Whistle-stopping in 1932
Why yes, come to think of it, there was a presidential campaign going on 50 years ago. It was one of the most important in modern times. Herbert Hoover versus this New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt.
Going through old notes I found an office memorandum I wrote to my managing editor, Frank Perrin, Oct. 7, 1932. You know how fascinating old notes are! Here I was telling how I had been out with both candidates and contrasting them. It suddenly brings back those electric days. I forgot about what had happened since , a war or two, eight or nine presidents, a two-cent stamp that now costs 20 cents. Let me put down some of my notes, slightly abbreviated; they come from the political front line and were private estimates of what was happening:
Roosevelt is immeasurably superior to Hoover as a showman. Roosevelt talks and likes it, Hoover talks and hates it - and shows it. Hoover is reticent about his family - the Roosevelt trip is a family party. Mrs. Hoover not much help on rear-platform greetings, too effusive; Roosevelt family, particularly son James, are personable. To me Roosevelt seems weak. I must say, however, that shyness of Hoover, carried to point of obvious embarrassment facing crowds expecting spontaneous greeting, is hard to understand after 10 years of public life.
Yes that shyness was hard to understand if you respected Hoover and distrusted this man Roosevelt. I underlined it; I noted: Hoover ''has seemed to suffer stage fright ever since I knew him. He reads even brief statements from prepared notes while campaigning.''
By contrast, of course, Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair but never seemed to be aware of his handicap, not even when he was rolled about awkwardly or was lifted up so that he could stand holding on to something.
Roosevelt suffers somewhat by awkwardness occasioned by his infirmity which hampers him more in getting around than public seems to realize. Crowd cools off sometimes before he can get on to platform. But he is carefully stage-managed. As I see the brutal fact, Roosevelt wins them, Hoover doesn't. I can't understand why Republicans failed to provide Hoover with an amplifying device on the train: his talks were inaudible. Analyzing (the reasons for) my own belief in Roosevelt's victory I believe I place first- hand observation of response of crowds foremost.
Oh those days of whistle-stop campaign trains when you rolled into a station with a crowd and brass band waiting for you and the candidate shouted at the top of his lungs or even had a new-fangled amplifier! It was sooty and electrifying.
Every crowd that met Roosevelt, from coast to coast, was friendly at start and more friendly after he spoke, though only at Seattle and Chicago was there real enthusiasm; otherwise, I should say, rather anti-Hoover than pro-Roosevelt. In the Hoover crowds I frequently heard savage anti-Hoover opinions. Roosevelt had no hecklers; Hoover frequently heard voices cry out for Roosevelt.
I didn't call him ''FDR'' then in my notes, it was always ''Roosevelt'' (you know, the governor from New York). I hadn't seen him often though I was introduced to him when I first came aboard back in his living quarters (along with Paul Leach of the Chicago Daily News). He created a sensation by flying in person to Chicago to make his acceptance speech to the convention that nominated him: fancy a candidate flying. New technology was changing things, wasn't it? - why, thousands of people, some said millions, could hear a candidate on radio! What would they think of next.
Hoover believed in laissez-faire government and it hadn't worked. Shortly after the crash, on March 7, 1930, he said, ''All the evidences indicate that the worse effects of the crash upon employment will have passed during the next 60 days.'' But it got worse.
Nine days after I wrote my letter to Frank Perrin, the papers quoted Hoover as saying, ''If there shall be no retreat, if the attack shall continue as it is now organized, then this battle is won.'' He had a culprit, too; on Oct. 23, just before election day, he told the press: ''If there is a deficit this year, it will be due to the Democratic members of Congress.'' Many of his social beliefs were about to vanish for good in America where one man in four was unemployed.
In one rear-end stop on my way back from Des Moines it was positively embarrassing, for Hoover seemed unable to greet the crowd naturally; without loud speaker he was of course inaudible and was then silent; a child cried out, ''Hey, Hoover, are you dumb?'' in the pause. These pauses often are embarrassing.
Well, it brings back old days. Between the lines, I think, I was trying to alert a reluctant editor to some hard facts and perhaps stake out a claim as prophet. Something unusual was happening; the national mood was frightened and ugly. We might see the first Democratic president since Wilson.
''Well,'' I concluded my letter modestly, ''the above represents my judgment for what it is worth.''