CALVIN COOLIDGE was not a fool. In his autobiography he observed that the political mind “is a strange mixture of vanity and timidity, of an obsequious attitude at one time and a delusion of grandeur at another time, of the most selfish preferment combined with the most sacrificing patriotism. The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse. With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial.”
Coolidge did not have such a mind, and national politics did not come naturally to him. Not only was he an accidental president; he had been an accidental vice president. The 1920 Republican Convention bosses had decided upon Senator Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin for the post, but delegates, furious at the original “smoke-filled room” that had forced Harding upon them as the presidential nominee, rebelled. When Lenroot was presented, one delegate shouted, “Not on your life!” Oregon was then recognized, with the instruction to nominate Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge for vice president. Oregon too balked. In the turmoil of 1919, Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, had gained prominence when he had responded to the Boston police strike by declaring, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Oregon announced its support not for Lodge but for “another son of Massachusetts—Calvin Coolidge!” He was swept to the nomination.
“Silent Cal,” they called him, after Harding’s death in 1923 made him president. He was withdrawn. Photographs of him with others seem uncentered, because the pictures were always composed around him but he could not or would not fill the central space. He became more withdrawn after his teenaged son died in agony in 1924 from an infection that developed from a blister. “The power and the glory of the presidency went with him,” Coolidge said.
Even before the Mounds Landing crevasse, the governors of Oklahoma, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi had begged Coolidge for help and asked him to name Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover head of a special federal rescue effort. Hoover had repeatedly solved massive logistics problems of feeding hundreds of thousands of people. But Coolidge had done nothing until he had to, until Mississippi Governor Dennis Murphree wired desperately: “Unprecedented floods have created a national emergency…. This territory will be water covered one to twenty feet in twenty four hours contains population 150,000…. Highways covered…. Railroad operations suspended…. Beyond capacity local and state agencies to relieve and control.”
Finally, at 10:30 A.M. on April 22, Coolidge had called a cabinet meeting and named Hoover chairman of a special committee of five cabinet secretaries, including Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and Secretary of War Dwight Davis, to handle the flood emergency.
Hoover would spend sixty of the next seventy-one days in the flooded territory. For nearly all that time he would dominate the nation’s front pages, newsreels, and radio waves. The flood would both test his theories about society and advance his own ambitions. For if Hoover did not have the political mind Coolidge described, he had ambition even greater than that of most politicians. That ambition had been sidetracked. The Mississippi River was offering Hoover his main chance, and he intended to seize it.
HERBERT HOOVER was a brilliant fool. He was brilliant in the way his mind could seize and grapple with a problem, brilliant in his ability to accomplish a task, and brilliant in the originality, comprehensiveness, and depth of the political philosophy he developed. He was a fool because he deceived himself. Although considering himself as objective and analytical as science itself, in reality he rejected evidence and truths that did not conform to his biases, and he fooled himself about what those biases were. He was, as former President and then-Chief Justice William Howard Taft described him, “a dreamer…[with] grandiose ideas.”
Yet by the time Hoover arrived in Washington, the press was calling him both “the Great Humanitarian” and “the Great Engineer.” It was a time when those two occupations were considered in some ways synonymous.
Born in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, amid rolling hills thirty miles from the Mississippi River, Hoover grew up influenced by two traditions: the silence and community of Quakers and the rationalism and purpose of engineering. He was also raised in loneliness. An orphan, separated from his siblings and shifted from one relative to another, his childhood was spent on edge, and it must have seemed that any misstep would cause him to be sent away. He grew up awkward and shy, obsessed both with how others saw him and wedded to his private thoughts. The one constant was the Quaker meeting; even there his chief memory was loneliness and “the intense repression” forced upon “a ten year old boy who might not even count his toes.”
At eleven he was sent to an uncle in Oregon. From Iowa he took not much more than the two woven sayings given him by his mother, which he nailed to the wall of his new room. “Leave me not, neither forsake me, Oh God of my salvation,” said one; “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee,” said the other.
