Wall Street was Booming Just Months Before the Great Depression

Vintage photograph shows Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vt., shortly after learning of President Warren G. Harding’s death.

By Jim O’Neal

After the 1928 election, President-elect Herbert Hoover met with incumbent Calvin Coolidge to make a special request. There were four months to go until inauguration and Hoover planned to use six weeks of that time to tour Latin America. He asked the president to place a battleship at his disposal since he wanted to include Mrs. Hoover, who spoke fluent Spanish.

Initially, Coolidge suggested a cruiser “since it does not cost so much,” but finally relented and gave Hoover the battleship USS Maryland one way and then the USS Utah to come home from Montevideo, Uruguay. This was classic Calvin Coolidge, always looking for creative ways to avoid federal spending.

Then Coolidge dispatched his final annual message to Congress on Dec. 4. The document revealed the optimism felt by Coolidge and the nation as a whole: “No Congress of the United States, on surveying the State of the Union, has met with a more promising prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field, there is tranquility and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife and the highest record of years of prosperity.”

In his budget address, read to Congress the following day, Coolidge said estimated revenues for 1929 were $3.831 billion with expenditures of $3.794 billion. Since the surplus was smaller than hoped for, he would not ask for yet another tax cut.

Calvin Coolidge – who assumed the presidency when Warren Harding died in 1923 – had a simplistic fiscal philosophy: hold the line on spending and if possible reduce it, while at the same time cutting taxes. He believed this would result in greater personal freedom and a more moral population. In 1923, federal expenditures were $3.1 billion and fell to $3.0 billion by 1928. Despite tax cuts, revenues were the same at $3.9 billion and the national debt fell from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion. The number of federal employees in Washington fell from 70,000 to 65,000.

By 1929, automobiles jammed the roads, spurring a major construction boom. The Ford Model A was enthusiastically greeted in 1927, but the talk of the industry was Walter Chrysler, who came from nowhere to build the third-largest company in the industry. Auto sales zoomed and the Federal Oil Conservation Board announced the country was in danger of running out of petroleum.

The front-page news of early 1929 was Britain’s ailing King George V, whose sons were rushing home to his bedside. But the business pages focused on RCA’s purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company, following the acquisition of Keith-Albee-Orpheum, which was renamed RKO. The stock of RCA was now selling at a P/E of 26 and there was talk of a 5-for-1 stock split.

Wall Street was booming and dividends were at an all-time high. The Federal Reserve was complaining about the banks using their money to fuel speculation, but the only response was from the small Dallas Reserve, which raised their discount rate to 5 percent (yawn). A few months later, Wall Street crashed and the entire country spiraled down into the Great Depression, which would last the next 10-plus years.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., President Hoover. It’s all yours!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Empire State Building Remains One of World’s Great Wonders

Guy Carleton Wiggins’ oil on canvas board The Empire State Building, Winter sold for $44,812 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “rose the Empire State Building.”

The “ruins” was an oblique reference to the stock market crash in 1929. Completed on May 1, 1931, on the site where the Waldorf Astoria had stood, no building ever reached so high, so fast; 102 stories tall and with a 200-foot mast to hitch your dirigible. It was built in just over a year, during what would become the nation’s worst depression.

Just a short two years earlier on May 1, 1929, architect William Van Alen had broken ground on the Chrysler Building. He had been commissioned by Chrysler to design and construct the tallest building in the world. When the Chrysler Building opened in April 1930, it was indeed the tallest at a magnificent 925 feet – a world record that would only stand for a fleeting 28 days! Then the Manhattan Bank Tower completed its construction and opened at a height of 927 feet, which allowed it to lay claim to the World’s Tallest title by a measly 2 feet.

Hang on. The race wasn’t over. In the history of high wire, where one-upmanship is the oxygen that fuels architectural competition, the Chrysler Building’s William Van Alen had kept a surprise hidden up his sleeve that would allow him to reclaim this prestigious crown.

