The most contentious transition before Trump and Biden: Herbert Hoover and FDR
By RONALD G. SHAFER | Special To The Washington Post | Published: November 9, 2020
President Herbert Hoover had just lost the 1932 election by a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But during a testy transition, Hoover kept trying to pressure the president-elect into fighting the Great Depression by supporting the very policies he had campaigned against.
Roosevelt, who had promised Americans a "New Deal" to get the country back on its feet, said no deal to endorsing the Hoover program. "It's not my baby," the New York governor told reporters.
The transition between President Donald Trump and President-elect Joseph Biden until Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 promises to be the most contentious since the 1933 handoff. Trump has refused to concede the election, and a key administration official is following his lead, refusing to sign a letter that would enable Biden's transition team to formally start working.
During the Great Depression, inaugurations weren't held until March 4, the date set in the early days of the Republic when transportation was difficult.
So Hoover was a lame duck for four months. During that time, "he tried to persuade Roosevelt to abandon the New Deal, which Hoover remained sure could only lead to catastrophe," wrote Eric Rauchway in his book "Winter War. Hoover, Roosevelt and the First Clash Over the New Deal."
Just as Trump claims the country is turning the corner on the pandemic, Hoover insisted an economic recovery was underway. Yet unemployment was rising above 20% and banks were failing across the country. Meantime, Adolf Hitler was taking power in Germany.
At their first post-election, face-to-face meeting on Nov. 22 in the Red Room of the White House, Hoover was shocked to see the severe disability of Roosevelt, who walked with braces because of polio. Hoover, 58, opened the meeting with an hour-long lecture on international economic issues.
The president took the 50-year-old Roosevelt's friendly nods as agreement to his plan that they jointly form a foreign debt commission. Hoover later told an adviser he had been "educating a very ignorant" if "well-meaning young man."
To Hoover's dismay, the next day Roosevelt rejected the president's plan. Hoover should proceed on his own if he wished, Roosevelt said. Or as humorist Will Rogers put it: "It's your onion. You peel it until March 4."
In December, Hoover tried again. In an exchange of telegrams, he urged Roosevelt to join in appointing a delegation to a World Economic Conference in London. When Roosevelt resisted, Hoover dropped the idea and made the telegrams public.
"Governor Roosevelt considers it undesirable" to engage in joint efforts on the economy, a White House statement said. FDR responded that "it is a pity" that Hoover was suggesting that he opposed "cooperative action."
The growing impression was that the two men were "congenitally unable to understand each other or to go along on methods," wrote Arthur Krock of the New York Times.
Roosevelt, not wanting to look uncooperative, phoned Hoover in early January to set up another meeting. The president was wary and had a stenographer on his end of the call. "I suppose he will tell the press I called him up and invited him to come here," Hoover told aides.
The two men met again on Jan. 20. This time they managed to reach an agreement for talks with Britain about its war debts to the United States, but only after Roosevelt took office.
The long transition took a scary turn on Feb. 15. In Miami, an unemployed bricklayer fired shots at an open convertible where Roosevelt was seated next to Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. A woman in the crowd hit the gunman's arm as he was shooting. The bullets struck Cermak, who died a few weeks later.
Hoover expressed relief that Roosevelt was uninjured even as he quickly resumed lobbying him. On Feb. 18, he had the Secret Service deliver a confidential, handwritten letter to Roosevelt at the Hotel Astor in New York.
In the letter, which misspelled FDR's name as "Roosvelt," Hoover warned of "a most critical situation," of "public alarm" about the economy, especially bank failures. Hoover asked Roosevelt to issue a statement promising such actions as a balanced budget, even if it meant raising taxes, to restore public confidence and ensure "resumption of our march to recovery."
Roosevelt considered the letter "cheeky" and didn't respond for 12 days. Finally, he wrote back that "mere statements" wouldn't accomplish anything.
Hoover privately called his successor a "madman." In the view of historian Rauchway, Hoover's strategy now was to show that "the foolish New Dealer had been given every chance to come to his senses"; when FDR failed, Hoover would be redeemed, "and the people would return him to the presidency."
The clash continued up to the day before inauguration. Hoover invited Roosevelt and his family to a ceremonial 4 p.m. tea at the White House. FDR's top economic adviser, Raymond Moley, stayed back at the nearby Mayflower Hotel to take a nap.
When Roosevelt arrived, he found that Hoover had called in the treasury secretary and the head of the Federal Reserve for a separate private meeting. "For God's sake, get Ray," FDR said. Moley rushed over from the Mayflower.
The private meeting went badly. Eleanor Roosevelt later told several reporters that she had heard the conversation through an open door. Hoover asked her husband to support closing the nation's banks temporarily to head off panic withdrawals.
"Like hell I will!" Roosevelt responded. "If you haven't the guts to do it yourself, I'll wait until I'm president to do it."
As the social gathering broke up, Roosevelt told Hoover that he needn't feel obligated to make a return courtesy call. Hoover responded stiffly: "Mr. Roosevelt, when you are in Washington as long as I have been, you will understand that the president of the United States calls on nobody."
An angry FDR said his son James "wanted to punch him [Hoover] in the eye." That evening, Hoover kept phoning Roosevelt until past midnight to try to get his backing on the banks.
Inauguration Day was cool and damp. Hoover and Roosevelt shared a blanket while riding in an open car from the White House to the Capitol. FDR tried to make small talk, but Hoover mostly stared grimly ahead. Roosevelt finally just waved his silk top hat to the crowd lining Pennsylvania Avenue.
In his inauguration speech before 100,000 people, Roosevelt addressed the Depression with the famous words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The next day was a Sunday. On Monday, the new president announced the closing of the nation's banks for a four-day "bank holiday."
Meanwhile, the states had ratified the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — it was known as the "lame duck amendment" — changing Inauguration Day to Jan. 20. Roosevelt died in 1945 during his fourth term in office and never had to go through another presidential transition.