WEST BRANCH, Iowa – The Democrats say it over and over: George W. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover (search) to lose jobs on his watch. When they hear it, the folks in West Branch wince.
"They've dug up poor Mr. Hoover again and tried to turn him into the boogeyman of the campaign," said Tim Walch, director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (search). Both are in sight of Hoover's birthplace and the hill on which the 31st president is buried.
"It's really irrelevant to what's happening, and people can't get over it," said West Branch Mayor Mike Quinlan, a Democrat. "Hoover would have shown more class and never would have bashed a Democrat — but it's easy to do that."
Admirers defend the Hoover administration and point out that the former president became one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century with his efforts to stop world hunger.
Democrats have evoked the image of Hoover off and on since his defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the political victim of a stock-market crash and the Great Depression. But Walch said there hasn't been such a coordinated, partywide effort to link Hoover with a Republican candidate since Harry Truman's desperate campaign in 1948.
To call attention to the number of jobs lost during the Bush administration, 51 unemployed people are taking a "Show Us Your Jobs" bus tour to battleground states on behalf of the AFL-CIO (search). When the bus reached West Branch last week, they scrambled to take pictures at the Hoover museum.
That nagging statistic came up Friday when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry announced his economic plan in Detroit: "America cannot afford four more years of a president who is the first president to lose jobs since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression."
"Every time I hear it, I think to myself, `What is this guy trying to accomplish?"' the late president's grandson, Herbert Hoover III, 76, said in a telephone interview from his home in San Marino, Calif. "It's a sound bite to create an image that really doesn't stand much questioning when you are looking at the facts behind it."
The basic charge is true: Bush, who has seen 2.2 million jobs disappear during his term, will be the first president since Hoover to end his first four years with fewer jobs than when he took office.
The comparison, however, exaggerates the size of the current hiring downturn. Today's unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, but at the height of the Depression about 30 percent of the nation's workers were idle — a contrast that might help Bush but also shows the depth of the problems Hoover couldn't solve.
Walch noted another reason Democrats should be careful. Hoover was criticized for raising taxes on the wealthy and embracing a protectionist trade policy, both of which many Democrats support today.
West Branch residents proudly note that Hoover saved millions of lives as U.S. food administrator, feeding starving people throughout Europe during and after World War I. He performed a similar duty after World War II. Many in his hometown say he was president at the wrong time.
Hoover was born in this eastern Iowa community in 1874. A Quaker who made millions traveling the world as a mining engineer, he served eight years as Commerce Secretary before defeating New York Gov. Al Smith in a landslide in 1928.
Then came the stock market crash and the Depression. Critics called Hoover a cruel leader who ignored the millions living in poverty on his watch, epitomized by tent cities nicknamed Hoovervilles. Twelve presidents later, and 40 years after his death, Hoover remains a punching bag for economic doldrums.
The blows may not be effective. Most Americans can't identify Hoover as the Depression-era president, according to a poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey.
There's no confusion in West Branch. Cafes and schools are named after the nation's only Iowa-born chief executive. Outside the Hoover House restaurant on Main Street, Marge Pedersen, 80, said the town stands up for "our president."
"They don't give President Hoover the admiration he should have for feeding the poor," Pedersen said. "He was a good man, a very sincere man."