The Trouble with Spikol

Thinking About Herbert Hoover.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 24, 2008

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In a speech last week in the Senate, House Majority Leader Harry Reid compared John McCain's sanguine outlook on the economy to that of President Herbert Hoover. McCain had said, "The fundamentals of the economy are strong."

Reid parried, "On the morning of October 30, 1929, President Herbert Hoover awoke the day after the biggest one-day stock market crash in American history ... and declared, 'The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.'

Reid returned to the comparison several times: "No matter what George Bush, John McCain or the ghost of Herbert Hoover may think ... It is a time to look back on the past eight years of Bush-Hoover-McCain economics ... Whether you call it Hoover economics, Bush economics, or McCain economics..."

Sen. Barbara Boxer made the same point on the Senate floor a couple days later: "To think that anybody would say that, you have to go back to the days of Herbert Hoover."

The Hoover-McCain analogy has been made by pundits as well. Chris Matthews said it on Hardball. Joe Peyronnin wrote it on Huffington Post. Canada's Globe and Mail said McCain was "echoing" Hoover, while the Guardian UK said he was "channeling" him. The Daily Telegraph remarked John McCain "even looks a little like Herbert Hoover."

Meanwhile, Hoover's legacy is also being invoked in a strange parallel across the border. Canandian MP Bob Rae accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of being "Herbert Hoover in a blue sweater" after Harper said Canadian consumers and banks are on "solid" footing.

Months ago, Charles Schumer compared Bush to Hoover because of his "hands-off attitude" about the economy. In March Hillary Clinton "played the Herbert Hoover Card," according to the L.A. Times' Don Frederick, when she reacted to John McCain's speech on housing by saying: "It sounds remarkably like Herbert Hoover."

Frederick tried to explain: "By mentioning Hoover, whose tepid response to the Great Depression helped keep the White House in Democratic hands for 20 straight years after he was bounced from office in the 1932 election, Clinton invoked what once was a can't-miss applause line among Democrats."

But Frederick said Hoover might not resonate with younger voters.

So what's going on? Who do the references work for?

Personally, I like them because they bring me back to the musical Annie and its song about Herbert Hoover, "We'd Like to Thank You." I used to practice the soundtrack in my bedroom in case I was ever spirited out of choir practice and put on Broadway. I'd sing: "Today we're living in a shanty/ Today we're scrounging for a meal/ Today I'm stealing coal for fires/ Who knew I could steal?"

But apart from my singing career (short-lived, shower-based) I knew nothing about Hoover. He was just a mean guy who made poor people huddle over burning garbage cans to warm their homeless hands.

At first blush, Republican Herbert Hoover was, like George W. Bush, unlucky. A disaster happened on his watch, and it would've been hard for any president to handle it impeccably.

But Hoover was quickly perceived as uncaring. His attitude toward American citizens was non-interventionist, partly because he believed strongly in volunteerism. He imagined communities could help themselves.

In Philadelphia charitable organizations attempted to assist those sliding into poverty. But as the Depression wore on, homelessness increased and so-called Hoovervilles--makeshift shantytowns--cropped up along the Schuylkill River.

By the time Roosevelt was elected and ushered in governmental assistance in the form of the New Deal, Hoovervilles were home to average Americans whose lives had been upended by foreclosures and market forces. It wasn't a matter of looking for handouts or a welfare state. It was a matter of survival.

Ironically, when Hoover was inaugurated in 1929, he said: "I have no fears for the future of our country."

Oy vey. Why tempt fate?

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