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David Greenberg: The Riddle of Herbert Hoover

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.]

In 1932, the parents of a 4-year-old went to court to change his legal name. Christened Herbert Hoover Jones in 1928, when the commerce secretary and Republican presidential nominee was a national hero, the boy deserved relief, said his parents, from "the chagrin and mortification which he is suffering and will suffer" for sharing a moniker with the now-disgraced chief executive. His new name: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones.

No president has ever suffered a reversal of political fortune as sudden and complete as the fall from glory to ignominy that was the sum and substance of Herbert Hoover's presidency. Elected in a landslide in 1928 to nurture the prosperity of the buoyant Coolidge era, Hoover proved unable and unwilling to lift America out of the Great Depression. Worse, he declined to palliate the misery of the millions cast into homelessness, unemployment, and hunger. Keeping up with the Joneses, Americans felt their admiration for Hoover curdle into hatred. Cascading boos spoiled his appearance at the 1931 World Series; chants of "Hang Hoover!" resounded at a Detroit campaign stop the next summer.

Faced with writing a new biography of such a figure, the average historian might perversely attempt a rehabilitation. In fact, over the years several such efforts have come and swiftly gone. But William Leuchtenburg, author of Herbert Hoover, is not your average historian. Still prolific at 86, he is one of the foremost authorities on the 1930s, the New Deal, and FDR. In this meaty little book, he brings to the life of Hoover his own lifetime of study of this watershed moment in the American past.

Leuchtenburg's book is the latest in Times Books' American Presidents series, a collection of short, readable biographies, for which, it bears mentioning, I wrote a volume about Calvin Coolidge in 2006 (the manuscript for which Leuchtenburg reviewed and improved). The series' best efforts have generally been those that tackle the middle-tier presidents. Insignificant presidents force their authors into strained claims that their present obscurity is undeserved, while giants like FDR defy encapsulation in 200 pages. So Hoover is a choice assignment. Understanding the advent of the New Deal is impossible without insight into his failures. And yet Hoover is largely forgotten: In 2004, John Kerry's presidential campaign stopped comparing Bush's dismal record on job creation to Hoover's when polling discovered that most Americans barely knew who he was.

Leuchtenburg's is a tragic Hoover. In his early career, Hoover won renown for his humanitarian commitments and his hypercompetence. Though Hoover was arrogant and prickly, his managerial skills should have served him well in tackling the financial panic and economic downturn that followed the stock-market crash seven months into his presidency—or, as Hoover chose to name it in a bit of ill-considered spin, the Depression. The tin ear for popular nomenclature turned out to be the least of his problems.

The first president born west of the Mississippi, Hoover had risen through brains, luck, and an astonishing capacity for hard work to become, by the age of 40, one of the world's leading mining engineers. A wealthy businessman as well, he performed a series of heroic tasks in World War I. He delivered food to the starving masses of Belgium when the Germans invaded in 1914. Woodrow Wilson appointed him to oversee food rationing at home after the U.S. joined the conflict. Afterward, he again fed ravaged Europe. The world marveled. Wilson called him a "great international figure," one of few men who "stir me deeply and make me in love with duty."

Hoover eyed the White House in 1920. But his Republican Party's "old guard" blocked him, scorning such heresies as his support for a minimum wage and equal pay for the sexes. Still, no president could ignore his talents, and he wound up as commerce secretary for eight years under Warren Harding and Coolidge. Here, too, Hoover was a dynamo. A consummate bureaucrat, he commandeered control of issues from conservation to aviation to the regulation of radio, and he led Coolidge's efforts to help victims of the 1927 Mississippi flood, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina.

What made Hoover's energy in these jobs so strange was his steadfast commitment throughout to private effort instead of public programs. His 1922 tract American Individualism was, despite some progressive notes, what Leuchtenburg calls a "jejune screed" offering "nothing that could not be heard at a weekly Kiwanis luncheon." Leuchtenburg explains the contradiction in Hoover by showing how in each of his previous experiences, he ascribed his feats not to the government resources at his disposal but to the charitable spirit of leading citizens—a stubborn misperception that would later cripple him.

