Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president Thursday is the latest piece of evidence to suggest that, at the least, the president’s performance during Hurricane Sandy won’t hurt his reelection prospects. But if the President wants a model for boosting his election prospects on the basis of such heroics, he should consider the example set by Herbert Hoover. More than anyone, it was Hoover who established the precedent of treating natural disasters as a proving ground for the presidency, and a measure of executive compassion and competence.
We remember Hoover today as a do-nothing president because of his flat-footed response to the Great Depression, when he clung to his ideology of rugged individualism despite the glaring need for federal help. But before he became president he had been a whirlwind of a Commerce Secretary under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. In that second-tier office he grabbed every project he could, from negotiating a coal miners’ strike to implementing a regime for radio regulation, winning acclaim for his activism. “There is more Hoover in the administration,” cracked T.R.B. of The New Republic in 1925, “than there is Coolidge.” The president himself, an apostle of small government, chuckled and branded Hoover “Wonder Boy.”
Coolidge’s belief in a hands-off presidency was tested when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in April 1927, creating the worst natural disaster in American history until Hurricane Katrina. The floods killed hundreds, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars. To spearhead a rescue, relief, and reconstruction effort, Coolidge named Hoover. He was the obvious choice for the job, having built a reputation as a hypercompetent humanitarian in World War I by delivering needed food first to the Belgians who had been overrun by Germany and then, after the war, to vast swaths of ravaged Europe.
Deputized by Coolidge, the commerce secretary set up headquarters in Memphis, traveling for months up and down the river valley. Not only did he bring food and shelter to the dispossessed, he also fought off disease in the relief encampments. And at a time when the federal government was just starting to take responsibility for disaster relief, as well as a whole host of other public services, Hoover used his leadership to fashion a case for his election.
Hoover’s solicitude toward reporters, along with his frenetic efforts, kept him on the front pages for four months. Weekly magazines showcased him, and his confident strut graced the newsreels. National Geographic ran a forty-seven-page spread, decorated with fifty-three photographs of Hoover diligently tending to the afflicted. “Once again the American people have turned to their handyman, Mr. Hoover,” wrote the Times. “Hoover is never afraid of trouble.”
Not every journalist, to be sure, was compliant. The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken’s magazine, snarled that George Akerson—a Harvard graduate and former Minneapolis Tribune reporter who had attached himself to Hoover as a press aide—had simply “organized a survey trip through the flooded area, and accompanied by a large corps of photographers and reporters, he and the Chief floated down the river amid a fanfare of publicity.”
But the hosannas outnumbered the gripes. When in August, Coolidge forswore another term, Hoover became the instant front-runner. Fly fishing with Akerson at the Bohemian Grove club in Northern California when he learned of Coolidge’s decision, Hoover turned to his aide and said, “I’m sorry, George, but it looks as if we’ll have to go back to Palo Alto and get to work.” Within an hour, a hundred newsmen were swarming the campground.
Hoover cultivated a humanitarian aura. Will Irwin, a leading muckraker of the prewar years, joined the Republican’s campaign, scripting an hour-long campaign film, Master of Emergencies, the first of its kind. A high-quality, professional production, the movie reviewed Hoover’s career and a savior of the dispossessed, from Belgium to Biloxi. The stark footage included aerial shots of submerged river towns, profiles of a purposeful Hoover surveying the scene, and close-ups of grateful children, black and white, fed by Hoover’s dedicated teams. Even horses and pigs were shown being saved from certain doom. The film pulled so blatantly on the heartstrings that Hoover cringed, telling Irwin that “it would get votes only from the morons.”
But the film was a hit. Despite a flap over the excision of the now-discredited Harding, the film premiered in September 1928 to positive notices. “By the end they were sobbing all over the house,” Irwin told Hoover. “And when they cry, you’ve got ’em. Those tears mean votes. At least three fourths of the voters are moronic enough to be persuaded by their eyes and their emotions.”
Hoover had many advantages over his rival, Democrat Al Smith, in 1928. The economy was humming, the public was happy with Coolidge’s leadership, and Smith’s Catholicism elicited deep-seated bigotry from an America that was much more heavily Protestant than it is today. But the national attention Hoover drew during the flood did as much as anything to cement his image as a can-do executive for the modern era. Walter Lippmann ascribed it all to public relations—“Mr. Hoover’s ascent to the presidency was planned with great care and assisted throughout by a high-powered propaganda of the latest model,” he wrote—but in this case, as it usually does, successful publicity rested on substantive achievement.
Hoover, tragically, failed to summon commensurate zeal when it was the economy that demanded vigorous federal intervention, and his passivity in the face of Depression confirmed him as a failed president. Ironically, though, Hoover’s actions during the flood set a model for many successors. Should Obama eke out reelection on the basis of his leadership last week, he will have borrowed a page, consciously or not, from the otherwise discredited Wonder Boy.
Nor will Obama be alone. In the bid to appear presidential during crisis, to demonstrate the perfect mix of human empathy and executive proficiency while bathed in the national spotlight, Hoover’s example has also imprinted itself, again perhaps unwittingly, on two other politicians, a Democrat and a Republican, who may be just starting to prepare their presidential bids—Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo.