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Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

Kenneth Whyte

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Herbert Hoover and the making of modern America.

Last year, the economist Robert Gordon published a book titled 'The Rise and Fall of American Growth,' which set out to debunk the notion that we live in a great age of innovation. The celebrated inventions of the past half century, like the personal computer and the Internet, Gordon argues, have increased productivity and transformed people's lives far less than did the leading inventions of the half century between 1870 and 1920, like household electricity, indoor plumbing, and the automobile. "Most aspects of life in 1870 (except for the rich) were dark, dangerous, and involved backbreaking work," he wrote in a paper that appeared a few years before the book. People's homes were dark and poorly heated, and smoky from candles and oil lamps."“But the biggest inconvenience was the lack of running water," Gordon noted. "Every drop of water for laundry, cooking, and indoor chamber pots had to be hauled in by the housewife, and wastewater hauled out."

It was into the lower end of such circumstances that Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first President of the United States, was born, in 1874. Hoover was the son of devout Quakers who lived in the frontier village of West Branch, Iowa. His father, a blacksmith, died when Herbert was six, and his mother died three years later. At the age of eleven, he was sent, by train, along a just completed rail line, to a small settlement in Oregon, to live with an uncle, who treated him coldly and loaded him down with chores.

Quiet, awkward, and a poor student, Hoover somehow managed, by his young adulthood, to have made himself into an exemplar of his generation's America, a technologically advanced world power. By early middle age, he was a celebrated international hero. The times demanded industrial-scale achieve ments, not limited to industry itself; Hoover was a public- service superman, a megabureaucrat. In 1910, the Kansas journalist William Allen White - who became one of Hoover's closest friends and his leading publicist - proclaimed the dawn of a new age: "Just as the same hundred men or so are the directors of all our big banks, of all our great railroads, and of many of our public service corporations - directing the centripetal forces of American society - so another group of a hundred men, more or less, is found directing many of the societies, associations, conventions, assemblies, and leagues behind the benevolent movements—the centrifugal forces of American society." Within a few years, Hoover had placed himself at the head of that second group.

Among the cruelties of popular political history is that almost everyone below the level of President winds up being forgotten, and one-term Presidents are usually remembered as failures. Nobody demonstrates this better than Hoover. He was elected in 1928 with four hundred and forty-four electoral votes, carrying all but eight states—and it was the first time he had run for political office. Four years later, he got fifty-nine electoral votes and carried just six states. What intervened between his two Presidential runs was the 1929 stock-market crash and the early years of the Great Depression. Hoover was doomed to be remembered as the man who was too rigidly conservative to react adeptly to the Depression, as the hapless foil to the great Franklin Roosevelt, and as the politician who managed to turn a Republican country into a Democratic one. (The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives that began during Hoover’s Presidency lasted for all but four of the next sixty-two years.) Even now, if you were a politician running for office, you would invoke Hoover only to compare your opponent to him.

"Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times" (Knopf), by Kenneth Whyte, the former editor of the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's, helpfully lays out a long and copious résumé that doesn’t fit on this stamp of dismissal. An inaugural graduate of Stanford, where he studied mechanical engineering and geology, Hoover became a mining engineer at a time when that was as glamorous and potentially profitable a career as launching a tech startup would be for a Stanford graduate now. His first job was as a two-dollar-a-day 'mucker' in a California mine, but not much more than a year later he was supervising large gold-mining operations in Western Australia for a prominent London firm, at a sizable salary. Before he turned thirty, he was married and a father, running a large gold mine in Tientsin, China, and highly prosperous. Hoover seems to have been an almost brutally tough, obsessively hardworking manager; certainly charm was not the secret to his success. “It simply comes to this: men hate me more after they work for me than before,” Whyte quotes Hoover writing to his brother during his Australia period. He soon broke with his employers and struck out on his own, mainly as a financier of mining projects, rather than as a manager of them, and did very well for himself. The Hoovers moved to London and lived in a large town house. In his memoirs, Hoover remarked, "Pre-war England was the most comfortable place in which to live in the whole world. That is, if one had the means to take part in its upper life. The servants were the best trained and the most loyal of any nationality."