Only at Stanford University did he finally find a home. Though he failed the entrance exam twice and won only conditional admission, once there he thrived emotionally and academically. He met his wife, Lou Henry, there; he was studying mining and she was the only woman studying geology. Stanford became, said his classmate and longtime intimate Will Irwin, “a kind of complex with him.” He would later call the school’s presidency his “lifetime ambition.”
He also had other ambitions. If unable to make small talk socially, when fixed on a task he was neither shy nor timid, but confident and focused. As a young mining engineer on the violent and corrupt frontiers of turn-of-the-century Australia, China, and Siberia, he thrived as never before. “God deliver me from a fool,” he once said. “I would rather do business with a rogue any day if he has brains.” He helped to find and develop fabulously profitable mines, and during the Boxer Rebellion both he and his wife saved other lives while risking their own. When he was twenty-seven, Leland Stanford’s brother called him “the highest paid man of his age in the world.” When he was thirty-seven, a London mining periodical called him “a wizard of finance.” At forty he owned a share of mines and oil fields in Alaska, California, Romania, Siberia, Nigeria, Burma, Tierra del Fuego, including Russo-Asiatic Consolidated, the Inter-Argentine Syndicate, the Inter-Siberian Syndicate, and Northern Nigeria Tin Mines.
But money no longer mattered so much to him. Years before, he told Stanford president David Jordan he had “run through his profession.” And he was lonely still. In 1912 he confided to a young friend: “The American is always an alien abroad. His own heart is in his own country, and yet there is less and less a niche for him when he returns….[In America] the esteem one hopes to build among one’s associates would not be wasted…. I have got to the stage now where I am playing the game for the game’s sake, as the counters don’t interest me anymore. I am disgusted with myself.” He told Will Irwin he was “as rich as any man has much right to be.” He wanted to “get in the big game somewhere. Just making money isn’t enough.”
HOOVER’S INTEREST in “the big game” came partly from his Quaker upbringing, partly from his engineering background, and partly from raw ambition. Both engineering and the Quakers taught self-examination, a very personal truth, and responsibility to society, and engineering then represented more than simply science. It encompassed a revolutionary way of looking at the world, a kind of rationally ordered justice. Hoover preached this new gospel and served as president of three different engineering societies.
Hoover was so convinced of the moral purity of engineers that he told a friend who was writing a novel in which the villain was an engineer, “But you are trying to make a villain of him which won’t do.” In a mining textbook he observed, “Engineering is the profession of creation and of construction, of stimulation of human effort and accomplishment.” He said engineering’s “exactness makes for truth and conscience.”
Indeed, Hoover matured during a period when his profession’s growth was geometric and its sense of purpose messianic. From 1880 to 1920, the number of engineers in the United States zoomed from 7,000 to 136,000; in 1930 it reached 226,000. In 1913 the Atlantic Monthly—ironically, just as the certainty of engineering was yielding to the uncertainty of Einstein and Freud—proclaimed “machinery is our new art form,” and praised “the engineers whose poetry is too deep to look poetic” and who “have swung their souls free…like gods.”
The explosive growth of engineering changed America. Most obviously, it changed manufacturing. Eads had played some small role in that change, with his demands for precision and consistency so unheard-of that he imposed science on steelmaking, formerly an art, as Carnegie himself conceded in 1910. As enormous enterprises employing thousands of people became the rule, owners also began to think in terms of “scientific management.” Frederick Taylor invented the term. A genius of efficiency, he designed a tennis racket for himself and won a national championship with it, then designed a new golf driver and putter, which was outlawed for tournament play. He designed more efficient factories and distribution systems, and he tried to design society, saying, “The same principles can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes, the management of our farms, the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small, of our churches, our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our governmental departments.” He proposed “[h]armony, not discord. Cooperation, not competition.”
“Taylorism” spread rapidly. The Harvard Business School opened in 1908 to teach scientific management skills; one of its founders was Frank Taussig, a nationally known economist and son of Eads’ partner; as a boy he had called Eads “Uncle.”
