Rhetoric As Currency: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Great Depression.
Presidential Rhetoric Series, No. 4. College Station: Texas A & M University
Press, 2001. 226 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN
Louis Anthes , Clemson University.
When Dale Carnegie was President
"People hang on Alan Greenspan's every word, but these days they should
listen to business executives like Earnest W. Deavenport and David E. Berges
even more. The decisions they make are turning out to have more power to
lift the economy, or keep it weak, than Mr. Greenspan's control over
interest rates. And for now, corporate executives are pulling back."--The
New York Times, May 14, 2001.
Houck's book, Rhetoric as Currency, may be regarded as timely. Given
recent news, one would think that America's "new economy" runs mostly on
words. On television and in newspapers, we hear about Alan Greenspan's
"irrational exuberances" giving way to George Bush's patriotic consumers
defended by 'Star Wars,' while business executives scramble to issue company
forecasts for boards and stockholders. In the media background, one can
barely register noise over rising unemployment, energy shortages in
California, protests over living wages at Harvard, and labor struggles at
Delta Airlines. Actually, today's news stories replay the culture of the
is not a professional historian--he is an assistant professor of
communication at Florida State University--but his close reading of
presidential rhetoric reveals his sensitivity to historical context. To be
sure, Houck's story is about continuities rather than change over time. His
main contribution is his analysis of the similarities between the late
Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations--a continuity noted by New
Dealers Raymond W. Moley and Rexford G. Tugwell, as well as by the historian
Albert U. Romasco. According to Houck, the connections were basically
economic, but not in the traditional sense. He presents no figures of
government policies moving in tandem with prices along Cartesian grids. So,
economic comparisons of Gross National Product are missing here. His
approach rejects that sort of economic science, which asserts its predictive
power by naturalizing its object of discourse --self-bounded, utilitarian
Man (p. 5).
Instead, Houck explains how both
appropriated the language of wages, consumption, and productivity to project
national confidence through public utterances. "The act of shaping
expectations," he writes, "about the economic future is, par excellence, the
role of the rhetorician, particularly a person who can reach a
'macroeconomic' audience--the president, in other words" (p. 6). As a
consequence, Houck discounts "time" as an independent variable of economics.
I might comment here that "time" figures as the surplus value created when
politicians buy public confidence with talk about expectations. Houck,
however, would express my comment in different words: that the future is a
political and cultural construct. Insofar as today's news dwells on
forecasts about national economic confidence then, we inhabit the temporal
world constructed by Hoover and Roosevelt. Thus,
the continuities multiply: there is the one between Hoover
and the one between their world and our own.
his analysis of continuities is interesting and sound, Houck focuses too
narrowly on presidential discourse. Normally, this sort of criticism might
seem out of bounds, because scholars are allowed to define their questions.
But Houck had the opportunity to reflect both on the objects of his
study--Hoover and Roosevelt--and the discipline of communications, in which
he speaks as a subject. Rhetoric as Currency only hints at the
connections between Hoover's and Roosevelt's speeches and their own
contemporary culture of public speaking. Given that there are strong
connections between the current academic discipline of "communications" and
the older tradition of "public speaking," it seems fair to criticize the
book for being too narrow in its inquiry.
argued by Warren Susman in Culture as History, the 1920s were a
decade in which the culture of character--the obsession with individualism,
manhood, and work--gave way to "personality"--the fascination with
outer-directed, socially-adjusted, white-collar men. If there was any
representative figure promoting this new self-image, it was the author of
Public Speaking: A Practical Course for Business Men (1926), Dale
Carnegie, whose stature as the salesman's Salesman was unrivaled in his day.
Houck should have explored more deeply how the culture of personality
dominating WASP middle-class culture during the 1920s inspired both
businessmen and politicians during the spiraling economic downturn of the
1930s. The book does not discuss Carnegie specifically, but it suggests that
there were links between Depression-era public policy and the brand of
public speaking that made Carnegie famous. A cultural historian seeking to
take advantage of Houck's work might re-label the 1920-1939 era as the Dale
example, Herbert Hoover was never regarded as a good public speaker, but
many of his fellow WASPs respected him as a model business manager who,
after 1929, talked about efficiency in terms of psychological confidence. At
a press conference held about a month after the October stock market crash,
Hoover emphasized the normal operation of the country's economic "system"
while explaining that the crash meant "we are dealing here with a
psychological situation to a very considerable degree. It is a question of
fear" (p. 33). This statement was not isolated.