Van Alen had designed a stainless spire of five sections, which was lowered through the top of the building. At a fixed time, before a highly appreciative audience, Van Alen delivered his coup de grâce to the Manhattan Bank. A huge derrick, its gears slowly turning, raised the spire from the innards of the Chrysler Building. “It gradually emerged,” Van Alen wrote, “from the top of the dome like a butterfly from its cocoon.” At 1,046 feet, the Chrysler Building was suddenly, once again, the World’s Tallest Building.

Alas, it only remained so for less than a year, when the Empire State Building – topping out at 1,250 feet – grabbed the title for itself. It would retain the crown until 1971 when the World Trade Center towers opened. Fittingly, the group behind the Empire State Building included the Happy Warrior himself, Al Smith, former governor of New York (four times) and the Democratic candidate for president in the 1928 election (won by Herbert Hoover). Smith’s grandchildren cut the ribbon when the world’s (newest) tallest skyscraper opened May 1, 1931, and President Hoover turned on the building’s lights using a remote push button in Washington, D.C.

Subsequently, the building has become a worldwide icon and in 1994 it was named one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers … joining the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal, all American architectural marvels. Plus, who can forget Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in the 1933 classic King Kong, when the beast from Skull Island plucks her from the building?

The Empire State Building took only 410 days to build since the architectural firm used design plans for the (similar but smaller) Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, N.C., a project they had worked on earlier. The staff at the Empire State Building sends a Father’s Day card to the Reynolds Building each year to honor the contribution it made to their existence.

Although long since surrendering its crown for height, the Empire State Building is a “must see” for all tourists to New York and, amazingly, revenue from ticket sales for admission to the observation decks exceeds office space rental income.

Its place in history seems quite secure.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Her Fearless Tongue Made Alice Roosevelt the Most Popular of Presidential Children

Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917) painted this gouache on paper, titled Theodore Roosevelt and His Daughter Alice. It went to auction in May 2006.

By Jim O’Neal

To describe Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980) as a handful would be a gross understatement. She was the only child of Teddy Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee. Her mother died two days after her birth of Bright’s disease – a catch-all term for kidney diseases. Eleven hours before her death, TR’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, had died of typhoid fever. It was a traumatic time in the Roosevelt home and it would haunt Teddy for the rest of his life.

Young Alice never founded a school or hospital, never ran for public office, and was terrified of public speaking, but she became unquestionably the best known and most popular of presidential children.

She was 17 when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, which vaulted her vice-president father into the White House. When she learned of the news, she reportedly let out a war whoop and danced on the front lawn. Years later in an interview with reporter Sally Quinn (third wife of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post), Alice described her feelings as “utter rapture.” This kind of candor made her almost irresistible to the American public, and the press dubbed her “Princess Alice.”

One infatuated biographer described her as the “first female American celebrity of the 20th century.” Her cousin Joseph Alsop – the famous syndicated columnist whose robust opinions appeared in national newspapers for five decades – referred to her as “Washington’s other memorial.” Her celebrity started early, as people all over the country were talking about her antics, her clothes and her fearless tongue, which all delighted the average citizen.

On Inauguration Day in 1905, she was so exuberantly waving to her friends in the crowd that her father chided her by saying, “Alice, this is MY inauguration!” She was a flirt who smoked cigarettes in public and when her father declared that no daughter of his would smoke under his roof, she devilishly climbed to the roof of the White House to smoke on top of his roof. A perplexed TR told renowned author Owen Wister (“The Virginian”): “I can either run the country or attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both!”

After her 1902 society debut, the press constantly speculated on her romantic links with most of Washington’s eligible bachelors. She finally married Congressman Nicholas Longworth (future Speaker of the House) in one of the most famous weddings in American history, with front-page coverage across the country. Longworth was a notorious philanderer. William “Fishbait” Miller, doorkeeper of the House, described him as the “greatest womanizer in the history of Capitol Hill.”

