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.
To get a better sense of Hoover’s fall, it is helpful to remember the awesome domestic—and global—reputation he enjoyed prior to his time in the White House. Born into penury, Hoover graduated from Stanford, earned a fortune as a miner, headed up major humanitarian relief efforts during World War I, and them went on to become secretary of commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. A man of unbridled but painstakingly hidden (at least he thought so) ambition, Hoover’s early taste of public adoration whetted an appetite for the presidency. When Coolidge declined a second term, Hoover was there, with little prodding, to take up the mantle.
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Coming into the White House, the man whom the newspapers referred to as "Secretary of Everything" had reason to be confident, and the success of the Roaring Twenties provided evidence for his expectations. Politically, the country’s mood matched the Hooverian philosophy, outlined in an early work of his, American Individualism. When the crash struck and the depression settled in, this same common-sense philosophy extolling hard work and independence from the government dole would prove to be major blind spots in Hoover’s ability to guide the country—and public perception of his governing ability—to a favorable destination.
As one might expect, Rappleye spends the majority of his book on Hoover’s domestic operations and his handling of the economic calamity. He does an excellent job tracing the manifold causes of the depression, all the while explaining, in layman’s terms, the complexity of the phenomena. And while economists may still debate whether Hoover’s approaches to the Fed, the Farm Board, foreign debt, or the Reconstruction Finance Corporation were clear-sighted, all surveyors of his White House years seem to agree on one thing: the humanitarian Hoover was painfully maladroit when it came to conveying much needed empathy during one of the worst crises in American history.
Hoover, perhaps like many politicians, was mercurial but needy. Beneath what the press came to believe was a hard, disdainful exterior was a man who cared deeply about the sufferings of Americans. What Hoover lacked, and what he never cultivated, was a warm relationship with the media, once exclaiming, "They have no respect for the office I hold." With few words ever emanating from the White House on policy matters, the media was left to their speculations, and, given the dark mood of the day, Hoover frequently came out the loser. Instead of a charm offensive, Hoover had a tendency to dig in or, when defeated, turn vindictive, hiring personal detectives to intimidate querulous journalists and burglarize the offices of political opponents.
Hoover’s campaign for reelection never really got off the ground. Prohibition, the defeat of the veterans bonus bill, and the sad Bonus Army affair all compounded the constant bad news on the status of the economy. "His eyes hollowed, his visage haunted with disillusion," Hoover found himself without political allies, shifting, on an almost daily basis, between offensive and defensive postures. By any measure, the totality of the odds against his success was staggering and upset the already unbalanced Hoover’s equilibrium. Toward the end of the campaign, he sorrowfully lamented "We are opposed by ten million unemployed, ten thousand bonus marchers, and ten-cent corn. Is it any wonder that the prospects are dark?"
And yet, it was during this nadir that Hoover would, by dint of distinguishing himself from FDR, pronounce a political theory, not only based in American individualism, but a belief in the utility and goodness of our economic system, that repays attention by modern students of politics. In a 1932 speech—drafted personally—delivered at Madison Square Garden during the reelection campaign, Hoover made assertions any red-blooded conservative would be pleased to make publicly:
This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government …
The primary conception of this whole American system is not the regimentation of men but the cooperation of free men. It is founded upon the conception of responsibility of the individual to the community, of the responsibility of local government to the state, of the state to the national government.
It is founded on a peculiar conception of self-government designed to maintain this equal opportunity to the individual, and through decentralization it brings about and maintains these responsibilities. The centralization of government will undermine responsibilities and will destroy the system
Toward the end of his life, Hoover devoted time to conserving and archiving his papers. He also, like many statesmen, completed his memoirs, and wrote a fanciful little book, Fishing for Fun—And to Wash Your Soul. And yet, as Rappleye notes, his "greatest work," Freedom Betrayed, nearly complete by the time of his death in 1964, would not, thanks to the prudence of Hoover’s heirs, see the light of day for fifty years. The book, which Hoover privately referred to as his "magnum opus," was a sustained indictment of a man in whom this otherwise collected, calculating statesman found his most frightening bugaboos: FDR.
Our national memory of Hoover is imprecise and unfair, an eventuality his famous reticence and off-putting demeanor—to say nothing of the most spectacular of smear campaigns mounted by the left—surely contributed to. We should be grateful for accounts like Rappleye’s that go some of the way toward rehabilitating the image of a figure the Republican Party and conservatives should own with pride.