Where a smattering of Hoover revisionists have detected in his thinking a bold progressivism, Leuchtenburg finds "mild iconoclasm." He favored cajoling private institutions into cooperating with government to reach shared goals. By stressing the limits to his activism—his belief in the primacy of private undertakings, his preference for playing "the administrator rather than the executive," in journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick's useful distinction—Leuchtenburg succeeds in explaining the seeming riddle of how the manager par excellence failed so catastrophically during the Depression.

Fail he did. Contemptuous of Congress, Hoover passed little legislation of note. Hostile to popular politics—"I'll not kiss any babies," he said as he finally agreed to stump for president in 1928—he declined to mobilize public support for his agenda. He fumbled an opportunity provided by a blue-ribbon committee to end Prohibition and passed up a chance to nationalize the water-power potential at Muscle Shoals, Ala., as FDR would later do. Presidential leadership, it turned out, required more sensitivity to public sentiment than had Hoover's prior technocratic posts.

When the crash came, Hoover offered soothing rhetoric—"The fundamental business of the country … is on a sound and prosperous basis"—that in retrospect seems tone-deaf but at the time amounted to a reasonable attempt to rally the nation. Following his voluntarist philosophy, he got labor and business to agree to a program to prop up wages. He even promoted public works on a small scale.

Yet his obsession with restraint exposed his conservatism. "Prosperity," he intoned, "cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury." He spurned a huge relief effort for the growing ranks of the destitute, deeming reports of want exaggerated. "Nobody actually starved," Hoover said. The hospitals and morgues told a sadder tale. Not until a year after the crash did he set up an employment commission, which, Leuchtenburg seethes, "churned out press releases with pap topics such as urging people to 'spruce up' their homes." A mediocre speaker who shunned the bully pulpit, Hoover did little even to "talk up" the economy or public morale.

Hoover's boldest stroke, the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. in 1932, was too little too late. Authorized to lend money to banks, insurance companies, and other firms, the RFC struck some observers at first as a happy volte-face for Hoover, with government now given a key role in the intended recovery. (Others wondered why bankers, but not the jobless, were now on the dole.) But Leuchtenburg maintains that Hoover enacted the RFC only when the civic-mindedness that he expected from financial and industrial leaders didn't materialize. "Only unwittingly—by revealing the inadequacy of his voluntaristic approach—was Hoover the progenitor of FDR's enlargement of federal authority."

The final straw came when the "bonus army" of impoverished veterans marched on Washington in the spring of 1932 to demand overdue benefits. Hoover deployed the Army, whose commander, Douglas MacArthur, exceeded his orders, not for the last time. The resulting mayhem, captured on newsreels, appalled the nation. Tanks decimated the squatters' encampments while bayonets and tear gas sent the ragtag protesters scurrying. "So all the misery and suffering had finally come to this," recorded one journalist, "soldiers marching with their guns against American citizens." Equally disgusted, though also selfishly pleased, was the Democratic presidential nominee. "Well," said Franklin Roosevelt, "this elects me."

In time, Roosevelt would forge a new role for government in the lives of America's citizens. In 1932, however, the "new deal" that he promised was vague even to him; the details, like the capital letters, would come later. Still, Roosevelt understood something Hoover didn't. As governor of New York, he urged the state legislature to furnish monetary relief "not as a matter of charity but as a matter of social duty" and as a means to "restore that close relationship with its people which is necessary to preserve our democratic form of government."

Hoover remained an unregenerate anti-New Dealer until his death in 1964, at age 90; he fumed in his final years that John F. Kennedy was espousing "socialism disguised as a welfare state." Yet Hoover at times showed glimmers of awareness that his failure had been a simple one—an inability to serve the people as the president should. "Democracy," he once grumbled to an aide, "is a harsh employer."
Read entire article at Slate