Their marriage was an open sham and Alice was rumored to have had a child with William Borah, who became a senator after Idaho became a state in 1890. He was a perennial contender for president and was responsible for killing President Wilson’s attempt to approve the Treaty of Versailles.

Alice delighted in skewering prominent politicians. Calvin Coolidge “was weaned on a pickle.” Speaking of Herbert Hoover, she said “the Hoover vacuum is more exciting, but of course it is electric.” New York Governor Thomas Dewey, with his slick black hair, reminded Alice of the little groom on the top of a wedding cake. When FDR ran for a third term, she declared, “I’d rather vote for Hitler!”

Her acidic commentary on the rich and famous delighted and amused the public for four generations. Alice Roosevelt died of pneumonia on Feb. 20, 1980. At age 96, she had outlived the children of every other president.

She was a handful.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Early Broadcast Advertising was Shunned … Until Listeners Demanded More

A $12 ticket could get you into the first Super Bowl in 1967. This full-ticket example, a Gold Variation graded PSA NM-MT 8, sold for $26,290 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1967, the cost to air a 30-second commercial in the first Super Bowl was about $40,000. Nearly two weeks ago in Super Bowl LI, the cost had increased to $5 million and fans were eager to see the latest creative efforts of Corporate America to hawk their products on TV. Ads are everywhere we look. They pop up on our computers and iPads and are common on race cars, golf apparel and sports stadiums. The Nike swoosh is instantly recognized.

It was not always this way, at least on radio.

During the early days, many radio stations had a practice of observing a weekly “silent night” when they would go off the air. However, the trend was definitely in the opposite direction as listeners were seeking more programming than the stations could produce. This led to hybrid programs combining content with advertising. Early high-profile examples included The Maxwell House Hour (the No. 1 coffee in the U.S.), General Motors Family Party, and The Ipana Troubadours from Bristol Myers toothpaste.

But the issue of regulation hovered over radio like a dark cloud. Some argued for total government control as was the practice in Britain. An even more vigorous debate erupted over commercial advertising. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover asserted it would kill radio. After all, how many listeners would stay by their radios to learn about the advantages of one soap over another? (Quite a few, it turned out.) He argued for the industry to adopt self-policing policies to curtail advertising excesses.

However, broadcasters were salivating over the new revenues and wanted even more. Finally, in 1926, an NBC variety show was interrupted for a special promotional announcement from Dodge cars and it encountered little audience objections. From this point forward, commercial breaks during regular programs were the norm.

Advertising became an integral part of radio broadcasting and never hesitated again.

Some early sponsors did worry about being too aggressive and carefully chose tasteful, discreet language … “Swift & Co has a few practical hints on how to lower your meat bills.” That quickly changed once they discovered consumer-crazy citizens of the 1920s were eager to embrace radio advertising. Far from being insulted, people desperately wanted to hear the messages. They wanted to stay hip, keep up with the latest technologies and the most modern forms of behavior.

A hundred years later, I have a smart phone with more computing power than an Apollo mission, that can hold all my music and trace my ancestry. But after spending most of my life chasing larger screen TVs, I do object to watching my programs on my watch!

Must be a generational thing. Times change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding’s Funeral Train Transfixed the World

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President Harding was popular with Americans, but the Harding Scandals later tainted his legacy.

By Jim O’Neal

The news of President Warren G. Harding’s death astonished the American people. Telephone and telegraph lines stayed busy between San Francisco and Washington. A special railroad car, “The Superb,” was outfitted as a hearse. Twenty-four hours after the president died, the train left San Francisco, pulling the lighted car with its flag-draped coffin, honor guard and banks of flowers.

“The spectacle of the funeral train traversing the entire breadth of the United States,” observed The Washington Post, “is not to be forgotten.”

