As I've been writing about the myths surrounding the Hoover presidency the last week or so, it got me thinking about the question of where those myths came from and why they persist. Certainly a big part of the persistence has to do with the biases in the media, the punditry, and academia. The economic facts of how much worse the Great Depression got under Hoover are not in dispute, but if one is pre-disposed to think, even in a naive way, that government intervention is the answer to economic problems, then it's almost a necessity to accept the myth of Hoover as "laissez faire." If you don't, it would require some major cognitive dissonance to square the idea of Hoover as a proto-New Dealer (which he was) and the disaster of his presidency with your priors about the necessity of government intervention.
But putting biases aside, I think there's probably another source for it, especially in more recent years when more and more serious historians have rightly recognized Hoover's interventionism. I wonder, in all seriousness, how much the musical Annie is responsible for the various myths surrounding both Hoover and FDR. Hoover is played as the cause of their misery (no, there's no indication that the expansionary monetary policy of the 1920s and the errors of the Hoover-era Fed might be part of the problem). Although the lyrics to "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover" don't explicitly blame his inaction for the Depression, the contrast between the way he is treated and the reverence for FDR (who is actually a character in the musical) and the lyrics to "New Deal for Christmas," which clearly credit FDR for improving things, couldn't be more obvious. It need not be explicitly said that Hoover "did nothing," when it's clear that FDR supposedly saved us from the disaster Hoover created by giving us the New Deal.
Then there is the absolutely ridiculous scene in the Cabinet meeting where Annie reprises "Tomorrow" with the whole Cabinet singing along. (It's almost as bad as this piece of Rooseveltian propaganda, which if you've never seen, you should.) Add it all up and you have a very well-known piece of popular culture that promulgates the narrative of Hoover as uncaring villain who let the people starve and FDR as heart-of-gold president who stepped in and saved them. That narrative is consistent with the Hoover myth, not to mention the related myths that the two presidencies were dramatically different with respect to policy and that the New Deal was responsible for ending the Great Depression.
There are two real ironies here. First, people at the time were much more aware of Hoover's interventionism and the commonalities between Hoover's policies and FDR's. In Thursday's Freeman column, I provide some of the evidence of those links from FDR's own advisors. The real historical crime of Annie is that it puts a narrative from the 1950s and 60s into the mouths of characters living through the New Deal. The second irony is that the original "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip drawn by Harold Gray was fanatically ANTI-New Deal. The musical turned the comic strip's politics 180 degrees in its treacly treatment of the New Deal.
Popular culture matters when it comes to how memes originate and circulate. More people have seen Annie than have read the academic histories that get the story mostly right. I think Annie probably has significant explanatory power when it comes to the myths around Hoover and FDR.
I'd love to hear alternative or additional explanations if any members of our ever-wise commentariat have any.