William Leuchtenburg's Herbert Hoover.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 19 2009 6:54 AM

The Riddle of Herbert Hoover

How the hypercompetent technocrat failed.

William Leuchtenburg's Herbert Hoover.

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.

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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.

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