This revolution of the rational clearly influenced Hoover. Engineers claimed scientific management meant not only improved profit margins but salvation for humanity. It was a faith, a religion. The president of one engineering society declared, “[M]etaphysics has practically ceased to be considered, and empirical science is universally acknowledged as the source of all human progress…, the herald that brings joy to the multitudes…, their redeemer from despairing drudgery and burdensome labor.” Said another, “The golden rule will be put into practice by the slide rule of the engineer.”
Waste itself was evil, a great burden, and engineers were determined to stamp it out for the betterment of humanity. Eads had called increasing efficiency “a principle so full of benefit to humanity [as to] constitute a theme worthy of the highest effort of the philanthropist.” In 1910 one engineering journal proclaimed, “The Millennium will have been reached when humanity shall have learned to eliminate all useless waste.”
To eliminate waste, of course, technocrats had to have more power. As Taylor said, “The shop, and indeed the whole works, should be managed not by the manager, superintendent, or foreman, but by the planning department.”
As a corollary of this new philosophy of management, engineer-philosophers also rejected the ruthless—and wasteful—competition of Social Darwinism in favor of a rational allocation of resources and goods. Hoover himself denounced brutal competition and waste: “By some false analogy to ‘the survival of the fittest’ many have conceived the whole business world to be a sort of economic ‘dog eat dog.’…Industry and commerce are not based upon taking advantage of other persons. Their foundations lie in the division of labor and the exchange of products…. [A] great area of indirect economic wrong and unethical practises spring up under the pressure of competition and habit.” The result was “economic waste through destructive competition, strikes, booms and slumps, unemployment, through failure of our different industries to synchronize and a hundred other causes which directly lower our productivity and employment.”
Some engineers, in the wake of the slaughter of World War I, even redefined democracy. Henry Gantt, a prominent Taylor disciple, bluntly repudiated “the average politician’s conception of democracy. His is the debating-society theory of government…[policies determined] not according to the laws of physics but by majority vote…. Real democracy consists of the organization of human affairs in harmony with natural laws.” Thorstein Veblen, a Stanford faculty member whom Hoover knew, talked of engineers forming a “directorate” and leading a revolution for “a more competent management of the country’s industrial system…. As a matter of course, the powers and duties of the incoming directorate will be of a technological nature…. The old order has most significantly fallen short…on the avoidance of waste and duplication of work; and on an equitable and sufficient supply of goods and services to consumers.”
Who better to spread such rational analysis through the culture than Hoover? He was, said Morris Cooke, a prominent engineer-philosopher, “the engineering profession personified.”
HOOVER HAD FIRST gotten into the big game in a large way by feeding occupied Belgium during the war. (Helping him were a select handful of young men of America’s elite, including several Rhodes scholars and William Alexander Percy.) To succeed, he had manipulated two warring Great Powers, Britain and Germany, which both initially opposed his effort. He had done so largely by using the press, and he subsequently told the Saturday Evening Post “the world lives by phrases.”
When America entered the war, Hoover returned to Washington. Woodrow Wilson named him food administrator, giving him vast if indirect powers over everything from pricing to distribution. He performed successfully enough that Louis Brandeis called him “the biggest figure injected into Washington life by the war.” After the war, he ran a European relief program that fed millions. He used power well. After Polish soldiers had executed thirty-seven Jews, he ordered the Polish government to end such incidents. Since he could halt food shipments there, the government obeyed. John Maynard Keynes called him “the only man who emerged from the ordeal [of the peace conference] with an enhanced reputation.”
In the aftermath of war, in Europe and America intellectuals on both right and left were asking questions about the nature of society. Hoover, as head of the American Engineering Council, entered the debate by injecting his own ideas, which merged those of the engineering profession, the Quakers, and Edmund Burke. He called for “abandonment of the unrestricted capitalism of Adam Smith,” condemned “the ruthlessness of individualism,” called for “ordered liberty,” bemoaned “the social and economic ills” caused by “the aggregation of great wealth,” and argued, “No civilization could be built or can endure solely upon the groundwork of unrestrained and unintelligent self-interest.” His answer to wasteful competition was “associational” activity in which producers in each industry cooperated to cut waste and match supply and demand. Hoover’s formulation answered the assault from the left on the brutality of industrialism and capitalism while recognizing some truth to the left’s charges; simultaneously, he rejected mass rule, demanded room for individual initiative, and welcomed rule by an elite meritocracy. He wrote, “[T]he real need…can be determined only by deliberative consideration, by education, by constructive leadership…. [Leaders] must be free to rise from the mass; they must be given the attraction of premiums to effort…. The crowd is credulous, it destroys, it consumes, it hates, and it dreams—but it never builds.”
