by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During this extraordinary presidential election season, tonight’s post is another in a series dealing with the 1928 campaign, contested by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and New York Governor Al Smith, with the highlighted artifacts from the museum’s collection being the October 1928 issue of Sunset magazine and a pair of dueling essays about the competitors..
The author of the pro-Hoover piece was not a surprise as John L. McNab, a San Francisco attorney, was a long-time supporter and friend and placed his name for nomination at the Republican National Convention at Kansas City in June. McNab began his article by proclaiming that “with the nomination of Herbert Hoover for the presidency, the old era of American public life came to a close.” This was because “the domination of the East in political affairs was definitely interrupted.”
In some ways, Hoover was the first Californian to be a presidential nominee, though he was a native of Iowa, as he was in the first class at the newly minted Leland Stanford Junior University, where he met his wife, Lou Henry, also from Iowa, but who spent much of her childhood in Whittier and briefly attended the Los Angeles Normal School for teacher education before heading north.
While portraying Hoover as a Western figure, McNab noted that he was an international figure, thanks to his work with post-World War I food relief to devastated European nations, followed by his seven years heading the Commerce department under presidents Harding and Coolidge. So, while he understood the West and its needs and future role in America’s economic development, he was fully versed with all parts of the country.
McNab pointedly wrote “The East is the mill; the West is the granary. The East is the loom; the West and South are the plantations,” making a fine, if not an accurate, point about the industrial capacity of the former and the agricultural predominance of the latter. As for the candidate’s long experience as an engineer, the lawyer offered the argument that he wasn’t one of just mechanics or construction but was “a co-relating engineer of human forces” who “sweeps the horizon of every subject” so that “nothing escapes his view.”
With his total understanding, purportedly, of the West and its economic interests and contributions, McNab turned his attention to the belief that “the prosperity of the West rests on the Republican tariff schedules,” a staple of G.O.P. platforms for years with tariffs not only geared to protecting industries and farmers, but providing federal revenue in lieu of perceived burdensome taxation. For a period in the Teens, the Democratic-controlled Congress lowered tariffs and introduced the income tax, but a resurgent Republican party returned to protectionist measures, though American farmers struggled during the Twenties with overproduction and steeply declining prices. In the 1928 campaign, Hoover promised to remedy the problem with increased tariffs—which McNab, naturally, highlighted.
In fact, the attorney went so far as to suggest that “everything the farmer produces would be the victim of destructive competition of the tariff were removed.” Specifically, he claimed, “the vast citrus industry of Southern California . . . would pass out of existence within a year, if the tariff schedules were removed,” though he predicted ruin for every other farmer and grower. He quoted Hoover as suggesting that, should tariffs be repealed, it would lead to “California poorer schools; it means poorer homes; it means larger burdens and longer hours of labor; it means the degradation of our people [original italics].” It is interesting to note that, once tariffs passed out of favor throughout much of the world during the Depression years, the G.O.P. became a fierce defender of free markets, though the current administration is now hawkish on protective tariffs.
McNab wrote further of Hoover’s long interest in mining, as well as his vital interest in the St. Lawrence Waterway, an important issue for the Great Lakes region of the nation (and, of course, that of Canada.) It was averred that Hoover’s engineering background would prove essential to that project. Importantly for the West was that Boulder Dam project along the Colorado River and McNab noted that “The City of Los Angeles, now approaching the danger limit of exhaustion for tis swiftly mounted population, will be rendered secure for all time” once this work, renamed Hoover Dam, was completed.
McNab also claimed that his goal was to project only the positive in the candidate, but he felt compelled to address a criticism that Hoover, while heading the U.S. Food Administration during the world war, “fixed the war-time price of wheat and to the farmer’s injury.” The lawyer answered that, in the difficult course of his duties, Hoover sought to protect American farmers by advocating a setting of a price that was higher than if he had not sprung into action and that the accusations against him were a pure political ploy not grounded in fact.
Moreover, McNab asserted that Hoover’s actions after the war prevented the crash of the farming industry for an entire decade. He blamed European countries from backing out of firm commitments to buy American farm products which boomed with production. Hoover, however, leapt to action, traveling to Europe, and “exacted compliance with contracts by appeals to honor where honor was the only law to which appeal could be made.” This work “fed hungry races and saved the American farmer” and “deserve a place among the historic records of mankind!”
The author of the essay supporting Smith was Gertrude Atherton, which was curious because she was a fiction writer of repute but not known for political analysis. Still, she was a rare female voice in magazines like this, though perhaps not as much so in the West as elsewhere in the country. In any case, she began by observing that California was a decidedly Republican state (though, actually, the country leaned heavily towards the G.O.P. in the landslide victories of 1920 and 1924), but launched into an attack that McNab foresaw concerning the plight of farmers.
