Gasoline cost 15 cents a gallon. A man's suit (two trousers) cost $18.65 at Weber & Heilbroner, but for $33 you could get a little more style at Wanamaker's. A woman's hat (turban) cost $ 6.75 at Lord & Taylor. And there were 13 million unemployed: 1 in 4 of the US working force.

President Carter, starting his re-election campaign (if he gets renominated), may ponder the plight of President Herbert Hoover, another engineer, in the election of 1932. That was the election that brought big government to the United States, though you would never have guessed it from the Democratic platform or the campaign utterances of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At first Hoover thought he could win without leaving the White House Rose Garden. Later the difficulty of re-electing a US president in a period of economic strain dawned on him. In 1932 the problem was falling prices; in 1980 it is rising prices. In the '30s nobody knew what to do about deflation; today nobody is sure what to do about inflation. In each case the economic crisis has outdistanced the economists.And in each case, curiously enough, the proposed political remedy was the same: Cut federal expenditures, retrench, balance the budget.

It seems almost unbelievable today that in 1932, in the worst economic depression in history, both political parties should be committed (on paper at any rate) to federal parsimony. Perhaps in view of what happened after 1932 it carries a hint to 1980 voters not to put too much stock in campaign promises.

Herbert Hoover was the best secretary of commerce the United States ever had. He had a domestic reputation and a global reputation. He ran Belgian relief before the US entered World War I and fed millions; after the war, he helped feed all Europe.

As commerce secretary under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, Secretary Hoover would meet reporters regularly. Seated at the head of a long table on the seventh floor in the old (now-demolished) Commerce Department Building, shy, round-faced, and high-collared, he would look down at the table while a reporter spoke. But when he looked up his answer showed he knew more about what was going on in Washington than anybody else in the city. The country was proud of him -- looked up to him. He defeated Al Smith for president in 1928 with the largest majority ever received by a US presidential candidate up to that point. Reporters hailed him.

And now, in 1932, look at his press relations! Reporter Paul Y. Anderson wrote that Hoover and the reporters had "reached a stage of unpleasantness without parallel during the present century . . . characterized by mutual dislike, unconcealed suspicion, and downright bitterness."

What had happened? People often say when they would like so-and-so, a distinguished figure, as president: "He is not a politician."

But the presidency is a political job. Hoover had no small talk; he had no banter. He spoke badly. He had never been conditioned by the sting of political give-and-take. He stood head and shoulders above most leaders of his time in altruism, organizational skill, compassion. But he was self-righteous. He was to be destroyed in a short space like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy: the nearest an American president has ever come to the Greeks -- a doomed hero, fighting inexplicable, implacable forces. In Aristotle's definition: the struggle against inexorable fate of a good but not a wholly guiltless man. For the fault was partly within Hoover himself. His intelligence froze into inflexibility and his dedication was touched with obstinacy.

He battled for voluntarism against the aggrandizement of big government. He looked ahead and feared social management, planning, and control. But where was the line to be drawn? He gave the nation the invaluable Reconstruction Finance Corporation to bail out banks, but he abhored the thought of direct federal aid to the hungry individual. The proposed Tennessee Valley Authority was "socialism."

In this decisive election of 1932 a thousand cruel things were said about him: Shantytowns were "Hoovervilles"; a newspaper over the chest of a threadbare man selling apples for 5 cents was a "Hoover blanket." Half a century later this reporter still remembers coming into Detroit on the presidential special train for a campaign speech with Hoover -- an angry mob was outside the station shouting "Hang Hoover!" Mounted police pushed back the crowd as the President made his way to a limousine. Speeding through sullen streets, onlookers silent and grim, the President who meant so well sat silent and stricken.

Yes, the election of 1932 was the turning point: The United States moved into the big government of the modern day, though you would not have guessed the outcome at that time. Hoover's obsession with a balanced budget made him urge Congress to assess higher taxes on the almost prostrate nation. Did the Democrats condemn this? Not at all. They criticized Hoover for deficit spending.

The Democratic platform promised to cut federal expenses 25 percent, to balance the budget annually; the Democrats wanted "removal of government from all fields of private enterprise." In view of what actually happened in Roosevelt's New Deal, such irony could hardly happen anywhere but in US politics. Roosevelt in a speech at Pittsburgh denounced the Hoover administration for living beyond its means, for believing "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible," and he proposed a 25 percent cut in federal expenditures.

Observers of America's greatest sporting event -- the presidential election every four years -- know that the climate and atmosphere engendered by the candidate's personality are generally far more important than any specific pledges he may make. Who knows what crises lie ahead, what can be gotten through Congress, how foreign countries may behave? Hoover was steeped in gloom and insecurity and communicated this to the anxious nation. There was passionate popular hope for a bolder approach to national affairs. Roosevelt was irresistible in the nation's mood.

The special Roosevelt train rumbled into the siding at some whistle stop; the high school band struck up "Happy Days Are Here Again," and all eyes centered on the empty rear platform. Then out he comes, leaning on son Jimmy's arm -- uptilted chin; jaunty, friendly smile; family greeting and introduction. Little is said on issues. Then four warning toots come from the engineer up ahead; reporters toss their dispatches, written in pencil against the cinder smudge of the last car, to the telegraph operator; and off they all go again like a dream. Leaving what behind? Often buoyancy, bounce, and hope.

Roosevelt won in a landslide. The detested Hoover slipped out of Washington. For the sake of generosity in American history it is good to remember that Harry Truman later recalled the great and compassionate humanitarian, addressed him respectfully as "Mr. President" in the White House, and later, in 1947, made him chairman of what became known as the Hoover Commission, which recommended important reorganization of the federal government, saving several billion dollars.

But by that time the basic struggle of 1932 was long since over. Big government in Washington had come to stay.

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