A group of people were recently discussing whether every Presidential election since 1860 had been the most important election since 1860. We do not propose to add 1920 to the list. If a man were to prophesy about 1920 he would say that unless there is a surprising clarification of the issues in the next few months we shall elect a President in 1920 on slogans and attitudes that will seem peculiarly irrelevant in 1922 and 1923 and after.
For good or evil the fact is that we are not now asked to choose between policies. There may be differences of opinion among the candidates, but they are not well defined differences. They are not defined because we are in a turmoil of confusion in which the sober examination of policy is ignored. At this moment the reasonable citizens' standard of judgment must be the probable behavior of candidates as it can be inferred from their background and training and temperament. They must guess as to how candidates are likely to act. In order to do that they must make a picture, not of the specific issues that are likely to arise, but of the kinds of problems that will confront the next administration.
In such an estimate citizens would undoubtedly put first the restoration of normal business throughout the world. Under that topic would be included the complete liquidation of the war in Europe and Asia, the resumption of world trade, the restarting of the cycles of import and export. Before asking the possible candidates what they think about these things citizens should ask them what they know about them. They would ask. such men as General Wood, Governor Lowden, Senator Harding, Attorney-General Palmer, Mr. McAdoo, to show what they have now done and said to indicate that they are equipped to discuss these things. They would not be satisfied with bold proclamations of the candidates’ loyalty because they would take loyalty for granted. They would know that such boasting is no sign of competence. For anybody can announce his Americanism, but not anybody is fitted to be President of the United States, and so they would be no more moved by a public man’s insistence upon his patriotism to make him President than they would by a private soldier’s salute to the flag to make him Chief of Staff.
They would inquire about his experience of the relations between American economic life and the world’s economic life. Then they would ask about his equipment for dealing with economic facts at home, his knowledge of the national resources, the processes of production, and their relation to men as producers and as consumers. They would seek a man who had proved competence both in stimulating production and in regulation the machinery of distribution and consumption. They would assume that in the next four years the government would require a leader who is trained to think about prices and wages, about real goods, about efficiency, about the things which touch intimately the subsistence and the prosperity of ordinary people; who, because he was trained to think about them, was unlikely to confess his ignorance of them by creating a hullabaloo every time a difficulty arose, to call the police, wave the flag, and do nothing more.
Having satisfied themselves which of the candidates was most likely to think constructively when confronted with the economic facts that are the cause of social problems, they would next examine the candidates as administrators. Then they would know that sound views, noble views, inspiring views do not prevail in government except when they direct the action of a man who can choose other men, can lead other men, can plan programs and execute them. They would seek the man who combined the largest technical knowledge of modern economics with the most clearly demonstrated ability to act successfully and humanely on that knowledge.
To ask those questions is to answer them. There is one man, not an active candidate, who in comparison with all the other candidates, qualifies so readily that his election would be a foregone conclusion under reasonable conditions. That man is Herbert Hoover. Test any other candidate by the standard of personal fitness, experience and training for the issues that will confront the next President and see if you can make a case for him as against Mr. Hoover. Is Mr. Hoover less loyal to American institutions than General Wood or Mr. Palmer? There is nothing to debate. For the rest, will any supporter of Leonard Wood or Mitchell Palmer pretend that either of their candidates knows a fragment of what Herbert Hoover knows about the necessities of the modern world? Would either of them, or any of the others, risk comparison with Hoover, either on knowledge of social conditions, knowledge of American industry, knowledge of world trade, knowledge of European politics, knowledge of diplomacy? Is there one of them who can show a record as administrator, which will stand against the record of the organizer of the Belgian Relief, Food Administrator of the Allies, and the Director-General of European Relief? What have any of them said, done, thought, or proposed that fits in anything like the same degree the immediate needs of the country?
After all, there is no other test that can be made. Mr. Hoover shares his limitations with other men. He is sometimes hard to work with, occasionally dogmatic, impulsively prejudiced, and likely to take too short a view. But the springs of his character are generous, and his power of visualizing sympathetically the plight of ordinary people over wide areas and under all kinds of circumstances amounts to genius. He is no dark horse, no straw man manufactured by political boomers, but admittedly the most competent and successful American revealed by the war. He was in it from the day the war started, and every trial enhanced his stature.
That he is the candidate of the constructively minded people of America is indicated by evidence from all parts of the country. And yet it is a peculiar kind of candidacy. He himself has discouraged it, and the people who believe in Hoover and want him have hardly dared to believe that a man so obviously designated for the office could be brought to power by the present political machines. His following is in both parties and in all groups from sane conservative to liberal. The people who are for Hoover are people with their eyes on the facts, not on labels and doctrines. They do not care at this juncture whether the next President in his ultimate philosophy is collectivist or laissez-faire. They do care that the next President shall be a man who can choose men, conduct great affairs, and act on a trained estimate of the facts. They believe Hoover to be that man, and they see no one else who is.
A few weeks ago we should have supposed the hope of Hoover to be vain. There are signs that it is not vain, that if the demand is loud enough and insistent enough the next President can be the man best fitted to be President.
This article originally ran in the January 21, 1920, issue of the magazine.