She asserted that “whether he deserves it or not” Hoover “has that reputation . . . [that] he did nothing for American agriculture” and fixed prices for grain while running the U.S. Food Administration that showed “he went far out of his way to deprive the farmer of a price for his grain.” She observed that other industries were not only not subject to limitations on pricing, but benefited from requirements to nations who borrowed from America to buy from American manufacturers and suppliers. This, she argued, “struck the farmer as a double -edged sword.”
She went to claim that it was the policy of the food administration “to buy quantities of grain, at the prevailing price, and dump it on the market . . . in order to force a reduction” and, for this, “the agriculturists never have forgiven” as “the bottom was knocked out of the market by these devices.” She continued to assert that “these sturdy Western pioneers, who still cherish revolutionary traditions, find it hard to understand by what right Hoover dares to seek the high office of President of the United States.” She went on to aver that he put more care into the needs of European nations than of bankrupted American farmers, stating that, while he may have avoided starvation for Belgians, he sent farmers into impoverished circumstances.
Atherton also raised concerns about “the monopoly of hydro-electric power” which would essentially be a tax on water, light, heat, power, irrigation and industry and noted that Smith stood for engaging in such projects “on behalf of the public,” a position she was sure had wideapread support in the West. She also quoted famed writer Sinclair Lewis, who opined that the way to defeat Hoover was to remind voters “he sat through two corrupt administrations without ever having peeped [spoken out]!” In particular, the writer argued, the Secretary of Commerce “did absolutely nothing, even by warning the people of the robbery of the public domain” during the Harding years of 1921-1923.
Proclaiming that Western states “stand for honesty, fair play, freedom and religious tolerance,” this last being a rare mention of the fact that Smith was the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate (and with John F. Kennedy is one of only two in American history), though she went on to quote the Constitution that “there shall be no religious test imposed for holding office.” She added that the governor was “for temperance, as opposed to prohibition.”
On this point, she waved aside the claim that this was a major campaign issue, reminding the reader that it took three-quarters of the states to repeal the constitutional amendment and that Smith preferred “to let each State decide questions of that kind for itself. Atherton presented this position as “guarding sacredly the powers of the states, preventing encroachment upon individual liberty, and protecting the citizens against ‘snooping'” through unconstitutional search and seizure actions.
This, she went on, was about “preserving the sanctity of the home, the freedom of conscience, and, generally speaking, the rights of man—all of which have been violated ad are treated as chaff.” Rhetoric such as this sounds much akin to conservative Republican pronouncements, especially as she asserted that there was a “drift away from the protection given in the Bill of Rights . . .for religious freedom” though she claimed that “Smith’s election would silence patriotic perversions and give us the air of freedom, unpolluted, to begin again.” Not only that, but Atherton pronounced that “the common people are thinking—that the politicians and the parsons are whittling away their rights” and that average Americans “want more bigness and less bigotry.” She continued that the West was more like the pre-revolutionary colonies “with its ideal of freedom still fresh, and its love of justice and the square deal foremost in its mind. It shall not be trampled upon.”
While repeating that Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the Golden State, she offered a rebuttal in an anecdote that, in rural Siskiyou Country, it as claimed that a district there had sixteen of eighteen voters preferring Smith (hardly a statistical sample!), adding that a summer school polling at the University of California showed the candidates at a dead heat, and a swelling of supporters for Smith in San Francisco. She claimed that Smith had “those peculiar qualities of heart and mind which force [rural Californians] to accept him as a fellow human being, whom they can not only trust, but can understand.”
With her much shorter essay winding down, Atherton worked up to a theme of solidarity between the New York City urbanite and California’s rural denizens by asserting “let the bond of the Union in this country henceforth be the bond of love and reciprocity.” Moreover, she claimed that, if Smith could take California, then “the states where he is best known, where he has been weighed and not found wanting, will give him the necessary electoral votes to make him President.” This could only happen, however, if “in a patriotic mood,” voters saw that electing the governor would “restore the common man to his rights and the common country to its splendid traditions.”
To Atherton, Smith “is the inspiration of a restored Americanism” because “he is the typical husband and father, as he is the statesman, human and sympathetic, peculiarly fitted to enlist the support of enfranchised women, whom he conspicuously helped to liberate and honor.” Saving her appeal to women for the very end, she claimed “women cannot abide mollycoddles.” Smith “is a natural leader and rises superior to the clamor of the streets” being “frank and fearless” in his winning of hearts and votes.
McNab argued much as an attorney would in court, while Atherton employed her considerable prose skills as expected from a noted author. In the end, the results of 1928 were not that much different from the preceding two campaigns. Hoover swamped Smith with a winning margin in the popular vote of over 17 points, while racking up 444 electoral college vote to just 87 for Smith, taking 40 of the 48 states.
In California, the shellacking was even more commanding, as Hoover collected 1.16 million votes to just 614,000 for Smith, a staggering 30 point win. Yet, within a year of winning the election, Hoover would face the onset of the Great Depression and he went on to shoulder much of the blame for the worsening economy which hit the depth by the 1932 election, which he lost badly to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Smith’s successor as New York’s governor.