Herbert Hoover was often mentioned in my family as I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1940s and 1950s. Grandmother Simmons had a picture of Franklin Roosevelt in a place of honor in the living room despite Grandfather’s raging against FDR’s encouragement of African-Americans (a term, by the way, my grandfather would never use). Grandma kept reminding us that Roosevelt saved them after they lost the family farm, moved to the city, and took my father out of school in the fourth grade to go to work on a wagon delivering blocks of ice for old fashioned iceboxes. Hoover’s name was never mentioned except to remind us that “he caused the depression.”
I heard the same message from my mother whose family managed to keep their farm as her older brothers supported her and their widowed mother through hard times. Blaming Herbert Hoover was one of the few items on which Mama agreed with her chief rival, my Grandma Simmons.
That’s why I started a family crisis in 1956 by coming home from school and reporting what I learned in social studies in my sixth-grade class. “Mama, I found out that Herbert Hoover didn’t cause the Great Depression.” The sound waves from my mother’s explosion still ring in my ears. “I lived through it,” she yelled at me. “No matter what books say, I know who caused the depression.”
That was the day I decided history was my favorite subject and set out to discover why feelings were so strong in my family. In matching the family oral accounts with the history books, I came to understand why they were “yellow dog Democrats,” which meant they would vote for Lassie over any Republican.
My life experiences have been very different from my parents and grandparents. Most notably, public expectations of presidents changed radically because of the Great Depression, Second World War, and the Cold War. Under Harry Truman, American law eliminated the old laissez-faire restrictions that Hoover and his predecessors had considered moral imperatives. The president was made responsible for the national economy and national security. Since then elections have often hinged on the state of the economy as the American public graded presidents by its performance. Two groups of executive advisors – the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council – played an essential role as the president made emergency decisions without having to endure slow congressional processes. However, emergency actions had to be followed up with congressional deliberations because the separation of powers was not eliminated even during crises.
The near-dictatorial powers of the president during emergencies were extended to include response to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. International trade and tourism also brought awareness of contagious diseases as emergencies that could develop remarkably fast. The National Security Presidency gave our chief executive temporary dictatorial authority to mobilize and direct federal agencies and even industry to respond quickly to any bona fide emergency.
The rapid descent of our nation into economic and health crises in 2020 prompts a comparison of present actions with Hoover, a pre-national-security president, and George W. Bush who was president at the beginning of the recession of 2008. Many presidents since Hoover have stumbled during emergencies, but none have been complete failures until Donald J. Trump. Will those who grow up under the current crisis be justified in following the example of my parents and grandparents in blaming Trump for all the bad things our country is starting to experience?
Hoover, the Hapless President. Intelligence is not a good predictor of presidential success. Few presidents have been smarter than Herbert Hoover, who was a great engineer, philanthropist, and advocate for world peace yet failed as a political leader amidst a national crisis. In my view, Hoover deserves more compassion than judgment because of the relative inexperience of the Federal Reserve System (created in 1913) and the tenacity of outdated ideas such as staying on the gold standard and the laissez-faire principles that hampered government intervention in the economy. Many of Hoover’s errors came while holding to what he thought were important principles even in the face of increasing national desperation. He was not an insensitive human being, as he proved in many ways after his presidency.
The boldness of Franklin Roosevelt set a new standard for presidents. Not all his initiatives worked because flexibility and experimentation in time of emergency were emphasized. The combined experiences of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations led to insights that would help later presidents in making better decisions to avoid economic catastrophes. When the nation found itself in a war after the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt guided us through an unprecedented mobilization of industry and public energy to astonish the world with our industrial capacity and finally end the Great Depression. From that experience emerged support for the National Security Presidency under Harry Truman.
Bush, the Stumbling President. Despite the circulating jokes throughout his presidency, George W. Bush was intelligent, well-educated, and a better leader in a crisis than Hoover. The beneficiary of a tainted election, Bush was unpopular until the nation rallied around him after the attack on the twin towers in September 2001. After performing well in responding to a new Pearl Harbor, he undermined national progress with an unnecessary pre-emptive war in Iraq that destroyed his credibility and turned into a repeat of the Vietnam experience.
Bush made things worse by undermining the bipartisan support he had enjoyed with mean-spirited attacks when he ran for a second term. Economic policies further divided the nation as he ran up the deficit through two expensive wars while using tax cuts for the wealthy as an economic stimulus. To his credit, he courageously made difficult decisions that improved the situation in Iraq and to begin addressing the financial crisis in 2008 as banks were about to collapse. His policies played a significant role in bringing about the recession and near depression at the end of his second term, but he performed better than Hoover by casting aside party orthodoxy to lay a foundation for recovery under the next president.
President Bush had an uneven record during emergencies. The initial response to 9/11 was admirable. Unfortunately, he launched an unnecessary war in Iraq, embarrassed himself by claiming victory prematurely, and failed the people of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Yet he demonstrated a capacity to learn on the job. He showed courage and determination in supporting the surge in Iraq. At the end of his term, he bucked party orthodoxy as he confronted the reality of the growing financial crisis and took action to head off economic collapse. His party rejected him as the TEA Party faction emerged under Bush’s successor to undermine national cooperation on economic issues.
