Hoover Revisited

At a time when America faces the prospect of another Depression, a new biography examines the man who is widely blamed for the first one.

By Roger Lowenstein

In the waning months of his seemingly endless reign, George W. Bush was occasionally compared to Herbert Hoover. Each man occupied the Oval Office when the country was struck by financial calamity; neither seemed capable of restoring the economy to health. What's worse, each was suspected by his respective compatriots of not really caring about the average citizen. For Bush, this was a consequence of his top-bracket tax cuts, compounded by his failure to respond energetically to Hurricane Katrina. Hoover's missteps were written on a bigger scale. Come the Great Depression, one in every four American workers was out of a job. Hoover did practically nothing to help them directly; unfathomably, he denied they were even suffering.

Herbert Hoover (The American Presidents Series): The 31st President, 1929-1933, William E. Leuchtenburg's brisk and timely biography of Hoover, the latest entry in the American Presidents Series launched by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., portrays the 31st president mostly as history remembers him-a sourpuss who could not begrudge himself even on Christmas Day to greet his White House servants, and a man who utterly failed to inspire hope during the Depression's darkest years.

To have pursued mistaken policies was human; to have proclaimed, when millions were on the brink of starvation, that the temptation to provide government charity should be resisted lest it weaken the public's spirit was unforgivable.

The first president born west of the Mississippi, Hoover was reared in an Iowa Quaker settlement, the son of a blacksmith. As the author notes, "Plain speech, plain dress, cold hard benches"-these were his lot. Not only drinking but even giggling was frowned upon. When first his father, then his mother, died, he was shipped to Oregon to live with an unloving and "avaricious" uncle. Introducing his forlorn subject, Leuchtenburg writes, "Little wonder that David Copperfield was Herbert Hoover's favorite tale."

It is just the right note, and the author, a distinguished chronicler of 20th-century American history, never loses it. He does not psychologize; he doesn't have to. When he says that young Hoover's only goal was to earn his keep "without the help of anybody, anywhere," we understand that his self-imposed regimen will later frame his response to millions of his fellow citizens.

Hoover's success in overcoming the odds-his grim-faced frontier pluck-actually suggests Richard Nixon rather than a cheerful son of privilege such as Bush. Hoover managed to enter the first-ever class of Stanford, graduated with a degree in geology, and caught on in the rugged world of international mining. In the Australian outback-the first of his many overseas gigs-he impressed his bosses by suppressing both workers and wages. He then struck out on his own, made a fortune, and contemplated a life of service.

Hoover's middle career is one of the great little-known sagas of American history. Based in London at the outbreak of World War I, he set up relief efforts for starving Belgians and displayed a genius for organization. Celebrated for his achievements, he became the U.S.'s wartime "food czar," prodding the citizenry to economize and dictating flour rations to bakers. He similarly helped war-stricken Austrians, Armenians, and sundry other European tribes-and later, even Bolshevik Russians.

By 1920, Hoover, 46, was an international hero, famed as "the great humanitarian." For one so lacking in the human touch, it was the oddest moniker. Hoover ever commanded admiration but never affection. His demeanor was unsmiling; his speeches ponderous. The sculptor of Mount Rushmore, his contemporary, said, "If you put a rose in Hoover's hand, it would wilt."

For most of the 1920s, Hoover served as commerce secretary, a backwater that he transformed into a pivotal federal bureau. Governing by fiat, he imposed his will on virtually every nook of American industry. He forced builders to adopt standard-size boards, and airports to install lights on landing strips. Without clear legal authority, he commanded firms to reduce their varieties of products from bedsprings to milk bottles. In 1927, when the Mississippi overran its banks and dislodged thousands of families, Hoover directed the rescue. The next year, he was elected president by a landslide.

Leuchtenburg carefully deconstructs the image of Hoover as a technocrat who coolly applied engineering principles to government. In fact, he was inflexible and autocratic; each of his triumphs depended on his wielding (as when he was food czar) absolute power. Once in the White House, he oozed contempt for Congress, with predictably dismal results.

Hoover's most serious handicap was his highly mythologized view of his past. He frequently said that the aid delivered to starving Belgians as well as to homeless Americans stemmed mainly from private citizens, when most of the money actually came from government.

When the Depression struck, Hoover was thus utterly opposed to federal aid. At a time when Kentuckians were living on wild grass and Chicagoans were picking through garbage, when a million men sought refuge in freight cars and countless families were living in shacks, the president insisted that the health of the nation was improving, that "our people have been protected from hunger and cold," that-incredibly-"hoboes...are better fed than they have ever been."

In recent years, revisionist historians have corrected the mistaken idea that Hoover was an extreme right-winger. As commerce secretary, he was lauded for his progressivism. As president, he intervened in the economy more than any prior chief executive had, though it was mainly to provide loans to banks and corporations. What he refused to do until very late in the game, and then only in pitiable doses, was to put dollars into people's hands. His failure was less of the mind than of the heart. As the crisis grew desperate, he focused on raising taxes, preferring a balanced budget to a nourished citizenry. On his last, losing campaign, he was met in Detroit by a rabble chanting, "Hang Hoover!" In New York, the people cried, "We want bread!"

Today's recession is of a milder hue. The stock market crash notwithstanding, our troubles are both different and less acute. But the Hoover story does suggest a contemporary moral. Consistency in Washington is praiseworthy only when it yields a positive result; otherwise it devolves into rigidity and dogma. The tragedy of Hoover was not that he was wrong but that he refused to see it.

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