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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Presidents of the 20th Century - Ying and Yang (and Yikes!)

Two of our 20th Century Presidents sandwiched the short, unhappy term of Warren G Harding: Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929). We take a look at these two Presidents in something of a "compare and contrast" essay. Then we will review the term of one additional President at the end.

Both men were known for personal integrity. There was not a hint of scandal around either of them, even though Coolidge was the Vice President to the unfortunate Harding. Beyond this, the contrasts between them are startling:

Wilson Democrat, Coolidge Repubican.

Wilson was a personable man, whose death is attributed to his nationwide campaign to urge voters to support the Versailles Treaty. The long run of speeches and hand-shaking wore him down and led him to suffer a stroke at the end of his second term of office. Chronically ill thereafter, he died in 1924.

Coolidge was famous for his terse manner and few words: Both his dry Yankee wit and his frugality with words became legendary. His wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, recounted that a young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly retorted, "You lose." And in 1928, while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his laconic statements, "I do not choose to run for President in 1928." (

Wilson a proponent of the League of Nations, Coolidge dead set against it.

Wilson: Like Roosevelt before him, Woodrow Wilson regarded himself as the personal representative of the people. "No one but the President," he said, "seems to be expected ... to look out for the general interests of the country."

Coolidge: The political genius of President Coolidge, Walter Lippmann pointed out in 1926, was his talent for effectively doing nothing: "This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone.... And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy...."

Wilson, who was born in 1856, had seen enough of the Civil War to detest warfare and had run, in 1916, as a man who had kept the US out of WWI. Yet by 1917 he realized it was better for the US to join in the fight, thus proving that his better judgement could overcome his personal prejudices. He was a activist President, as notes:

Wilson maneuvered through Congress three major pieces of legislation. The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act; attached to the measure was a graduated Federal income tax. The passage of the Federal Reserve Act provided the Nation with the more elastic money supply it badly needed. In 1914 antitrust legislation established a Federal Trade Commission to prohibit unfair business practices.

Another burst of legislation followed in 1916. One new law prohibited child labor; another limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day

In contrast, Coolidge is sketched by thusly:

As President, Coolidge demonstrated his determination to preserve the old moral and economic precepts amid the material prosperity which many Americans were enjoying. He refused to use Federal economic power to check the growing boom or to ameliorate the depressed condition of agriculture and certain industries. His first message to Congress in December 1923 called for isolation in foreign policy, and for tax cuts, economy, and limited aid to farmers.

Woodrow Wilson, as any President during a time of war, had extraordinary pressures upon him. That he handled such pressure well and could be decisive merits him the grade of 'A'. I would reduce that to an 'A-' for his love of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, ideas doomed to failure.

Calvin Coolidge was not so successful. There is no doubt that his unquestioned integrity was a breath of fresh air after the weak-willed Harding allowed wide-spread fraud both within his administration and in the corporate world to go unchecked. But his laisse-faire attitude towards government failed to deal with problems of rising inflation and bankrupt farmers, an attitude that would cost the country dearly after Coolidge took office.

Coolidge presided over the "Roaring Twenties" a time of prosperity sometimes referred to at the time as the "Coolidge Prosperity." But in fact, it was the wise leadership of predecessors Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that had far more to do with that prosperity than Coolidge, and it is likely that either of the afortmentioned gentlemen would have taken measures to avoid the oncoming depression by dealing with problems Coolidge chose to ignore.

Upright perhaps, but Coolidge earns a 'D' for his lack of leadership and foresight.

Having addressed Ying and Yang, then we come to Yikes - the unhappy Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). Few Presidents have been as unfairly villified as he.

Hoover was an intelligent man, moral, a fine administrator and a man of personal courage:

He married his Stanford sweetheart, Lou Henry, and they went to China, where he worked for a private corporation as China's leading engineer. In June 1900 the Boxer Rebellion caught the Hoovers in Tientsin. For almost a month the settlement was under heavy fire. While his wife worked in the hospitals, Hoover directed the building of barricades, and once risked his life rescuing Chinese children.

One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France, and the American Consul General asked his help in getting stranded tourists home. In six weeks his committee helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Next Hoover turned to a far more difficult task, to feed Belgium, which had been overrun by the German army.

After the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration. He succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed.

After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia in 1921. When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"

Hoover was a humanitarian, a fine engineer and as mentioned, a fine administrator. Wikipedia says of him:

The President expanded civil service coverage, cancelled private oil leases on government lands and led the way for the prosecution of gangster Al Capone. He appointed a commission which set aside 3 million acres (12,000 km²) of national parks and 2.3 million acres (9,000 km²) of national forests; advocated tax reduction for low-income Americans; doubled the numbers of veteran hospital facilities; negotiated a treaty on St. Lawrence Seaway (which failed in the U.S. Senate); signed an act that made The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem; wrote a Children's Charter that advocated protection of every child regardless of race or gender; built the San Francisco Bay Bridge; created an antitrust division in the Justice Department; required air mail carriers to improve service; proposed federal loans for urban slum clearances; organized the Federal Bureau of Prisons; reorganized the Bureau of Indian Affairs; proposed a federal Department of Education; advocated fifty-dollar-per-month pensions for Americans over 65; chaired White House conferences on child health, protection, homebuilding and homeownership; and signed the Norris-La Guardia Act that limited judicial intervention in labor disputes.

Hoover's humanitarian and Quaker reputation—along with a Native American vice president—gave special meaning to his Indian policies. He had spent part of his childhood in proximity to Indians in Oklahoma, and his Quaker upbringing influenced his views that Native Americans needed to achieve economic self-sufficiency. As President, he appointed Charles J. Rhoads as commissioner of Indian affairs. Hoover supported Rhoads' commitment to Indian assimilation and sought to minimize the federal role in Indian affairs. His goal was to have Indians acting as individuals (not as tribes) and assume the responsibilities of citizenship which had been granted with the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

In the foreign arena, Hoover began formulating what would be known as the Good Neighbor Policy by withdrawing American troops from Nicaragua and Haiti; he also proposed an arms embargo on Latin America and a one-third reduction in the world's naval, which was called the Hoover Plan. The Roosevelt Corollary ceased being part of U.S. foreign policy. He and Secretary of State Henry Stimson outlined the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine that said the United States would not recognize territories gained by force.

Hoover was Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, although it appears that economics was not among his many strengths. Hoover and his cabinet didn't see the Great Depression coming, a depression that was world-wide in scope. He took extraordinary lengths to deal with the Depression as it hit, taking some measures that FDR would expand upon later on. But the general public placed the blame for the Depression on Hoover and he was soundly defeated in the 1932 election.

My view is that the Great Depression was a world-wide phenomenon not limited to the United States and certainly not the fault of any one President. If there is blame to place, it belongs on the shoulders of the weak-willed Harding and the do-nothing Coolidge rather than on Hoover.

I would give him a 'B'. He gets no 'A' because the Great Depression hit on his watch and he was part of previous administrations that helped bring about the conditions that caused it. Hoover reacted quickly and well to the crisis, however, and still deserves a decent and passing grade.


The next President to be scrutinized will be one of the more controversial of all, the only four-term President, one who presided over some of the great crises and triumphs of the 20th century - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


highboy said...

Ronald Reagan was the greatest President ever.

oriolebird38 said...

you didn't mention the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which was responsible for actually extending the Great Depression. Hoover wasn't that bad, and the problems certainly weren't his fault, (i would agree with a b) but that certainly deserves mention.

As does Wilson being a complete racist, but iono how much you wanna connect that to his presidency. I could go either way.