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The Art of Political Discourse

FDR/Hoover documents at Karpeles Manuscript Museum

Documents on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, North Hall, on the New Deal and the Republican response to it, evoke a kind of reverse déjà vu.

Ten years after the stock market collapse that set off the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover, on whose presidential watch the calamity occurred, was still railing against FDR’s radical program to get the nation back on viable economic footing.

In 1939, in a letter to radio newsman Lowell Thomas, Hoover begs off appearing on Thomas’s broadcast for the reason, he writes, that “I am up to my eyes organizing and fighting the New Deal.”

Hoover didn’t get it, right from the start. In early September 1929, the stock market reached its highest peak ever thus far, but then began a steady decline until October 29, 1929, when the bottom dropped out. The next day, October 30, Hoover declared, “The fundamental business of the country…is on a sound and prosperous basis.”

Coincidentally (or not), a few weeks later, Hoover proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. In the proclamation, dated November 5, 1929, he averred that “God has greatly blessed us as a nation in the year now drawing to a close. Both capital and labor have enjoyed an exceptional prosperity.”

The Hoover documents share display space with letters from Roosevelt regarding some of the New Deal programs, including the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

The purpose of the WPA was to create jobs by funding public work projects. The projects included construction of 125,000 public buildings and related facilities, and 650,000 miles of roadways, but also many arts projects for visual artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Still, millions of Americans remained jobless, until World War II definitively (though temporarily) solved the national unemployment problem.

Nor did Hoover seem to get much of a message from the 1932 national election, which swept him out of office and FDR in. Shortly after the election, he wrote to a campaign worker that the results should not be taken “as a discouragement to the Republican Party, but as a challenge to continued zealous and aggressive work on behalf of its sound and enduring principles.” Sound familiar?

But if the Hoover opposition to the New Deal is reminiscent in many ways of current GOP opposition to Obama’s program to avert a present economic depression, it differs from the contemporary case in admitting a modicum of civility in the discourse, and even a touch of humor.

In a speech from 1938 on “The Economic Consequences of the New Deal,” Hoover said: “Last evening Mr. Roosevelt spoke highly of his success in creating economic stability, prosperity, and security for the average man. Naturally he did not mention the 11 million unemployed…and some other instabilities and insecurities” such as low prices for farm products, which were causing farmers to burn some of their crops in an effort to raise prices.

“He probably thought I could be relied on to supply those omissions tonight,” Hoover said. “I will do that…”

But he sounds like the current Republicans again when he says, “I shall show that the consequences of New Deal morals, their undermining of representative government, and their economic policies not only cancel out the humanitarian objectives which [the New Deal] professes…but…undermine all hope for progress in standards of living for all our people.”

He says there are “two ways of doing the work of feeding, clothing, housing, and providing comforts for the people. One is the way of liberty…the system of free enterprise. The other is the way of compulsion…”

The FDR/Hoover manuscripts will remain on display through April.

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