News of Harding’s death arrived at the White House by telephone. Irwin “Ike” Hoover, the White House Chief Usher, had been trying to keep a diary, but he never seemed to make a record of important things. “President dies” was all he recorded that day. In fact, his book was merely a series of blank pages for all the early days of August 1923. Hoover’s job was to run the White House, not record history. He quickly set to work hanging crepe over the mirrors of the East Room. Then the shades were drawn and the house was closed to the public.

Later, the book 42 Years in the White House chronicled Hoover’s service, which started in 1891 (when he installed the first electrical wiring in the White House) and continued through nine presidents, starting with Benjamin Harrison and ending with Herbert Hoover. He died in 1933 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the White House for his funeral. Oh, the tales that probably didn’t get recorded.

Harding’s funeral train pulled into Union Station on Aug. 7. It had held the world transfixed during its five-day trip across the nation. An honor guard transported the coffin from the train with great ceremony and Harding’s body was placed in the East Room. The funeral was held in the Capitol with his Cabinet, Congress and a large group of invited dignitaries.

Florence Harding had a quiet dinner with Calvin Coolidge and his family, and would remain in the White House for five busy days. She had a fire built in the fireplace in the Treaty Room and then methodically started burning the presidential papers she determined should not survive. Then she had all the remaining papers packed into boxes and removed to a nearby friend’s house. Then she resumed the burning more slowly in small fires on the lawn.

President Harding’s secretary, George Christian, stood by helplessly during this process, until he found some papers undisturbed in the Oval Office and hid them in the pantry on the first floor. They remained there, apparently forgotten, until after Mrs. Harding’s death. Then they were given to the Library of Congress. No other papers of President Harding are known to have survived the purge of his records.

Later, the “Harding Scandals” would offer one possible reason for this unusual situation.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Ford Viewed his Legacy as Rebuilding Confidence in the Presidency

gerald-ford-presidential-seal-hooked-rug
Gerald Ford’s Presidential Seal hooked rug, used in his home office in Rancho Mirage, Calif., sold for $13,145 at a December 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Public opinion polls as early as 1975 indicated that President Gerald Ford would be unlikely to win the Republican nomination for president in 1976. The main competition came from the conservative former governor of California, Ronald Reagan. However, Ford was determined to campaign hard and plunged into an aggressive schedule.

The mass demonstrations at the White House had finally started to wind down, although there was another incident in March 1975. Sixty-two protesters entered the grounds on the regular daily tour and then refused to leave, saying the U.S. should end involvement in the Indochina war and liberate the 200,000 political prisoners in South Vietnam. President Ford’s amnesty offer to those who had avoided the draft expired on March 1, and the protesters also demanded amnesty for “anyone who had resisted the war.” Most were booked and released from jail.

As the president started his campaign trip West, there were some nasty surprises lurking in Northern California. On Sept. 5, 27-year-old Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a cult follower of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, pulled a partially loaded Colt-45 and fired it at Ford when he was two feet away. There was no bullet in the firing chamber and an alert Secret Service agent grabbed the gun before it could be fired again.

Three weeks later, as Ford left his San Francisco hotel (the St. Francis), 45-year-old Sara Jane Moore, a civil-rights activist, fired a 38-caliber revolver at him, but missed. A bystander prevented her from taking a second shot. Both women were convicted and given life sentences. Subsequently, both were released under a federal law that allows parole after 30 years, although “Squeaky” served two extra years for a prison escape/recapture.

gerald-ford
President Ford

At the GOP convention in Kansas City, Ford narrowly won the nomination on Aug. 19 with 1,187 votes to Reagan’s 1,070. He chose Bob Dole for his running mate. The Democrats picked Jimmy Carter and once again the opinion polls showed that the president was far less popular than the Georgia peanut farmer.

Ford challenged Carter to a series of televised debates – the first time an incumbent president debated an opponent. Ford also campaigned hard and nearly caught Carter, but in the November election he became the first sitting president to be defeated since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

In his final State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 12, 1977, Ford said, “I am proud of the part I have played in rebuilding confidence in the presidency, confidence in our free system and confidence in our future. Once again, Americans believe in themselves, believe in their leaders, and in the promise that tomorrow holds for their children.”