The years of Hoover's rise, the first two decades of the twentieth century, were a heyday for those innovations which, in ways Robert Gordon has emphasized, made America modern. It was also the period in which a good deal of the familiar institutional architecture of the United States was created: big corporations and universities, the first government regulatory agencies, structured and licensed professions, charitable foundations, think tanks. The project had a glamour that's hard to conjure today. Liberal intellectuals like Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly saw the establishment of a class of trained, technocratic experts as essential to the future of democracy. In business, efficiency experts like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Frank Gilbreth systematized the operations of industrial mass production, down to the physical movements of workers on an assembly line. Psychologists like Lewis Terman invented tests that could be used to sort the population en masse. Hoover was a creature of the engineering division of this milieu. "It is a great profession," he wrote in his memoirs. "There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standard of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer's high privilege."

Biographers usually become well acquainted with their subjects not just as public figures but also as people who lead ordinary daily lives in the company of their co-workers, friends, and family. Unless the subject is a monster, all that intimacy typically turns the biographer into a personal partisan. This did not happen with Whyte and Hoover. Dour, phlegmatic, unreflective, and unrevealing, Hoover doesn’t come across as being much fun to spend time with, even if the time you're spending is in his Presidential library, in Iowa. Biographers want psychological access, but Hoover, though the records he left behind are vast, has the quality of not being personally present in a life that, for a long while, produced one triumph after another. He was "largely a mystery to himself," as Whyte puts it. At one point during his account of Hoover's rise, we're offered this character assessment: "He was determined to succeed by any means necessary, subordinating questions of right or wrong to the good of his career and driving himself crazy with his hunger for power and control, his hypersensitivity to perceived threats to his independence and stature, and his overarching need to measure up".

It wasn't that Hoover was a hypocrite, pretending to be something other than a man preoccupied with operational efficiency; it was that emotional life just wasn't his metier. A letter he wrote to one of his sons explaining why he wouldn’t be home for Christmas says it all: "I feel the separation more than you will ever appreciate but I know that you will understand that it is entirely in the interest of other children." He was self- involved in a way that extremely successful people often are, but that's different from being selfish. All the evidence suggests that Hoover was genuinely devoted to what he construed as the public good, with the proviso that he wanted his devotion to be recognized.

What gave him renown enough to make him a plausible Presidential candidate was his self-appointment as the manager of an international effort to get food into Belgium after it had fallen to the Germans during the First World War. His aim, Whyte writes, was to provide almost the entire food supply for a nation of 7.5 million people, indefinitely. This required getting food mostly from the United States, collecting it in London, and then shipping it across the English Channel and into territory controlled by a country with which Britain was at war - all with not much more than a wisp of an official position. Whatever qualities had made Hoover successful as an operator of mines in remote areas also made him successful at delivering relief under emergency conditions. He borrowed money to buy food before he had succeeded in getting government assistance. He persuaded George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, and other leading authors to publish statements in support of his efforts. He negotiated with food brokers and shipping companies. At a time when the world adored people who had spectacular organizational skills, here was somebody using them not to build a factory or administer an empire but for purely humanitarian purposes. Hoover was a logistical saint. In 1917, after many years in London, Hoover returned to the United States, won the friendship and admiration of President Woodrow Wilson, and was made the director of a new government agency called the United States Food Administration, which was charged with managing the national food supply now that the country was a participant in the war. Hoover 'boldly asserted dominion over the entire food chain in America' Whyte tells us. He licensed all persons and businesses engaged in the production of food, from packers, canners, and bakers to distributors, wholesalers, and retailers. This was another widely publicized triumph: the troops abroad and the folks back home were well and reliably fed. By 1920, Hoover was thinking about running for President, as a getthings- done type who wasn't identifiably Democratic or Republican. He wound up not entering the race, but he eventually declared himself a Republican and was appointed Secretary of Commerce by President Warren Harding. Hoover turned that usually obscure position, which he held through most of the nineteen-twenties, into a platform for further increasing his fame, culminating in one more turn as the orchestrator of a vast relief effort, after the Mississippi River flood of 1927.

In those days, Hoover was, Whyte observes, on the liberal edge of the Republican Party. Whyte calls him "progressivism incarnate," meaning progressive in the sense of that era: a believer in progress, planning, and an expanded federal government that used its power to accomplish technical missions. Hoover, who as Commerce Secretary made himself into the first federal official with power over new industries like aviation and broadcasting - Congress created the F.C.C. partly to take control of the airwaves away from him - appears to have been among the first people to appear on long-distance broadcast television and to use radio as a way to reach a national audience during a crisis. He also loved taking on projects like standardizing the sizes of bricks and wood screws. In 1928, after Calvin Coolidge, perhaps feeling pressured by Hoover's obvious Presidential ambitions, announced that he would not be running for a second term, Hoover devised a notably modern Presidential campaign, with a professional advertising expert and a pollster on staff. "We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved" Anne O'Hare McCormick, reporting on Hoover's Inauguration, wrote in the Times. "The modern technical mind was for the first time at the head of a government"”

