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by William H. Benson

April 30, 2009

     On Saturday, March 4, 1933, the President, Herbert Hoover, and the President-elect, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rode together to the Capitol for the new President’s inauguration. FDR was sociable and talkative, but in contrast, Hoover’s face was heavy and sullen, for he could not conceal his bitterness. The night before he had told his close friends, “We are at the end of our string. There is nothing more we can do.”

     It has been said that “Politicians whom the gods wish to destroy run out of luck,” and clearly Hoover had run out of luck. The Great Depression had begun in the autumn of 1929, just seven months after Hoover had become President, and for the three and a half years since he had desperately fought it.

     He cut taxes. He insisted that wages be kept artificially high. He deliberately ran up a huge deficit, “the largest-ever increase in government spending.” To provide relief to the farmers his passed his Agricultural Marketing Act, and then he extended this idea to the entire economy in December of 1931 with his Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

     He initiated major public works projects: the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and the Hoover Dam. Then, he pushed for the passage of the 1932 Revenue Act, which, in an abrupt about-face, was “the greatest taxation increase in US history in peacetime.”

     Although it was not known in 1933, “the essence of the New Deal was now in place.” Rexwell Tugwell, one of Roosevelt’s colleagues, confessed as much in 1974: “We didn’t admit it at the time, but practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover [had] started.”

     By March of 1933, Hoover’s administration had ground to a stop. Congress, horrified by his deficit spending, had turned on him, insisting that he bring the budget back into balance. American exports had collapsed. Industrial production had been cut in half from what it had been in the twenties, and unemployment had climbed to 24.9% of the workforce. Millions more were subsisting on some form of public or private charity.

     By the final weeks of the Hoover’s administration, the banking system “came to a virtual standstill.” Truly, these were the toughest of all times for the American people, and they turned on their President, calling their shantytowns Hoovervilles.

     Dour, bitter, and gloomy, Hoover became the “Depression Made Flesh.” A cabinet member said that he admitted that he avoided the White House to escape “the ever-present feeling of gloom that pervades everything connected with this administration.” H. G. Wells called upon Hoover and found him “sickly, overworked, and overwhelmed.” When told to relax, Hoover replied, “I have other things to do when a nation is on fire.”

    Once inside the Capitol on that Saturday morning in early March, Hoover and FDR separated, but then at noon a bugle blew and Roosevelt, holding his son’s arm, walked as best he could down a maroon-carpeted ramp to the platform outside. Hoover followed. With a hand on a Dutch Bible, Roosevelt took the oath of office of the President.

     To the crowd and to millions listening at home, he said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves, which is essential to victory. . . . We must act and act quickly. . . . We do not distrust the future of essential democracy.”

     Hoover stared glumly at the ground.

     Roosevelt’s first hundred days was a blitz of legislation—the AAA, the NRA, the PWA—such that Congress had barely time to come up for air. Although confident, witty, relaxed, and empathetic with the American people, Roosevelt, like Hoover before him, discovered just how difficult it was to fight off the devastation that this Great Depression had laid upon the nation. It continued for another seven years.

     Popular mythology holds that Hoover was somehow responsible for the Depression and that FDR deserves the credit for the recovery, but the facts are more complex that that simple interpretation: each did what they could with the tools at their disposal.