Amen.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Van Buren’s ‘Palatial’ White House Not Popular with Voters

martin-van-buren-large-oval-sulfide-brooch
This Martin Van Buren oval sulfide brooch with the slogan “The Country Demands his Re-election,” sold for $12,500 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Martin Van Buren achieved the unique distinction of holding the offices of state senator and attorney general of New York, U.S. senator, governor of New York, U.S. secretary of state, vice president and then president.

However, he was never able to win popular support for himself or his policies at the national level.

The nation’s first major economic depression, the Panic of 1837, was undoubtedly the primary cause for undermining his popularity, although he was not responsible for the causation. Nearly a century later, another president, Herbert Hoover, would suffer nearly the same unfortunate fate.

Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen (1782) and he became adroit at behind-the-scenes political maneuvers. Yet, the general impression of him was that he was snobbish, autocratic and a conniver (“The Fox”). Van Buren became an obvious target for the poison darts of the Whigs as they characterized him as the antithesis of Andrew Jackson’s common-man philosophy.

Van Buren did little to combat criticism of this kind and in some respects even seemed to encourage it in his use of the White House. Adverse comments on the high style of living and aristocratic pretension in the WH increased each year of his presidency. By 1840, newspaper slurs on Van Buren as a princely pretender escalated and the continuing agony of the Panic made good copy in the Whig press.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1840, the House of Representatives sat as a committee to hear a prepared address by Charles Ogle, a Whig from Somerset, Pa., on the subject of President Van Buren and his “palatial” White House. One of the president’s supporters refuted the allegation, but then Ogle unleashed a dramatic rebuttal. This time he kept the house floor for three days and by the second day, the galleries were packed with spectators. This highly unusual attack made Ogle famous and printed copies of his remarks were circulated, first around the Capitol and then nationally by most newspapers. It was a devastating indictment of a president.

Martin Van Buren was too seasoned a politician to lose his temper, but his detachment from the storm of protest against him by the Whigs surprised even his closest friends.

When it came time for the 1840 election, the Whigs took a cue from the Jacksonians of 1828 and drafted a common-man hero – General William Henry Harrison. By then, sentiment had turned against Van Buren and he was defeated. A record number of citizens voted, 2.5 million, with Van Buren losing by 150,000. In the Electoral College, it was worse, with Harrison capturing 19 of the 26 states.

For all the bitterness of the campaign, Van Buren was determined not to be a poor loser. He not only witnessed Harrison’s oath-taking, but was among the first to shake his hand. The “Little Magician” offered every courtesy, gaining the admiration of a skeptical press. He left Washington by train. However, it was not his intention to be gone forever. He would try to regain the presidency in the next two elections.

Despite his efforts, he would never live in the White House again.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Harding Entered Office on a High Note … then Came the Scandals

warren-g-harding-and-james-m-cox-absolutely-stunning-matched-pair-of-large-1920-rarities
This matched pair of Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox 1920 campaign buttons sold for $6,875 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Republicans returned to power in the election of 1920 with the victory of Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Isolated even further in the confines of the White House, Woodrow Wilson and family waited out the year and the first two months of 1921. The outgoing president’s condition had stopped improving. He was feeble and mostly occupied with his books and papers, though he now lacked the mental acuity that was key to his greatness.

Late in his term, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and his spirits rose. Remorse yielded to genuine gratification, an indulgence he rarely allowed himself even in the good times. However, Edith Wilson found little diversion from this almost oppressive situation. The world was slowly passing the Wilsons by without a second glance.