Whyte, however unsympathetic he finds Hoover personally, is almost entirely on his side as a policymaker - not least when it comes to his handling of the economic crisis that began a few months into his Presidency. As early as 1923, Hoover was warning publicly that, sooner or later, the booming economy of the nineteen-twenties was going to go bust. He was particularly focussed on the New York banks' dangerous practice of lending money to investors so that they could buy stocks 'on margin,' which overheated the markets and generated whiteknuckle risk for the borrowers and the banks alike. In the early months of his Presidency, he began selling his own stocks in anticipation of a crash. And when the crash came, on October 29, 1929, Hoover immediately grasped its importance and began exploring what to most of Washington seemed like the outer acceptable limit of an aggressive government response to an economic crisis. "It was just the sort of emergency the American people had with so much confidence elected him to meet," Whyte writes.

Hoover launched infrastructure building projects unprecedented in scale. Convinced that the heavy reparations payments imposed on Germany after the First World War were making the Depression more severe in Europe, he organized a politically risky moratorium on them. He created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to pump government- supplied capital into the econ omy, and he proposed some of the ideas that later became the heart of the New Deal’s response to the Depression, like agricultural loans, deposit insurance, a government home-mortgage agency, and the forced separation of commercial and investment banking. The atmosphere surrounding these activities was typically Hooverian: he confronted the Depression the way he had the humanitarian crises that brought him to the Presidency, with sheer hard work. Surrounded by a circle of loyal aides who had served him for decades and who were known collectively as the Firm, he apportioned his long days at the office (he was the first President to keep a telephone on his desk) into series of eight- minute appointments. Whyte reminds us that the press, specifically the Times, consistently praised Hoover's efforts and took each temporary halt in the bad economic news as a sign that the Depression had ended. And, at least in the early innings of the 1932 campaign, it was by no means clear that Franklin Roosevelt had in mind an economic policy that was terribly different from Hoover's.

Progressivism did not rest firmly within either of the political parties; it produced Presidents who were Republican, like Theodore Roosevelt, and Democratic, like Wilson. The coming of the New Deal turned most Republican Progressives into conservatives, though, and none more than Hoover. Like many politicians, Hoover preferred to think of himself as someone who had reluctantly answered a call to public service, rather than as someone who craved power, but he took losing very hard. He blamed his defeat substantially on the advent of a new kind of media smear machine that he believed was directed by the Democratic National Committee, whose products included a series of widely publicized books with titles like 'The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags' and 'Hoover's Millions and How He Made Them.' Two weeks before Roosevelt's Inaugura tion, Hoover sent the President-elect a strained, handwritten letter proposing a joint effort to avert a looming banking crisis; Roo sevelt chose not to answer for eleven days. In 1934, ignoring the advice of friends who thought it would come across as 'the bitter musings of a defeated man,' Hoover published a best-selling book that he imagined to be a devastating critique of Roosevelt (though it never mentioned his name), called The Challenge to Liberty.

In 1936 and again in 1940, Hoover hoped that his party would turn to him again to set things right, and was surprised and hurt when it didn’t. As the rise of Adolf Hitler forced Roosevelt to become a foreign-policy President, Hoover began to disapprove of him diplomatically just as much as he did economically. He believed that, if left alone, Hitler, whom he had visited in 1938, would direct his ambitions eastward and wage a mutually destructive war with the Soviet Union, leaving Britain and Western Europe alone. He published another of his many books just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, urging the United States to stay out of the war, and he always considered Roosevelt's decision to form an alliance with Joseph Stalin to be unconscionable.

Finally, not long after Roosevelt died, Hoover's exile ended. Following a meeting with Harry Truman at the White House, he was made an honorary chair of a body called the President’s Famine Emergency Committee. He used this as an occasion to reprise his decades-past role as a one-man food-distribution tsar in postwar Europe. The following year, a newly Republican Congress put him in charge of a vast efficiency study of the federal government. The Hoover Commission, run with typically obsessive thoroughness by its septuagenarian namesake, produced nineteen separate reports and two hundred and seventythree recommendations. A second Hoover Commission, appointed by Dwight Eisenhower, issued its three hundred and fourteen additional recommendations just a few weeks before Hoover’s eighty-first birthday.

