In Defense of Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover has gotten a bum rap. If he is not being conflated with a vacuum cleaner magnate or the first director of the FBI, chances are our 31st president is recalled as a synecdoche for the Great Depression, an event over which he ably presided, but did not—and could not—bring to an end. Assessed poorly by political scientists, ignored by historians in favor of more exciting fare, and painted as a fool by partisan journalists, even-handed political biographies on Hoover are a treat; but well-written, steely-eyed assessments of the man are a gift, and this is what one receives in Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency.

The New Russian Empire

Vladimir Putin

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early March 2014 and subsequent confrontational policies in the Middle East and parts of Europe have spawned myriad debates assessing Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and their implications for global security. Many of these discussions conclude that Russia seeks little more than a revival of Soviet-era influence in the near abroad–that is, nations bordering Russia.

Agnia Grigas takes a different tack in her informative and well-researched work. Seeing Putin’s Russia as a “challenger rather than partner with the West,” Grigas states that the “central argument of this book is that … there has been an increasing tendency in Russian foreign policy toward reimperialization of the post-Soviet space … to gradually rebuild its historic empire.”

New York Values

The New York City draft riots / Harper's Weekly

If New York City had guided the country, America probably would not have rebelled against King George III. For that matter, if New York had set the national tone, the North probably would not have fought the Civil War, and the South would have been allowed to secede into the Confederacy. At least since the early 1900s, when New York overtook Boston to become the nation’s largest cultural center, the city has prided itself on being the Great City of America. But the truth is that New York doesn’t march comfortably alongside the rest of the country. The Pied Piper of Manhattan has never managed to make much of America follow.

A Sloppy Hit on Israel

Menachem Begin, right, and Anwar Sadat in 1978 / Library of Congress

Go to a library and toss a coin at the Israel shelf. You’re almost certain to bounce it off a title critical of the Jewish state. The latest contribution to this death by a thousand books is Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal by journalist Milton Viorst. At the heart of this book is the assumption that Israel is wholly to blame for the conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Vive la Résistance!


Although the January 2015 terrorist attacks in France now look minor compared to more recent massacres in Paris and Nice, the slaughter at the headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was at the time the most bloody attack on French soil since the beginning of the twenty-first century. French political philosopher Pierre Manent observes that, while “the rush of emotion evoked by the event was in this case immense,” nevertheless “the acts of war committed in early 2015 … have changed nothing in our country’s dispositions or in its deliberations or actions.” In fact, the terrorism of early 2015 has merely worsened France’s paralysis, its refusal “to take a defensive position in order not to have to admit that it has put itself in danger.” Manent decided to write Beyond Radical Secularism, released in France in October 2015 and newly translated into English, to identify the root cause of this paralysis in the face of Islamic terror.

No Pain, No Shame

Whitney Thore

Whitney Way Thore is fat. Don’t worry: I’m not fat-shaming her. Thore tells us in her new memoir, I Do it With the Lights On, that fat is her second favorite F word (feminism being the first, of course). Two years ago she was living with her parents making $8.50 an hour as a small-town radio personality. Now she has a book deal and stars in her own reality show on TLC, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and she got it all for being fat—fat and a really good dancer.

Maybe you remember her “Fat Girl Dancing” video, which went viral in 2014. Thore danced a modified “Talk Dirty to Me” with her childhood friend Todd. Within two weeks the video had over 6 million views and Thore was on a mini press tour: a surprise flash mob on the Steve Harvey Show—“‘You’ve got good energy. Real good energy”—and appearances on the Today Show, Huffington Post Live, Inside Edition, CNN Headline News, and Right This Minute.

Her Own Woman

Germaine de Staël

According to Biancamaria Fontana, professor of the history of political ideas at University of Lausanne, most of the histories of the French Revolution fail the Bechdel test when discussing Germaine de Staël (1766-1817), the daughter of Jacques Necker. He was one of a series of France’s financial controllers who tried to right the severely listing ship of the state but could not convince the royals, the nobles, or the clergy to pay any taxes.

Not that Fontana ever mentions the Bechdel test, but she does write that Staël, novelist, literary critic, and political theorist, is usually mentioned either for her allegedly scandalous behavior or in connection with the famous men in her life—Necker, Louis de Narbonne, and Benjamin Constant, among others.