The stock market reached the end of its long, slow slide that summer, bottoming out on July 8 when the Dow Industrials hit 41.22, down from 381.17 in September 1929. But jobs still disappeared, and those without them belonged more than ever to a new order: the former middle class. As local governments continued to exhaust their dwindling resources, the chaos of relief efforts grew worse. The mayors of twenty-eight cities, meeting in Detroit, had urged Hoover to treat the problem with wartime urgency and create a $5 billion loan fund for public works. Detroit had already issued emergency rations of bread and milk to jobless families and was scraping for money to pay the grocers who supplied the rations and who were now threatening to cut off credit to the city unless it paid its bills. New York was paying relief families an average of $2.39 per week, and welfare officials figured they were reaching only half the families hit by unemployment. Fully half of Chicago’s workers had no jobs.
Nationally, only a fourth of unemployed families were receiving any relief at all. Government funds, state and local, were a minuscule portion—1.5 percent—of what was being spent, averaging $1.67 a month per citizen. The rest came from a haphazard conglomeration of private charities and help givers, including community chests and the Salvation Army, soup kitchens and food banks, and relatives and friends who still had something left to give.
At last, and reluctantly, Hoover made one concession to conditions. Early in the year, he had allowed the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a $2 billion agency whose purpose was to shore up weak banks, railroads, and insurance companies by making loans to them. New York congressman Fiorello La Guardia called it “a millionaire’s dole.” He had proved to be right; most of the loans made during the agency’s first months, when its activities were kept secret to avoid panicking depositors, went to big banks. On July 21, however, Hoover expanded the pool of loan recipients to include states and cities and set aside $300 million of the RFC funds so that they could provide relief and jobs. He also cut his own salary 20 percent, and Vice President Charles Curtis and nine cabinet officers all took 15 percent pay cuts to promote government economy, a savings of $37,500 a year.
But these gestures signaled no real change in the president’s thinking. On the night of August 11, he put on the white pants and blue blazer of a summer yachtsman and got in his limousine for the short trip to the Daughters of the American Revolution’s new Constitution Hall, two blocks from the White House grounds. There, Republican National Committee chairman Everett Sanders formally notified the president of what he and the rest of the country had known for almost two months—that he was the party’s presidential nominee. He opened his campaign for reelection with his acceptance speech to 4,000 in the auditorium and a nationwide radio audience on CBS and NBC.
Hoover called his management of the economy “the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic,” and insisted that no more should be done. “It is not the function of the government,” he said, “to relieve individuals of their responsibilities to their neighbors, or to relieve private institutions of their responsibilities to the public, or the local government to the states, or the responsibilities of state governments to the federal government.” These were “the fundamental principles of our social and economic system.” He tried to tie Roosevelt to the agitators of the left, saying that “the solution of our many problems…'is not to be found in haphazard experimentation or by revolution.” He spoke again and again of national ideals and “eternal principles” to justify his administration’s inaction of the past three years. These had caused him, he said, to reject “the temptation…'to resort to those panaceas and short cuts which…'would ultimately undermine” those principles.
Ultimately, he acknowledged one prescient truth. “Today millions of our fellow countrymen are out of work,” he said. “Prices of farmers’ products are below a living standard. Many millions more who are in business or hold employment are haunted by fears for the future. No man with a spark of humanity can sit in my place without suffering from the picture of their anxieties and hardships before him day and night. They would be more than human if they were not led to blame their condition upon the government in power.”
In October, a month before the election, Hoover and his wife, Lou, embarked on a campaign trip, a series of railroad whistle stops that would take the beleaguered president from Washington back to his home state of Iowa. This was a courageous plan, for at the far end lay a deepening farm crisis, sporadic violence, and talk of revolution from both left and right.
Farmers had withheld their products from the market in order to force prices higher, and those efforts were growing increasingly militant. To keep farm products from moving, they were blockading roads with telephone poles and logs bristling with railroad spikes, brandishing pitchforks and clubs for emphasis as they ordered drivers bound for market to turn back. Bankers were the target of the Farmers’ Holiday Association, as its unofficial theme song made clear:
Let’s call a farmer’s holiday
A holiday let’s hold;
We’ll eat our wheat and ham and eggs
And let them eat their gold.
In an apparently spontaneous action, Iowa dairy farmers blocked all ten roads leading to Sioux City. They waylaid milk trucks and dumped the milk they carried into roadside ditches. Only trucks that supplied hospitals were allowed through. The movement spread to Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and across state lines, leaving authorities helpless. When the sheriff at Council Bluffs arrested sixty farmers for picketing the roads, a thousand of their supporters threatened a mass march on the jail, and the picketers were released.