In this context he said engineering’s “precise and efficient thought” could devise “a plan of individualism and associational activities that will preserve…individuality…and yet will enable us to synchronize socially and economically this gigantic machine that we have built out of applied science.”
THESE PUBLIC COMMENTS and many others signified his intense interest in politics, but his intense shyness when he had no defined agenda seemed to block him from running for office. Meeting people was agony. A political writer would later call him “abnormally shy, abnormally sensitive…and ever apprehensive that he be made to appear ridiculous…. He looks down so much of the time, the casual guest obtains only a hazy impression of his appearance.” Hoover himself complained of “the pneumatic drill of constant personal contact.”
So he initially chose to become a power behind the scenes and bought newspapers in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, the national and state capitals. And he spoke of “those strong men [who] with practically no organization, but with definite purpose, exert a greater influence on the situation from the outside than from in.” He clearly intended to be one such strong man.
Soon, however, his head was turned. Democrats expressed interest in recruiting him as a presidential candidate, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him President of the United States.” But he declared himself a Republican. While claiming to have no interest in public office, he did everything possible to procure it. He asked a friend how to get a cabinet post and was advised to run for president. In 1920 he did.
It was a strange campaign of and for the elite. He did not want to be seen as seeking the nomination, so his campaign was geared toward trying to generate a draft. To this end his backers mailed 21,210 letters soliciting support from every person listed in Who’s Who, every member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, and every Stanford alumnus. At the Republican convention, he published a daily Hoover newspaper with contributions from such major writers as Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Robert Benchley, Heywoud Broun, and Dorothy Parker. Louis Brandeis announced: “I am 100 percent for him. [His] high public spirit, extraordinary intelligence, knowledge, sympathy, youth, and a rare perception of what is really worthwhile for the country, would, with his organizing ability and power of inspiring loyalty, do wonderful things in the Presidency.”
But he generated no support among professional politicians, and his campaign disintegrated. Harding offered him a cabinet post. Hoover chose secretary of commerce. Old Guard GOP senators balked and told Harding they would confirm him only if Andrew Mellon was named secretary of the treasury. Harding acceded and offered Hoover what he had asked for. Hoover then pretended, if only to himself, he was answering duty’s call, wiring Harding, “I should prefer infinitely not to undertake the burden of public office [but] I have no right to refuse your wish and I will accept the Secretaryship of Commerce.”
As commerce secretary he called for rational planning for everything from the economy to the home. Edward Eyre Hunt, another Taylor disciple, was thrilled; he noted, “Hoover sees in the Department of Commerce a great opportunity to make the work of the engineers effective on a national scale.”
HARDING TOOK OFFICE during a brief but severe recession, and one of Hoover’s first acts was to organize a conference on unemployment and the business cycle. The findings would yield fertile seeds that germinated later. When the economy recovered, Hoover took credit and said it proved that prosperity could be “organized”; it was simply a matter of “intelligent cooperative group effort [and] national industrial planning.”
Hoover then had the Federated American Engineering Societies, of which he was past president, survey waste in American industry. The survey’s methodology was farcical; reviewers discarded questionnaires that did not conform to their wishes. In not a single industry did the survey blame management for less than 50 percent of the waste; in one industry it allocated 81 percent of waste to management. Only more planning and technocrats, of course, could eliminate this problem.
Accused of standardizing all of America, he did not dispute the charge; he had his department set standards for hundreds of products, measurements, and tools, seeking standardization to increase efficiency and spur productivity leaps, simultaneously spurring mass marketing. Applying science to the home, he sponsored (and controlled) the Better Homes of America Association, a voluntary group of 30,000 women in 1,800 chapters, each with a public relations division disseminating Commerce Department advice. This group advocated everything from rationalizing domestic labor and using specialists in such things as child nurturing and juvenile delinquency to building low-cost homes, and helped get uniform building codes and zoning regulations adopted in thirty-seven states.