Trump, the Unfit President. No one can deny the cunning intelligence of Donald Trump, yet his incompetence and unfitness for carrying out the basic responsibilities of the presidency are magnified by success in bringing a dwindling Republican party under his control. Character issues had become normal ways for Republicans to attack Democratic opponents. After all, Republican conservatives stood for old-time family and religious values. Or so it appeared until the rise of Trump.
The failings of Donald Trump as president are easy to identify because they are found in claims of great accomplishments that did not occur. Leadership was not shown in legislative accomplishments, but in executive orders undermining reforms and policies instituted by President Obama. He promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington to throw out lobbyist influence, yet nominated a cabinet qualified for the most part by their experience lobbying against the agencies they were nominated to lead. He promised a superior form of healthcare by “repealing and replacing Obamacare,” yet only proposed ways of undermining healthcare guarantees most valued by the American people. A tax cut for the middle class was promised that would cost his family business, but what happened was a gigantic tax giveaway to rich individuals, corporations, and his business interests.
One promise he kept was the terror campaign against all immigrants of color. When a Congress with Republican majorities in both chambers refused to fund a border wall, Trump manufactured crises on the border during the election campaign of 2018. When the nation soundly rejected the false crises, Trump went further by declaring a national emergency then illegally moved funds and ordered the military to do assignments forbidden by law. Court orders seeking to remedy injuries to innocent families wanting legal asylum were evaded or ignored as human rights violations became standard operating procedure on the southern border.
All efforts to seek legislative accomplishments went out the window when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and cranked out hundreds of bills. Bragging about the economy as a personal accomplishment became the centerpiece of his re-election campaign along with blaming Democrats for anything his supporters did not like. The emergence of Covid-19 in China and South Korea was handled as were other issues he saw as a political threat – by claiming it was a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to hurt him politically. Months went by as the virus spread across the globe and internal experts were calling for action to prevent a pandemic. As the states of Washington, California, and New York were engulfed in emergency conditions, Trump finally listened to pleading governors to declare a national emergency, use legal emergency powers to redirect industry, mobilize the military disaster resources, and activate FEMA disaster assistance. In weeks of a growing crisis, he grudgingly dragged his feet in taking key emergency actions, all the while trumpeting what a great job his administration was doing.
How can someone who brags about being a great leader every day – who gloried in executive actions striking down achievements of his predecessor – fail to see a genuine crisis demanding urgent presidential guidance? He was so busy manufacturing false crises as he focused primarily on re-election that he failed to guarantee re-election through foresight and determined leadership in one of the greatest crises ever faced by the United States. Even worse, he is focused on the performance of the stock market as essential to his reelection to the extent that he shows complete insensitivity to the welfare of people whose lives are at risk because he refuses to put the full power of federal authority to work making life-saving medical equipment and supplies available. Heartless is a mild description of the ineptitude and unfitness demonstrated daily by this narcissistic president as the pandemic worsened in the spring of 2020.
Who to Blame? As the pandemic undermines a thriving American economy and plunges us near depression levels of unemployment, it becomes clear that Americans will probably blame Donald Trump as many of them blamed Herbert Hoover when I was growing up. Will that be fair? He did not cause the viral epidemic that began in China. He also did not originate the Republican attack on science that demonized evolution and rejected warnings of environmental and climate catastrophes. But federal agencies with extensive experience in dealing with all types of natural disasters were under incompetent Trump appointees. The experts in the National Security Council that planned for disease outbreaks were eliminated. Many agencies removed scientific data from agency websites because science was not supporting Trump’s statements. Trump’s attacks on science amounted to unilateral disarmament that disregarded the inevitable rise of new diseases. For destroying national ability to combat pandemics and for wasting months of opportunity to get prepared, President Trump is responsible.
Even worse, as the consequences of ignoring a mounting crisis became clear, Donald Trump demonstrated an accelerated inability to manage the public health emergency. Advice from medical experts around the world was clear, as could be seen in the experiences in China and Italy. But reelection politics and his ego were always Trump’s first priority – as increasingly demonstrated in daily briefings that became his substitute for the rallies he was not holding. His behavior as the crisis mounted increasingly proved his unwillingness to focus on reality as he insisted that reality must conform to his preferences.
Herbert Hoover did not cause the Great Depression; he just mishandled it based on flawed principles. George W. Bush contributed to the problems behind the recession of 2008, but he showed resilience and courage in preventing a financial collapse. For Donald Trump, every day of his campaign for the presidency and every day of his term of office have proved his unfitness for the National Security Presidency. The price of his incompetence came due as a new virus threatened the world and forced all Americans to deal with a harsh reality. Still, polls on his approval rating continue to show at least 40% of Americans support a transparently inept president.
How did we come to have a president who is incapable of recognizing a catastrophic crisis? Most voters knew he was a liar and charlatan yet voted for him anyway. Too many voters ignored warnings by national security officials from both parties. Have American voters realized the necessity of an effective National Security President as they live out deadly consequences of the election of 2016? The election in November 2020 is an opportunity to find out if lessons have been learned about the importance of competent and fit national leadership.
Dr. Edward G. Simmons is a graduate of Mercer University and earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. After a career of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, he returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. Noted for energetic and challenging presentations, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.