Thursday, 21 May 2009

“Herbert Hoover”, by William E. Leuchtenburg (Times/Henry Holt)


“The Republican efficiency expert whose economic boosterism met its match in the Great Depression”

Catapulted into the public eye and national politics by his heroic fund-raising campaigns to help feed Europe during and after World War I, Herbert Hoover does not now enjoy a favourable or fond reputation among the majority of those he helped and his own countrymen. His presidency (which he won in a land-slide) and pre-presidential accomplishments are over-shadowed by the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression. Even though he tried to enlist the help of private sector leaders (for example, Henry Ford), he was unable to mitigate the Depression, which led to his second election, where the tables (and results) were turned on their head, and he was ousted by FDR.

The book opens with Hoover’s early life as an orphan who was swapped around family members for his formative years; and how even though he was largely unschooled, he managed to get into Stanford. Leuchtenburg then moves on to Hoover’s pre-presidential career in business (globetrotting to Australia, China and the UK), and then on to his political career. What’s most interesting is the way the author brings across Hoover’s character, which actually informs much of the content of the book; how it is almost completely at odds with what you would expect for someone who was so successful. For such a well-travelled man, he was also quite casually racist, believing that Asians and Caucasians shouldn’t mix, and being particularly critical of the Chinese: “Diplomacy with an Asiatic is of no use. If you are going to do business with him you must begin your talk with a gun in your hand, and let him know that you will use it.”

He was brusk, cold, completely out of place in social situations, yet immensely successful at almost everything he put his mind to. As Woodrow Wilson’s “Food Czar” during World War I, and then as Commerce Secretary for presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he pushed the boundaries of what the government could achieve (and also what it was allowed to do).

Exhibiting the same need for control he had when in the private sector, not to mention a disregard for the legal parameters of his jobs, Hoover frequently butted heads with his fellow officials, getting involved in areas and with issues that were wholly beyond his departments’ purview. His “forays into international affairs led Hoover to clash with Hughes, Mellon, and even the president”, while also clashing with other administration members on the issue of taxation (he was surprisingly progressive), lending regulation, and the environment.

Even though he served as an “energetic and much admired” Secretary of Commerce for two presidents, when in the Oval Office, Hoover was blinkered by his distrust of government and his belief that volunteerism would solve all social ills in America.

Overall, Leuchtenburg has written a very accessible and interesting biography of the man usually vilified for not fixing the US economy. By spending much of the book on his pre- and post-presidential life (about two-thirds), the book offers a much broader picture of the man. His strange desire to give money to struggling causes and acquaintances entirely confidentially (“good deeds by stealth”). Hoover comes across as a socially-awkward, fiercely independent, rather arrogant, yet gifted man.

An interesting, somewhat illuminating, and balanced portrait of a president many know little about, except his inability to solve the Great Depression.

It’s not the best in the series, but it certainly offers plenty for anyone wanting a brief account of this troubled man’s life and presidency. Recommended.

Also try: William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D Roosevelt & the New Deal (1963) & The Perils of Prosperity (1993); Roy Jenkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2003); John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash (1955/92); Harris Warren, Herbert Hoover & the Great Depression (2007); Eric Rauchway, The Great Depression & New Deal (2008); Amity Schlaes, The Forgotten Man (2007); Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance, 1929 (2009)

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