Herbert Hoover and the Presidential Campaign of 1932: The Failure of Apologia

By Carcasson, Martin | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Herbert Hoover and the Presidential Campaign of 1932: The Failure of Apologia


Carcasson, Martin, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Despite Franklin D. Roosevelt's landslide victory, few elections have held more lasting significance for political scientists, historians, and communication scholars than the presidential election of 1932. Never before had one issue--the Great Depression--so dominated an election. Herbert Hoover went from a landslide victory in 1928 to a humiliating defeat just four years later. The transformation of the national government from Hoover's brand of "rugged individualism" to Roosevelt's "New Deal" changed American politics forever.

The election of 1932 also had a significant effect on the concept of the rhetorical presidency.(1) The campaign gave the nation a very clear choice: a traditional administrative president or a modern rhetorical one. Overwhelmingly, the electorate chose the latter. The success of Roosevelt's fireside chats and emotional leadership, compared with Hoover's quiet behind-the-scenes workmanship, solidified the rhetorical presidency as the norm for every president thereafter.

The 1932 election was also a turning point in the field of political campaign communications. Hoover was the first incumbent president to go "out on the stump" and campaign actively for the presidency, "paving the way" for the presidents that followed him.(2) Hoover's stumping efforts helped make the campaign of 1932 one in which the amount of public speaking far exceeded the norm for the era: Roosevelt gave "some 113 prepared speeches and Hoover almost as many."(3) Radio, which had been used to a smaller extent in previous campaigns but was now a major aspect of national campaigns, was present in more than 12 million homes by 1932.(4) Thus, the common practice of candidates giving the same speech with slight variations at each campaign stop had to be changed due to a nationwide audience that was now able to listen to every word of every major speech.(5) Finally, Roosevelt ran "the first truly modem, well-organized presidential campaign,"(6) which included a then unprecedented, but now standard, personal appearance at the national convention to accept his party's nomination.

The study of presidential oratory has traditionally focused on a handful of presidents whose rhetoric has been analyzed and critiqued throughout the years.(7) Unlike his opponent in the election, the study of Hoover's rhetoric is severely limited: not a single journal article deals specifically with the presidential rhetoric of Herbert Hoover.(8) This seems particularly unfortunate considering Hoover failed as a rhetorical president during a national crisis, the Great Depression--a unique situation that seems to warrant study. In addition, Hoover's presidency continues to be "reassessed" and the notion that perhaps he was not as apathetic and inept as popularly believed is gaining support.(9)

Thus, the election of 1932, and specifically the role of Hoover's communication during the campaign, certainly justifies examination. This article is a study of the nine major radio addresses Hoover gave during the 1932 campaign. I argue that Hoover waged his entire campaign not to win, for he knew he had no chance to win, but rather to defend his administration, his character, and his view of government. The genre of self-defense, what classical rhetoricians termed apologia, will be applied not only to reveal the motives and strategies that Hoover incorporated into his campaign speeches but also to explain how his misuse of apologia contributed to his failure.

Hoover's Presidential Years, 1928-32

Hoover won the presidency in 1928 after many years of service to his country. He followed two Republican presidents, Harding and Coolidge, who had collectively steered the country through the prosperous 1920s. Hoover was considered the best candidate to "symbolize the tranquillity, prosperity, and purity"(10) of the times. The Republican's optimism was exemplified by the infamous "a chicken in every pot" campaign slogan. …

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