Hoover also spurred the growth of aviation. He controlled radio licensing and helped it grow; in 1920, Westinghouse established the first radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, but there would soon be hundreds. He helped make second mortgages a new financing vehicle by convincing Julius Rosenwald, who built Sears, to issue them at 6 percent interest. Banks, which had been demanding 15 percent, quickly followed. He annexed the Bureau of Mines and the Patent Office from other departments. He told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “We are passing from a period of extreme individualistic action into a period of associational activities.” Then he tried to force the Justice Department to reinterpret anti-trust laws to accommodate his views.
Finally, Hoover built a tremendous public relations apparatus. Advertising was a new industry, expected to have vast power to mold opinion and engineer thoughts, and J. Walter Thompson was theorizing about it. Bruce Barton, a Hoover political supporter, wrote about Jesus as a salesman and called his parables “the most powerful advertisements of all time…. [Jesus] picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” At the least, national advertising was knitting the country together in a web. Brand names born or made national by advertising then included Ivory Soap, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Crisco, Old Dutch Cleanser, Campbell’s soup, Milky Way, Popsicles, Heinz pickles, and Scotch tape. New lines of copy were creating moods; typical was, “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride? For halitosis, use Listerine.”
Hoover believed public relations could change behavior. He used the media bluntly. In five hundred working days as food administrator he had issued 1,840 press releases. He also used the media with sophistication. Leaks and a public relations campaign were his tools to bully the steel industry into accepting the eight-hour day. (It was inefficient and wasteful to work longer, he believed.) Meanwhile, he generated a national magazine story about his accomplishments in his first two years as commerce secretary, seeing to it that all Republican senators received it, and making sure it was “not marked as coming from this office.” In 1922 his book American Individualism appeared; in it he articulated his beliefs, which owed much to Edmund Burke. The New York Times judged his book “among the few great formulations of American political theory.”
Yet for all this—or because of it—by 1927 his political fortunes were fading. The public had tired of his constant doings. Professional politicians and GOP insiders despised him.
If Coolidge did not seek reelection—something by no means clear in the spring of 1927, although the two-term tradition suggested he would not—the leading contenders for the 1928 Republican nomination were Frank Lowden, the former Illinois governor who had been a favorite in 1920, Vice President Charles Dawes, Senate Republican leader Charles Curtis, and Senator William Borah.
Before the flood, the Survey, a national magazine considered quite progressive, reviewed the chances of these and other contenders, including dark horses. It did not mention Hoover. Even after the flood began, Literary Digest ran a story and cartoon about candidates chasing the GOP nomination. It did not mention Hoover.
Then, on Good Friday, 1927, the same day that torrential rains were deluging the Mississippi valley, Coolidge insulted Hoover when speaking to a group of White House reporters. The front page of the New York Times read, “Capital Mystified over Hoover’s Status with the President.” Privately, Coolidge, who called Hoover “Wonder Boy,” said, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”
But Hoover’s ambition still churned. The flood was pouring through the belly of America, and it would be on every front page in the nation for weeks. Hoover could not have been unaware of his possibilities as he took charge. Since entering public life, he had mixed good works and ambition. Now he would mix them again.
Agnes Meyer, wife of Hoover’s confidant Eugene Meyer, a financier and later owner of the Washington Post and head of the Federal Reserve and the World Bank, wrote in her diary that Hoover was “consumed with ambition…. The man’s will-to-power is almost a mania. The idea of goodwill, of high achievement, is strong in him, but he is not interested in the good that must be accomplished through others or even with the help of others. Only what is done by Hoover is of any meaning to him. He is a big man but cannot bear rivalry of any sort.”
He had immense confidence, as much as Eads. After a conversation with him in 1927, the novelist Sherwood Anderson said, “I felt, looking at him, that he had never known failure.”