The 1920 campaign had been dull and lackluster, with Harding remaining in Ohio on his front porch, greeting thousands of well-wishers and speaking to them informally. The Democrats had tried to make the League of Nations a campaign issue, but Harding’s position was too obscure since he was really only interested in preserving the Senate’s constitutional rights regarding foreign treaties. When voters got to the polls, politicians discovered the campaigns had not mattered. The people were so tired of government restrictions and hardships imposed by the war that they sought a complete change in administrations and a return to “America First.”

Harding and running mate Calvin Coolidge drubbed James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the popular vote and electoral college (404 to 127).

Between the election and inauguration, Harding chose his cabinet, carefully balancing the membership with close political friends and leaders in the Republican Party. It was a blue-chip group that included Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of New York, Supreme Court Justice and presidential candidate in 1916) as Secretary of State; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover; and millionaire Pittsburg banker Andrew Mellon as Secretary of Treasury. But there were also a few friends, like Albert Fall (Interior) and Harry Daugherty (Attorney General), who would become infamous for corruption.

Friends of Harding and Daugherty flocked from Ohio to Washington for jobs. Headquarters for the “Ohio Gang” was the “Little Green House” on K Street, where government favors and appointments were bought and sold. Evidence of Harding’s knowledge is sketchy; his friends just assumed he would agree in order to please them. But late in 1922, Harding learned of irregularities at the Veterans’ Bureau, where huge amounts of surplus materials were sold far below market value and in turn new supplies were purchased far above fair value, all without competitive bidding.

The head of the agency, Charles R. Forbes – one of Harding’s poker buddies – was allowed to resign, but the attorney for the Bureau committed suicide. This was soon followed by the death of another close Harding friend, Jess Smith, who shared an apartment with Daugherty and was a member of the “Ohio Gang.” Sensing trouble, Harding had asked him to leave Washington, however Smith shot himself to death. But the biggest surprise surfaced after Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco in August 1923.

Secretary of Interior Fall had allowed two large federal oil fields in Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., to be opened to private oil companies. He was convicted of bribery ($400,000) and sent to prison. Attorney General Daugherty was brought to trial in 1924 for conspiracy in much of this, but refused to testify to avoid “incriminating the dead president” and it hung the jury.

How much Harding actually knew about the corruption among his friends will never be known. After his death, Mrs. Harding burned all his papers and correspondence, diligently recovering and destroying even personal letters in the possession of other people. Since she had also refused to have Harding’s corpse autopsied in San Francisco, there have always been rumors he was actually poisoned.

Ah, Washington, D.C. – such a small city, but with so many untold mysteries.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Transfer of Power Between Hoover, Roosevelt Tense but Peaceful

herbert-hoover-classic-ok-america-button
This “OK America!” button from Herbert Hoover’s 1932 re-election campaign sold for $2,500 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Herbert Hoover aspired to the presidency of the United States strictly for the opportunity to serve the public. When elected in 1928, he was universally recognized as the greatest living humanitarian. He helped organize the return of thousands of Americans stranded in Europe before the outbreak of World War I (taking no salary) and also directed the program for relief to millions of Belgians and French (after Germany invaded Belgium) as head of President Wilson’s Food Administration.

For several years after the war, he continued to serve without salary as Secretary of Commerce for presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge until he resigned to run for president in 1928. He won by a large margin and in his inauguration speech on March 4, 1929, he described the future of the country as being “bright with hope.”

Three and a half years later, Republican prosperity had vanished, beginning with the stock-market crash seven months after Hoover took office. Protesting veterans of the Bonus Army were camped out in sight of the Capitol and milling around the White House to display their frustration and bitterness.

Hoover was on a tour of the Midwest the day the stock market crashed. For seven rainy days, he plodded from town to town on his train, proclaiming prosperity to anyone willing to listen. He arrived home on Oct. 4, 1929, and at a press conference the next morning, he assured newsmen the country’s businesses stood on a solid foundation.

