Telegrams are revealed,” a headline read on the front page of the New York Times, on December 23rd, 1932—eighty-five years ago—reporting, in breathless terms, on the White House’s release of what were supposed to be confidential telegrams between the outgoing President Herbert Hoover and President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nominally, the telegrams concerned Hoover’s efforts to gain F.D.R.’s help in assembling a delegation to negotiate with European countries about their war debts. But they also exposed, as the Times put it, a “clash of methods,” and what the late historian Frank Freidel, in his 1973 book Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal, described as “one of the strangest struggles in the history of the presidency”—an apt characterization even now, when the history of that office seems to take ever stranger turns. What is more, the struggle—concerning, as it did, the rules regarding the involvement of an incoming President in international affairs—is particularly illuminating today, as the investigation of the special counsel Robert Mueller into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election has grown to encompass the foreign contacts of the Trump transition team. (This is so even though the reflection is inexact, with certain role reversals; as is often the case in looking at history, the present’s fun-house-mirror distortions of the past yield their own lessons.) But the conflict between Hoover and F.D.R. also raises more enduring questions. Some concern the political uses to which a President put private communications—particularly ones that have, for their age, an instantaneous quality. (As novel as Twitter and leaked campaign e-mails seem, this is not an entirely new issue.) Others ask, more broadly, what does it mean to preserve, project, or even hijack political authority?
The fundamental oddity of the Roosevelt-Hoover imbroglio has to do with how deeply unpopular Hoover was: he had failed to act when much of the nation was facing desperate, Depression-driven poverty, and he lost the election by some seven million votes. As Freidel noted, Hoover thought that Americans had made a mistake, and he felt that Roosevelt should let him make use of his popularity so that he, Hoover, could take the necessary steps to protect the country from Roosevelt and his New Deal. It didn’t make any sense, unless you thought, as one member of Hoover’s Cabinet put it, that F.D.R. had only “a most laughable, if it were not so lamentable, ignorance of the situation.” The voters thought otherwise.
The telegrams in which this all played out are small masterpieces of mutual passive aggression. Hoover can’t resist lecturing F.D.R. on price theory; F.D.R. says that he wants “in every proper way to be of help,” and then lays out why what Hoover is asking for would be “improper for me and inadvisable for you, however much I appreciate the courtesy of your suggestion.” Specifically, Hoover wanted to send his own delegation to Europe to discuss debt relief with Britain, France, and other American allies that had borrowed money to finance their victory in the First World War. Hoover’s argument was that, given the possibility of default on those loans, the matter could not wait until F.D.R. was inaugurated, which wouldn’t be until March, 4, 1933. (The political calendar was different in those days.) But Hoover also believed that the debt question couldn’t be dealt with without bringing in other policy issues—such as defense spending, trade deals, and a larger international economic-policy pact, one oriented toward his monetary priorities. He intended to have the delegation continue on to a planned World Economic Conference. He proposed that Roosevelt give him some names of possible commissioners, which would give the delegation more clout than if it were simply the project of a lame duck. In fact, he wrote in one telegram, he intended to include a few Democrats whom he liked—all Roosevelt had to do was express his approval to the press, and Hoover would take care of the rest. In short, he was asking F.D.R. to put his stamp on a commission that would then be under Hoover’s direction, free to enact his agenda—that is, his New Deal-sabotage project. And he thought that F.D.R. was behaving badly by not coöperating.
The Times reported the five-day timeline of the communications in much the same way that, today, it would note the timestamps on tweets: “The four telegrams cover a period from 5:35 o’clock last Saturday afternoon to 9:45 o’clock last night. They were punctuated by Mr. Hoover’s address to Congress, delivered Monday afternoon.” (In that address, Hoover spoke as if he were still campaigning, offering a paean to the gold standard.) “Fifty-one hours and fifteen minutes elapsed before the President heard from Albany. . . . The next afternoon at 2:30 Mr. Hoover sent his final appeal.” The reply “was received seven hours and fifteen minutes later at the White House.” Roosevelt said no. Hoover responded by giving the telegrams to reporters, accompanied by a sulking statement of complaint. ...