Was Herbert Hoover a good or bad President, and why?

  • I considered this long ago, and came to the conclusion that it was the only President whose name that schoolchildren have to say twice—Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States of America.

    Years ago, I wrote a column about President Cleveland, at a time when I was the editor of a newspaper in a community that was named in his honor, and some people were questioning what was so important about him that the community bore his name. Here’s part of what I had to say on the subject:

    (T)here are two Adamses and two Bushes, of course, but they’re father and son. Cleveland is the only man who was President, got voted out of office, and then got back in. Even the manner in which this happened is unusual—under a different voting system, Cleveland might instead have been America’s first three-term President. And like many modern Democrats, he won his elections by drawing bipartisan support from a “center” coalition of voters disaffected from extremists on both sides.

    When he won the 1884 election, he was the first Democrat to become President since before the Civil War. Many Republicans, angered at what they saw as corruption in their party, voted for Cleveland, who had a squeaky-clean reputation as Governor of New York, where he battled crooked Gilded Age leaders such as the notorious “Boss” Tweed of New York City.

    Cleveland’s agenda in his first term was very conservative (remember, at this time, the Dems were the “conservative” party; the GOP was “liberal”). He vetoed subsidies for unprofitable farms, stating:

    “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character…”

    Cleveland then took thousands of people off the federal welfare and Civil War benefit rolls who were receiving money fraudulently. He lowered protective tariffs (taxes on imports), which opened America up to more foreign trade. He relieved railroad companies of 81 million acres of Federal land in the west, which had also been acquired through fraud. And last but not least, he vetoed literally hundreds of wasteful spending bills. His 300-plus vetoes in four years were more than twice as many as every other President up to that time combined.

    When he was warned that his actions might cost him re-election, he replied:

    “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?”

    In 1888, he became a precursor to Al Gore (note: this column was written in 2001, when Gore’s loss was still fresh in people’s minds), losing the election despite winning the popular vote over the GOP’s Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland accepted the defeat graciously, but left no doubt he intended to run again. As he left office, his wife Frances told the White House staff not to change anything because they would be back in four years.

    Harrison was a flop as President, and sure enough, Cleveland again managed to put together a coalition of Democrats and fence-sitting Republicans in 1892 to regain the White House.

    Harrison’s administration left Cleveland with a mess; inflation was rampant and corruption was back. Again, he acted resolutely, enacting currency reforms that stabilized the currency and gave the country a strong gold reserve, although the economy remained shaky for a number of years. His policies were unpopular even with his own party, but they were successful in the long-term.

    In 1893, he was faced with a strike of the nation’s railroad workers—an industry that was vital to the nation’s prosperity in the pre-flight era. As Ronald Reagan did in 1981, when the air traffic controllers struck, Cleveland ordered them back to work, and got an injunction in Federal court backing him up.

    Most of them complied, but one group in Chicago refused to obey. Cleveland ordered the military to enforce the injunction, promising that even if it took the whole army and navy to deliver a post card in Chicago, it would be delivered.

    A year later, when Great Britain tried to bully Venezuela in a border dispute with the British colony of Guyana, Cleveland quite openly insisted that the British accept U.S. arbitration. When the haughty Brits backed down, Cleveland’s popularity with the people soared. Theodore Roosevelt was the one who gained immortality for saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” but it was Grover Cleveland who established the policy.

    Unfortunately, Cleveland had disaffected his own party leadership with the currency reforms, which had effecively put the country on a gold standard—U.S. currency at this time was backed in gold—and they turned on him at the 1896 Democratic convention. This was long before the days when a Ronald Reagan could defy the political establishment and go straight to the people via the airwaves. The ultraconservative William Jennings Bryan got the nomination, and the Democrats were out of the White House for the next 12 years.

    He lived another 11 years, dying on June 24, 1908 at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. His last words were, “I have tried so hard to do right.”

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