Friday, April 1, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part III Warren Harding/Calvin Coolidge/Herbert Hoover

While Woodrow Wilson - prior to his stroke - and Theodore Roosevelt had largely expanded the role of the presidency, Leuchtenburg notes that, "Under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and [though to a lesser extent] Herbert Hoover, the expansion of the presidency all but ground to a halt. These dozen years formed a hiatus between what had gone on before and what was to come."

Harding, of course, is generally viewed as one of the worst - if not the worst - president in history. One positive thing [and perhaps it is the only one] that can be said for Harding is that he did appoint a strong Cabinet. He chose Charles Evans Hughes at State, Andrew Mellon at Treasury, Henry Wallace at Agriculture, and Herbert Hoover at Commerce. Leuchtenburg notes, "This assemblage indicates that there was something more to Harding then Menckenian caricatures of him suggested, and that his presidency was not barren of innovation. He recommended anti-lynching legislation, urged aid to farmers, sought to regulate the radio industry, and succeeded in establishing a Veterans Bureau ." Unfortunately, though, his appointment of others - such as Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall - would have doomed his presidency had Harding lived.

In terms of his effect on the institution of the presidency, Leuchtenburg cites the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which, "centralized control of spending by federal departments in the White House. Until then, the President of the United States had been in the absurd position of having almost no authority to allocate spending by the government of which he was chief executive, and department heads ran their own fiefdoms. The statute called upon the president to pull together estimates of expenditures by segments of the executive branch to submit to Congress a yearly budget and an accompanying message - a stipulation that bound not just Harding but each of his successors."

Harding's immediate successor was Calvin Coolidge. Unsurprisingly, Leuchtenburg writes of him, "Coolidge may well have been the least magnetic personality in the history of the executive office." Leuchtenburg dismisses those - like Ronald Reagan - who argued that Coolidge was actually calculating in his inactivity, writing, "in truth, the president offered little guidance either to Congress or to his cabinet."

Leuchtenburg also argues that Coolidge was a poor communicator not because he was silent but, "because he had so little to impart. His meetings with the press were stilted affairs. He required reporters to submit questions in writing in advance, and he forbade them to identify him as a source of information. He had nothing, or virtually nothing, to say about the most compelling features of the decade: the Ku Klux Klan, the Scopes Trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, or the Great Bull Market."

Herbert Hoover, it was thought by many, was the best prepared man to enter the White House, based on his successful private and public career to that point. But Leuchtenburg disagrees, "Hoover carried into the presidency with him a curious misreading of his own experiences. The most prominent bureaucrat of his generation, he insisted that all of his achievements in providing relief for millions had resulted from private effort by public-spirited volunteers when, in fact, the successes had largely been made possible by the resources of the state. Seeing himself as a dispassionate engineer operating with the precision of a slide rule, he trapped himself in a doctrine."

After initially reacting to the stock market crash in October 1929 with action, however, Hoover stopped. Granting that Hoover's initial responses represented an unparalleled intervention by the federal government, immediately after those first few steps, "Hoover spent almost all of the rest of his term resisting entreaties that he take a more active role in relieving hardship. He was not a weak president; rather, he acted forcefully to circumscribe the federal government....Hoover responded to the dreadful suffering by denial...The more hardship spread, the more determined Hoover was to turn a blind eye to it."

Although Hoover worked poorly with Congress, this actually led to some of the more positive aspects of his presidency. Indeed, ironically that relationship provided one of the rare instances where Hoover strengthened the presidency.  In 1931, when, "the Senate withdrew its approval of three of his nominees to the Federal Power Commission, though the men were already carrying out their duties, he stood up for the prerogatives of the chief executive, and the U.S. Supreme Court sustained him by establishing the principle that the Senate may not withdraw its consent once it has been given." Another example was his bypassing of Congress with executive orders, to "greatly increase the National Forest Reserve, and augmented national parks by an extraordinary 3,000,000 acres."

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