increasingly associated words like fear, psychology, anxiety, with an older
economic language of confidence to promote a politics of optimism. For Hoover,
the Great Depression was a sort of clinical depression. His proposed therapy
involved casting the American mind as a machine and fashioning himself as
its engineer. Politicians could best serve the public, in Hoover's words, "by taking
counsel of [the people's] charts, compass, and barometer, and by devotion to
navigation and the boilers" (p. 41). And so, Hoover abandoned his earlier
attempt at modeling the federal government as an efficient corporation and
moved towards improvising legislation designed to re-establish public
"confidence." Houck writes: "The RFC, the Glass-Steagall Act, various bills
expanding credit, revenue bills, the Emergency Relief and Construction
Act--all were geared toward revitalizing the nation's collective confidence"
(p. 86). But according to Houck, Hoover
too often followed his initiatives with silence, leaving himself vulnerable
governor of New York,
Franklin D. Roosevelt won friends and influenced people by consistently
rehearsing the themes that
Hoover had played since
1929. When he announced his campaign for the presidency, Roosevelt stressed
limited government involvement in the economy and emphasized the duties of
Americans to purchase their way into prosperity (p. 106). And he also echoed
Hoover's fears about fear. Roosevelt said during his campaign:
a great fear has swept the country few can doubt. Normal times lull us into
complacency--with the coming of economic stress we feel the disturbing hand
of fear. This fear spreads to the entire country and with more or less unity
we turn to our common government at Washington" (p. 120).
is reminding us that
was the consummate pragmatist, playing his opponent's game better than his
opponent. What set
Roosevelt apart from
his Republican adversary was that he consistently presented himself as
capable of overcoming adversity, in particular displaying his body as
healthy, sociable, and self-confident. According to Houck, even Roosevelt's gesture of
taking a plane to the 1932 Democratic National Convention, which historians
have interpreted as Roosevelt bucking tradition, might be seen as Roosevelt
making a virtue of the physical limitations resulting from his bout with
polio. Whereas he likely took that plane to make himself more comfortable,
the press and others represented his actions as a sign of his confidence in
himself, his nomination, and his program (pp. 124-25). In the end, Roosevelt
won because his wit and charm gave a better shine to
elected, Roosevelt continued his pragmatism and pushed through his
legislative agenda, which also incorporated the language of confidence. And
again, Houck could have drawn more parallels between Roosevelt's rhetoric
and other aspects of the New Deal. For instance, Houck interprets John
Maynard Keynes's work as being consistent with what I would call Dale
Carnegie's style. During the Depression, Keynes argued that poverty "comes
from some failure in the immaterial devices of the mind, in the working of
the motives which should lead to the decisions and acts of will, necessary
to put in movement the resources and technical means we already have" (p.
2). For Keynes, government involvement in the economy was mainly about
restoring psychological confidence by deficit spending, a policy that
reluctantly followed after 1938. There are other connections, too. Legal
historians may be interested to know that during the 1930s Columbia law
professor and New Dealer Karl Llewellyn also talked about reforming the
legal professional in terms similar to those used by Hoover and Roosevelt,
though he did so in a self-reflexive sociological voice.
Historians of politics and law will find Rhetoric as Currency a
curious book. It tells us a good deal about the rhetorical echoes of
but it unfortunately tells us a lot less about both Presidents' deeper debts
to the culture of the 1920s. And this matters. For to see how Dale Carnegie
was an important presence during the Great Depression is to be able to
recognize his ghost in our political culture today.
Albert U. Romasco, The Poverty of Abundance:
the Nation, the Depression
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); Albert U. Romasco, The
Politics of Recovery:
Roosevelt's New Deal
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
For a leading study, see Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Eloquence in an
Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988).
Warren I. Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American
Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 271-290.
Call Number: JA85.2.U6H68 2001
Communication in politics--United States
United States--Economic conditions--1918-1945
United States--Economic policy
Citation: Louis Anthes . "Review of Davis W. Houck , Rhetoric As Currency:
Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Great Depression," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, May,
“At issue is how depression-era rhetoric rose as a
confidence-building tool… While rhetoricians will welcome this history,
others may struggle with its incontroverted view. Never opened is the
question of whether the depression is appropriate for a study of quotations,
transcripts, and text… For rhetoricians, a new area of history is tapped.
For non-rhetoricians, Houck demonstrates that some historical questions can
be addressed through the record of what people said.”
Craig Allen, review of Rhetoric as Currency:
Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Great Depression, by Davis W. Houck, The
Journal of American History 89 (September 2002): 690-691.