Throughout the Midwest, county sheriffs, judges, lawyers, and farm foreclosure auctioneers were facing the fury of the farmers. A lawyer who had foreclosed on a farm in Kansas was found murdered. As they did at foreclosure auctions, farmers massed in courtrooms to intimidate judges and lawyers. One hung a hangman’s noose from his barn in case prospective buyers missed the point. Campaigning for the governorship of North Dakota, William “Wild Bill” Langer suggested farmers treat the banker “like a chicken thief” and shoot him if he set foot on their farms.
As Hoover’s train steamed through the fall landscape, making the stops in small towns that were a campaign tradition, the president could see just how far his political capital had ebbed. Whistle stops usually meant cheers and applause from the audiences who gathered around the rear platform of the last car to greet campaigning politicians, but cold stares and silence were what faced Hoover when he emerged with his wife to stand behind the Pennsylvania Railroad logo. Aides noticed that the men in the Secret Service detail guarding him were growing increasingly nervous with each stop. When he finally reached Des Moines, the militant farmers of Milo Reno’s Farmers’ Holiday Association were waiting there by the thousands, brandishing signs that read, “In Hoover we trusted; now we are busted.” Republican officials turned out 100,000 spectators for the presidential parade, but the Iowa National Guard, warned to expect trouble, stationed troops along the four-mile route.
Hoover’s speech that night was yet another recitation of the steps he had taken to battle the depression, without which “things would be infinitely worse.” He defended balancing the budget, ensuring the sound credit of the government, continuing protective tariffs, and maintaining the gold standard that tied the money in circulation to the nation’s gold reserves. For the Republicans these were absolutes, as fundamental as the Constitution. He attacked the Democrats for advocating federal spending to create jobs and relieve want when these were not the government’s responsibility, and charged that the source of the depression lay outside the United States, in the worldwide economic turmoil. It was a speech heavy with detail presented without flair. For a man who was fundamentally shy and introverted, who preferred the meetings and conferences of governance to the tumult and spontaneity of campaigning, it was a brave performance. But the gloom surrounding him only one month before the election was inadvertently captured in a Des Moines Register headline the next day. It referred to an unusual occurrence at a send-off party just before the Hoovers left Des Moines: “Hoover Smiles at Reception.”
In that final month, the president threw himself fully into the campaign, traveling to the Midwest, Maryland, and West Virginia. He seemed desperate to explain himself, to convince the country that his position was the right one. There could be no departure from tradition, no change in thinking. What the government had always done, it would keep doing. What it had never done (beyond measures he had already tried, such as the RFC), it should not attempt. The Democrats meant revolution, the end of the American way of life. But the people had lost patience. A crowd waiting at the station booed him in Detroit, and on the route to the auditorium where he was to speak people brandished signs that read “Down with Hoover.” In St. Paul, he called the Democrats “the party of the mob.” When he went on to say, “Thank God we still have a government in Washington that knows how to deal with a mob,” apparently a reference to the eviction of the Bonus Army, his audience stirred with disapproval.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt moved forward, progress that was based less on what he said than on how he said it. His proposals were still vague, but in contrast to Hoover’s grim defensiveness, he projected confidence. The battered fedora, the grin, the upthrust chin, the cigarette holder pointing skyward like an exclamation point, the words that embraced the people’s yearnings—all this rebutted Hoover’s baleful accusations. The “new deal” of his acceptance speech had captured what the country sought; specifics could wait. Three years of depression were enough.
The people spoke on election day, November 8. Roosevelt compiled a massive victory, 22,825,016 votes to Hoover’s 15,758,397: a 57 to 39 percent margin in the popular vote. The margin was even more pronounced in the electoral college, where he won 472 votes to Hoover’s fifty-nine. Democrats also rolled up big majorities in both the House and Senate.
Voters had paid scant attention to the candidates of the far left. Socialist Norman Thomas, still the favorite of many intellectuals, failed to break 900,000 in the count. William Z. Foster, the Communist Party candidate, lost by a much wider margin. His feeble showing of just 102,221 votes belied the concern, expressed in countless headlines and official statements after the Ford and Bonus Army debacles, that Communism was eating at the country’s very foundations.
Clearly Americans wanted no part of a government that ran their lives, but in sweeping Roosevelt to victory, they were demanding that it pay attention to their needs. For the millions of the unemployed, that meant one thing only: jobs.
But these would not come soon. Roosevelt would not be inaugurated president until March 4, 1933. This four-month lag between November and March was the vestige of a long-vanished time, before airplanes permitted half the country to be traveled in a day and the telephone, telegraph, and radio transmitted information instantly from coast to coast. Thus for these endless months Hoover remained in the White House, sullenly defending his rejected policies, even as vast numbers of people with no work and no resources faced the deepening winter with impatience, anxiety, and hunger.