It's unlikely that any President elected in 1928, even Roosevelt, would have been returned to office in 1932. The magnitude of the economic disaster was just too great to be politically survivable. Whyte asserts, implausibly, that, "after three years of backbreaking work, Hoover had in fact stopped the depression in its tracks and by most relevant measures forced its retreat." In fact, when Roosevelt took office the unemployment rate was at its all-time historical peak, twentyfive per cent, and the entire American banking system had stopped functioning. Even if Hoover had been able to devise a perfect plan for surmounting the disaster, his lack of political skills would have prevented him from enacting it. As stoutly as Whyte defends Hoover's policies, he has to concede that his subject wasn’t much of a politician. Hoover set out to govern in the manner in which he had accomplished the spectacular feats that had brought him to the Presidency: as an administrator of genius. Being a novice at electoral politics, he was unused to campaigning, had a strong preference for giving jobs in his Administration to businessmen rather than to politicians, didn’t consider partybuilding part of the President’s job, and didn’t understand that the constitutional system demands that an effective President spend a great deal of time courting members of Congress. He tried to defeat the Depression by grinding it down from behind his desk. In 1932, he felt it was unseemly for a sitting President to campaign for reëlection, so, for the most part, he didn't.

In order to secure the firm support of William Borah, a powerful Republican senator from Idaho (in those days, the Republican Party's hold over the West was shaky, because its voters had a strong liberal-populist bent), Hoover promised during the 1928 campaign that he would, if elected, call a special session of Congress to consider legislation that would help farmers. He kept the promise, but the special session’s main attention turned from agriculture to trade policy. A fiesta of politicking by hundreds of narrow economic interests, which Hoover was either unwilling or unable to control, wound up producing the notoriously protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which certainly didn't address, and may well have worsened, the economic crisis. Another example of Hoover's poor political instincts was his handling of Prohibition, which was then in its final years. He had been raised in a strict teetotalling environment. In his memoir, he wrote, "There was only one Democrat in the village. He occasionally fell under the influence of liquor; therefore in the opinion of our village he represented all the forces of evil." He, like many leading Republicans, had no real anti-alcohol passion but worried about offending the large dry constituency among the Party's voters. He wound up saying nothing very clear about it, and so let Roosevelt, who was firmly wet, use Prohibition's unpopularity to propel his campaign.

These were big mistakes, but Hoover's fundamental error - or his fundamental stand on principle, depending on your point of view - was ideological as well as political. It concerned the size and the scope of the federal government. Hoover's active confrontation of the Depression was limited to economic management; he staunchly resisted the idea that the government should help individuals through employment programs or direct payments. Roosevelt created the Works Projects Administration, Social Security, and other programs that conferred benefits directly on people in need. During Hoover's term, federal revenue was about three per cent of the gross domestic product. Roosevelt had more than doubled that figure even before the Second World War began. By the time of his death, it was twenty per cent, where it would roughly hover for the next seven decades. Roosevelt increased the number of federal employees from about five hundred thousand to more than six million. Republicans may complain about big government, but Roosevelt's enlargement set a baseline that we take for granted today, and that frees us to think about politics along other lines. Hoover believed that a small central government was the only possible distinctively American alternative to Socialism, Communism, and Fascism. Roosevelt demonstrated that the United States could respond to the Depression by making government much bigger without losing its identity as a capitalist democracy, and he couldn’t have done this if a voting majority hadn't been persuaded that he was right. Hoover, though, considered Roosevel's tendency toward statism to be morally wrong. He certainly couldn't have admired Roosevelt as a manager.

Even loyal aides to Roosevelt found him maddening. He used his charm as an aid to elusiveness. Everybody left a meeting with Roosevelt believing he had agreed to whatever the person had asked for. Nobody could figure out exactly what he thought. He encouraged rivalries and overlapping responsibilities. The man who was a trusted family member to Americans who listened to him on the radio was unknowable to the people in his immediate vicinity. Hoover, though by no means open, was always forthright, and he inspired intense loyalty among those who worked for him. But it turns out that managerial excellence doesn't assure Presidential success in this country— though we’re still tempted by the thought that it might. If you asked people, in the abstract, whether they’d rather have a President who was a superbly charming professional politician or one who had come from nothing, built a successful business, and accomplished astonishing feats of altruism, they would probably choose the latter. We think that we don’t need politicians; we even think that we'd be better off without them. The truth is that in a democracy, especially during a national emergency, they're the only people who can get things done.

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