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Herbert Hoover: Resourceful on Policy, Removed on Politics (Book Review, Law & Liberty) March 27, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Book Review, Politics.
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Imagine a highly successful businessman choosing the presidency of the United States for his first political race. Running as an outsider, he campaigned like no other, defeated the politicians,  and won the office. As President-elect, he held court in a suite of rooms at a fancy hotel, vetting prospective cabinet members. He had his own policy ideas, such as sharply curtailing immigration as a threat to American jobs.

Donald Trump? No, Herbert Hoover, as described by Charles Rappleye in his new book, Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency.

History has been simplistic and unkind toward President Hoover. Seemingly all we need to know is that he presided unsuccessfully over the Great Depression. Hoover himself has said he was “the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him.” Rappleye, a Los Angeles journalist who has written histories of several figures from the American Revolutionary period, has done Hoover and us a favor by delving deeper into the complexities of the Hoover presidency. Our 31st President did far more than we knew, though it still wasn’t enough. Franklin Roosevelt, after thwarting Hoover’s reelection in 1932, also did a lot about the Great Depression, making sure we knew all about his efforts, and still didn’t beat it back. Escape from the Depression and unemployment occurred only during the industrialized efforts of World War II.

In a nutshell that is Rappleye’s take on Herbert Hoover: a capable and resourceful leader who undertook reasonable policy approaches to an economic crisis, but a political novice whose personality was unsuited to democratic politics and the modern presidency. He worked too modestly and in secret. His disposition was dour and his speeches failed to connect. Unlike the politically gifted FDR, who comforted millions with his fireside radio chats, or Bill Clinton who could “feel your pain,” Hoover’s speeches were technical lectures about economics, delivered with his chin on his chest, deep into his notes. According to Rappleye, Hoover’s failures emanated from his lack of political and communication skills more than his policies.

In this respect, Rappleye seems to be caught up in a bit of presentism, that is, applying modern standards to figures of history. Compared to his predecessor, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, Hoover was a ball of fire. Radio was only a newly emerging medium in Hoover’s day and Roosevelt began to use it as a tool of the presidency as the country entered “the golden age of radio” in the 1930s and 40s. In a sense, Roosevelt was the first truly modern President, growing the office, issuing executive orders, undertaking personal leadership. Hoover’s was a transitional administration, from the premodern presidency of Coolidge to the thoroughly modern Roosevelt. Rappleye’s conclusion, like other accounts of Hoover,  seems simplistic in its own way, suggesting that a different personality might have led to greater success in the face of something as powerful as the Great Depression.

Most valuable in this book is its nuanced understanding of Hoover’s approach to the crisis. He has been painted by history’s broad brush as an uncaring, free-market, laissez faire businessman who did nothing while the country suffered. Instead Rappleye’s more detailed strokes reveal Hoover’s evolving approach, which had distinct phases. He saw the market collapse and banking crisis initially as a psychological problem of public confidence, so his early efforts were to reassure the nation. He also followed his approach of “cooperative” government, calling business leaders to the White House to enjoin them to keep wages up.

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