He Dared to Challenge

JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

February 25, 1992|By JOSEPH R. L. STERNE

He was a Republican. He had ridden to the White House on a wave of eight years of Republican prosperity, the likes of which the nation had never seen before. Taxes were down and everything was up, up, up, including the stock market and the flood of goods pouring into American homes. ''I have no fears for the future of our country,'' he said at his inaugural. ''It is bright with hope.''

For a while the boom continued and his popularity rode the crest of a glorious high tide. Until everything went smash. Until factories closed and banks weakened by risky loans gone sour started to deny credit and foreclose. Until unemployment lines lengthened and farmers lost their land. The downturn went on and on and people started to lose hope.

The president tried to use his bully pulpit in the only way he knew. He proclaimed his faith in American business. If he did not use these exact words, he tried to convey the message that prosperity was just around the corner. When it did not come, he resisted increased spending on welfare and unemployment compensation. This was bad financial policy. Instead, his approach was to pump money into the big banks and corporations on the theory it would trickle down.

Instead, it was his popularity that went down, sinking to catastrophic lows from what had been record-setting peaks. The Democrats were squabbling among themselves as usual but they smelled victory in the bad times that had descended on the country. In his own party, the president was virtually unchallenged despite the threat of defeat.

Only one Republican critic dared to challenge Herbert Hoover in that grim year of 1932. He was not exactly the Pat Buchanan of his day, but he was the closest history had to offer.

Joseph I. France had come to Maryland as a young man, had practiced medicine, married well, entered politics and served in the United States Senate from 1917 until 1923. While there, he joined the intrepid foes of the League of Nations and yet stood forth boldly as the Senate's most outspoken advocate of recognizing and doing business with the Soviet Union. In praise of Senator France, H.L. Mencken said ''the state has been served so long by jellyfish and asses that the appearance of a man is disconcerting and even paralyzing.''

After losing his Senate seat, France retired to gentleman-farming on his estate overlooking the Susquehanna, making news only with a second marriage to a Russian beauty half his age who later charged in a spectacular divorce suit that the former senator was subject to fits of jealousy.

When Hoover made the decision to seek renomination, France mounted a challenge that seemed even more hopeless than the Buchanan challenge to President Bush. A longtime foe of Prohibition, which is one reason Mencken liked him, France inveighed against Hoover's straddle on the 18th Amendment and then attacked him from the right for letting government meddle with private business, a charge not usually associated with that ill-starred president.

France entered nine primaries, most of which Hoover could not be bothered to formally contest. Only in Maryland was Hoover embarrassed when he made the mistake of taking France on and barely beat him. Nationwide, the challenger spent $36,731.90, received 1,122,776 votes to Hoover's 99,579 and claimed 231 delegates.

At the Republican convention in Chicago that summer, one of the most boring ever held, a delegate from Oregon by the name of Laurence Sandblast put France's name before the sweltering assembly. Suddenly the microphone started going dead or emitting strange squeaks and whistles.

Senator France, a tall strapping fellow, jumped from a seat on the platform, a sheaf of paper in his hand and approached the podium. He had promised a surprise, at that moment undisclosed. But the Hoover forces were ready. The loyalist chairman of the convention declared France out of order despite his cries that he was entitled to special privilege for having just been nominated.

''Mid much verbal and physical buffeting,'' the Evening Sun reported, ''the presidential candidate was given the bum's rush from the platform and escorted by police far from the microphones.'' Had that been the television age, the scene would have been a sensation. As it happened, the Hoover delegates barely took notice of the scuffle and when the roughed-up France revealed later that his plan was to nominate former President Calvin Coolidge in hopes he would ''stampede'' the convention, he hardly caused a ripple. On the formal rollcall, he got only four die-hard votes.

Time magazine huffily dismissed France as a ''lonely eccentric.'' But The Sun, sticking up for a favorite son, editorialized that France had a perfect right to address the convention, that he had been treated rudely and the ''the victim comes out better than his ejectors.''

With splendid hyperbole, this newspaper proclaimed: ''Let the Sixteenth of June stand blackened forever in Republican hearts.'' Since then, alas, the anniversary of Senator France's bum's rush has been totally ignored -- even in Cecil County. Pat Buchanan should suffer such a fate.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is editor of The Sun's editorial pages.

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