Obama address must set right tone


CHARLOTTE -- Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, appeared before a crowd of 4,000 of his fellow Republicans in Constitution Hall in the nation's capital on Aug. 11, 1932, to accept his party's call to seek four more years in the White House.

"The last three years," he said, "have been a time of unparalleled economic calamity."

No fact checker (if there had been any around in those days) would have found fault with those words. The unemployment rate was almost 25 percent, a tragic one in four of the work force (three times what it is today).

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Thousands of banks had failed and shut their doors. Hundreds of factories were closed, and the unemployed were reduced to selling apples on city streets. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, signed by Mr. Hoover, raised tariffs on thousands of imported goods. Our trade partners raised tariffs on our goods in retaliation, and trade came screeching to a halt.

So, after admitting things hadn't always gone well in his first three years, what could President Hoover say in accepting his party's call for a second term? It's a problem faced by other American presidents, notably Jimmy Carter and now, tonight, Barack Obama.

For Hoover and Mr. Carter, the assignment was impossible. For Mr. Obama, it may not be hopeless. He might want to remember that one of his predecessors, Harry Truman, faced a somewhat similar situation in 1948.

Mr. Truman and old Alben Barkley stepped up to the podium in a steaming convention hall in Philadelphia and gave the Republicans hell. They went on to defeat a Republican dream ticket, Govs. Thomas Dewey of New York and Earl Warren of California, in the greatest electoral upset in American history.

Mr. Hoover, by profession, was an engineer. He came across to most Americans as something of a stuffed shirt. (His wife, Lou, though, was a marvel. She packed a pistol as she rode around Tientsin on a bicycle during China's Boxer rebellion. She may have even fired a cannon once or twice. She was fluent in Chinese and could translate old Latin manuscripts into English. She could have given a terrific TV speech).

The only human spark in Mr. Hoover's speech -- it went on and on -- occurred toward the end when he said he wouldn't criticize millions of Americans for blaming their miserable condition on the government.

"No man with a spark of humanity," he said, "can sit in my place without suffering from the picture of their anxieties and hardships day and night."

Yet he insisted he had done everything he could to pull the country out of the worst depression in its history.

One of his accomplishments, he said, was restricting immigration to the point that more people were leaving the country than were entering it.

One of the reasons was the "Mexican Repatriation," in which as many as 500,000 Mexicans, possibly a million, were uprooted and sent back to Mexico in one of the darkest episodes in American history. The idea, President Hoover's government argued, was that their departure would open jobs to Americans.

Then too, he said, economic conditions were even worse in other parts of the world. He blamed "foreign countries" for withdrawing $2.4 billion, $1 billion of it in gold, from American banks.

It didn't work. In the general election, he lost by a landslide to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had promised, in his acceptance speech, "a new deal" for the American people, without knowing at the time just what he had in mind.

Jimmy Carter never had a chance. Toward the end of his term, Mr. Carter was dealing with the Iran hostage situation, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, the 1979 energy crisis that had cars backed up for blocks in search of gasoline, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the summer Olympics that followed. Finally, Mount St. Helens blew its top.

To make matters worse, he was challenged in his own primaries by Ted Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy gave the best speech of his life at Madison Square Garden in August, 1980, in which he famously said the dream -- presumably the Kennedy family dream -- would never die.

Mr. Carter, in his anti-climactic speech, stooped to beg Mr. Kennedy to support him in the general election. Mr. Carter went on to knock the Republicans for supporting a tax program that offered tax rebates to the rich, deprivation for the poor, and fierce inflation for everybody. He was trounced in November by Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Obama isn't in such perilous shape as Mr. Hoover and Mr. Carter, but the race is close and he could easily lose.

A feisty Mr. Truman won an election he wasn't supposed to win by going straight at the Republicans and that "good-for-nothing, do-nothing 80th Republican Congress" with simple, straightforward talk.

"Senator Barkley and I," Mr. Truman said that muggy night in Philadelphia, "will win this election and make those Republicans like it -- don't you forget that!"

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

James M. Perry, chief political correspondent of the Wall Street Journal until his retirement, will be contributing regular observations as part of The Block News Alliance's Early Returns blog coverage during the two political conventions.