Days later, on Oct. 19, Black Tuesday, the stock market fell sharply, but the president earnestly believed this was only a tough patch, like the Panic of 1907. Like most people, he seems to have had little idea of how bad the worst would be. The plan he presented to Congress in December was totally unorthodox by calling on the federal government to save the day through a series of programs that included education reform, housing for the underprivileged, jobs in long-term construction, lower taxes and a balanced budget … while making government more effective and efficient.

To add to the gloom of 1929, the Executive Office burned to its walls on Christmas Eve as carolers serenaded. The destruction of the Executive Office was a better symbol for the Hoover presidency than the White House, since virtually all the programs failed and the country started a downward spiral that would continue until we had to gear up for the next world war.

In the summer of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated by the Democratic National Committee in Chicago. On Aug. 11, Hoover formally accepted the Republican nomination that had been offered several months earlier. But he chose to bury himself in work for the balance of August and all of September. By then, the Democrats were in full stride and FDR became the president-elect.

However, the transfer of office from Republican to Democrat was chilly. At best, the feeling between the two men was of mutual contempt. The Hoovers declined to host the traditional March 3 dinner for the incoming president, and the Roosevelts had no intention of attending. Hoover was frustrated that FDR did not accept any of his advice and Roosevelt had grown weary of listening. (This would lead to changing the inauguration of March 4 to January 20, since it was too long to have a lame duck badgering the new guy.)

A small awkward tea ceremony was finally negotiated and that was that. A quiet, peaceful transfer of the most powerful political office in the world.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Eisenhower Crucial to ‘Greatest Engineering Project in World History’

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A photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1953 – autographed by Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover – realized $8,365 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

As federal war-game planners considered their objectives in mobilizing a West Coast battle response, railroads were quickly ruled out because they could not carry the amount of equipment involved and some of the weapons, especially tanks, were too heavy for trains and tracks.

Since the Army already had plenty of wheeled and tracked vehicles, dispatching a test expedition by road and having a Motor Transport Corps drive the convoy could prove, once and for all, the superiority of wheels over hoofs or railways. Inexplicably, they failed to include any assumptions about the condition of the roads en route.

At the appointed time in 1919, the convoy gathered at a monument by the South Lawn of the White House. The column was three miles long and consisted of 79 vehicles, including 34 heavy trucks, oil and water pumpers, a mobile blacksmith shop, a tractor, staff observation cars, searchlight carriers, a mobile hospital and other wheeled necessities to support the actual war machines.

Nine vehicles were wrecked en route and 21 men injured – leaving 237 soldiers, 24 officers and 15 observers – including then-Brevet Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower (who kept a concise daily diary). When they arrived in Lincoln Park in San Francisco 62 days later, it was undisputed that the conditions of the roads – essentially non-existent west of the Missouri River – would preclude any timely defense of the West Coast and that any Asian enemy would have been victorious in any battles along the way.

The journey left an indelible impression on the young officer from West Point, who would later be Commander-in-Chief of the nation. The Army and Eisenhower had indisputably proved what many in the capital had suspected. The American West had few, if any, roads that were even remotely usable for military or civilian use.

Only when they reached California and beyond the state capital of Sacramento did the roads become great – with macadamized surfaces, proper drainage, road rules, gas stations and tire-repair depots … all in sufficient quantity to service existing needs.

But this did not appease Eisenhower in the slightest. This great convoy, called into action to deal with a hypothetical threat to the country’s vital West Coast, had crossed 3,251 miles of the country at an average speed of 5.6 mph, making any potential response virtually useless. The vehicles were in fine shape and the men brave and intelligent, but the roads were deplorable. If nothing else, Eisenhower wrote, the experience of this expedition should spur the building – as a national effort – of a fast, safe and properly designed system of transcontinental highways.

This led to the creation of America’s Interstate Highway System – the greatest engineering project in world history … an intrinsic network of high-speed roads built with the sole purpose of uniting the corners, edges and center of this vast nation.

Fittingly, “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National Interstate and Defense Highways Act” was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 during the second term of the 34th president of the United States. “I LIKE IKE!”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].