infections led to his death, and Guiteau even claimed in his trial that medical malpractice, not the gunshots, killed the president. Despite this defense, Guiteau was found guilty and hanged in 1882.

Garfield died 137 years ago on September 19th, 1881. The presidency of a man who never had ambitions to hold the office was cut short and left his term in relative obscurity. Garfield is often remembered for his assassination (the second in sixteen years), but his humble background and the unlikely Republican nomination are extraordinary details that would have certainly been remembered had his presidency lasted longer. What he would have done as president is hard to say, but Garfield was living proof that a president can be for the people and by the people without the egotism and ambition that plague many politicians.

Sources:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Herbert Hoover Edition

By Aaron Bauer

Herbert Hoover, our 31st president, lives in the popular memory as an unmitigated failure. The stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression began just six months after he took office and the calamity deepened throughout his time as president. Though his leadership and policies did not measure up to the greatest economic disaster in the nation’s history, Hoover deserves to be remembered as more than a failure. By the time of his election in 1928, he had accomplish so much, and on such a grand scale, that he was called the “most useful American citizen now alive” in the press. So, in honor of his 144th birthday on August 10th, let’s take a look at the extraordinary life of Herbert Hoover.

His had humble and tragic beginnings. Born in the tiny Quaker settlement of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover lost both parents to illness by age 10. Shuffled between various relatives, he eventually landed with a cold, disciplinarian uncle in Oregon. Hoover showed an aptitude for business as a teenager and rose to an important role in his uncle’s real estate company before leaving to study geology as a member of Stanford University’s inaugural class.

At 22, Hoover passed himself off as 35 and landed a job in Australia as an agent of the famous London mining firm Bewick, Moreing and Company. He proved to be something of a wunderkind. With a good instinct for a mine’s prospects and a ruthless ability to improve an operation’s efficiency, Hoover was a tremendous asset to his employers and enjoyed a rapid series of promotions. After just two years on the job, Bewick, Moreing & Co. recalled him to London, made him a junior partner, and sent him to supervise a massive mining operation in China. When he made full partner at age 27, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hoover was “reputed to be the highest salaried man of his years in the world.” He was also one of the most well-traveled—Hoover would circumnavigate the globe five times before his 35th birthday.

The outbreak of World War I found Hoover in London, running his own mining consulting company with offices in cities across the world. Hoover was horrified by the events of the war, and not just on the battlefield. As part of its invasion of France, Germany had occupied Belgium. This had brought the British in against Germany, and the British fleet set up a blockade to prevent food and arms from reaching their enemy. Belgium, a nation of 7.5 million people, depended on imports for more than 70 percent of its food. With the Germans and the British blaming each other for the situation, Belgium faced starvation within two weeks. Hoover felt a moral obligation to act, and threw his prodigious administrative talents into providing food to millions of Belgians.

Hoover CRBThe organization Hoover set up, the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB), faced a problem of breathtaking scale. It needed to raise at least $1 million a week, buy tens of thousands of tons of food from all over the world, transport it across dangerous waters, and make sure the food reached the right people. As the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium said, the undertaking was “a piece of temerity that no one but a set of God’s own fools would ever have undertaken.” Yet Hoover and his associates were equal to the challenge. Hoover negotiated with foreign ministers and heads of state from all the great powers and rapidly built the CRB into, as one British Foreign Office functionary put it, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.” By early 1915, the CRB operated several dozen cargo vessels flying the CRB’s own flag (the only flag that all belligerents entered into an agreement to respect and defend) and coordinated a network of tens of thousands of volunteers raising money and distributing food.

His work with the CRB made Hoover a prominent figure on the world stage. President Woodrow Wilson took notice. Upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the newly-created U.S. Food Administration. As “Food Czar,” Hoover had unprecedented authority to set prices, direct production, and punish violators in order to ensure a sufficient food supply for America and her allies. Hoover pressed Americans to conserve food during the war to such extent that Hooverize became a household word. It even found its way onto a Valentine’s Day card in 1918:

                                                    I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize,

When it comes to loving you.

By war’s end in 1918, Hoover was hailed as an international hero and credited with helping sustain the war effort against Germany. Hoover continued to play a important role in Europe’s food supply as the U.S. Food Administration became the American Relief Administration, focused on helping the war-torn continent rebuild. Accused of supporting Bolshevism with food shipments to Soviet Russia, Hoover pounded his fist on the table and shouted, ‘Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!’”

Hoover’s career in public service continued as Secretary of Commerce under the next two presidents: Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Hoover exercised influence far beyond the traditionally limited purview of the department he led. As the quip at the time went, Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of everything else.” To the annoyance of his cabinet colleagues, his appetite for responsibility was endless. Hoover lobbied to get commissions and agencies from across the government transferred to his department, and headed up a diverse portfolio including environmental conservation, water rights, agriculture policy, labor disputes, and regulating the new spheres of aviation and radio. His unusually central role was hard to miss. As a New Republic columnist put it in 1925:

“There is reason to doubt whether in the whole history of the American government a Cabinet officer has engaged in such wide diversity of activities or covered quite so much ground. The plain fact is that no vital problem, whether in the foreign or the domestic field, arises in this administration in the handling of which Mr. Hoover does not have a real—and very often a leading—part. There is more Hoover in the administration than anyone else…more Hoover…than there is Coolidge.”

One final demonstration of his abilities amidst an emergency cemented Hoover’s reputation. In early 1927, months of torrential rains sent the Mississippi River surging over and through the levees built to keep it in check. Tens of thousands of square miles across a half dozen southern states were inundated with water up to 30 feet deep. Coolidge, perpetually reluctant to do anything, relented to pressure for federal assistance and put Hoover in charge of flood relief. “When a man is sick he calls a doctor,” said columnist Will Rogers, “but when the United States of America is sick they call for Herbert Hoover.” With his characteristic hard-charging style and administrative acumen, Hoover pulled together a massive and highly effective operation. He started a fundraising drive that brought in $17 million, organized a fleet of 800 boats along with two dozen planes to find and rescue people from flooded areas, and oversaw the creation of 150 tent cities that housed and clothed hundreds of thousands of displaced people, complete with electric lights, sewer lines, and dining halls.

With his sterling track record of success, it should be no surprise Hoover won the Coolidge and HooverRepublican nomination and the presidency in 1928. He also benefited from the roaring economy and despite private concerns about a stock market bubble, campaigned on continuing the economic good times begun under the previous Republican presidents. Sadly for Hoover and the country, the good times came to a screeching halt just as he ascended to the pinnacle of public life. For all he had to offer, his inflexibility, his exaggerated faith in volunteerism, and, most importantly, the sheer size of the catastrophe, rendered Hoover unable to stem the tide of depression. His was not a successful presidency, and it’s fair to view him as a model of failure in that office. But he was far from a failure in life. Tomorrow, on his birthday, let us remember not just Herbert Hoover the president, but Hoover the world-renowned mining engineer, Hoover the superb administrator, and Hoover the towering humanitarian.

Sources:

Herbert Hoover by William E. Leuchtenburg

Hoover: an extraordinary life in extraordinary times by Kenneth Whyte

Herbert Hoover in the White House: the ordeal of the presidency by Charles Rappleye