By Thomas F. Schwartz
In many ways, Herbert Hoover represents a transition from a pre-modern presidency to what is more familiar to us as the modern presidency. In the pre-modern presidency, campaigning occurred only in brief periods before an election and not in off years. Press conferences were few and often the press corps were required to submit questions in advance. Hoover adhered to the old model but a new model was being developed that would assume full expression after 1933.
Hoover’s landslide victory in 1928 prompted Jouett Shouse, chair of the Democratic Executive Committee to rethink how to rebuild the party. Hiring Charles Michelson, the head of the Washington Bureau of the New York World, Shouse advanced an agenda to provide Democrats with continuous information attacking the Hoover administration. The project was funded by John Raskob, a retired director from General Motors. Michelson was described by fellow reporter Albert Warner of the New York Herald Tribune Washington Bureau as “that bitter slam-bang, aggressive, personal type of campaigning.” Michelson issued regular newsletters to Democrats on how to message attacks on Hoover and Hoover administration policies. One writer indicated that “Michelson more than any other person was responsible for creating the depression image of the Hoover Administration which plagued the Republican party for years afterward.” Perhaps the most telling example is Michelson’s use of the phrase “Hooverville” to describe the growth of shanty towns of homeless individuals in major cities across America.
The Shouse strategy produced the intended results. The constant barrage of criticism from 1928 to 1932 produced Democrat gains in Congress in 1930 and the Presidency in 1932. An attempt to discredit Michelson in a widely distributed critical article by the Republican National Committee, Frank Kent’s “Charley Michelson, Hoover’s Gadfly,” may have had the unintended effect of giving more visibility to Michelson. Kent argued “to sum up, the whole aim and idea of Mr. Michelson’s employment is to put Mr. Hoover ‘in bad’ with the American people. That is what he was hired for….The Michelson effort has been to paint a picture of Hoover as an inept, bewildered, weak, and unworthy man.” Clearly Michelson’s criticisms of Hoover were seen by many as unduly personal. Lou Hoover’s comments on being at a party with Michelson in the aftermath of Hoover’s 1932 defeat is discussed in a previous blog. One associate recalls that Hoover commented he held a grudge against only one person who was not FDR but Charles Michelson.
Michelson argued in a memoir, The Ghost Talks, he was doing nothing more than pointing out the weaknesses in Hoover policies and taking advantage of his failure to adapt to the new communication requirements of the presidency. Many of these shortcomings–Hoover’s refusal to personalize himself with photographs with his family and associates for the press, his objection to George Ackerman’s urging to do regular radio addresses, his refusal to allow impromptu remarks to be printed, his excessive reliance on data in speeches to make his arguments rather than explaining it using human examples–all worked against Hoover as an effective communicator. Michelson understood how to connect to the American public as did many of Hoover’s own advisors and friends. Powerful words combined with effective deeds were the best remedy. Results without an effective messaging strategy lacked public impact. It did not help that the Republican National Committee went into hibernations between election cycles, allowing Michelson’s steady barrage of criticism to go unchallenged.