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20 march 2009
Five U.S. Presidents never held any other elective office. Three of them were generals: Zachary Taylor, U.S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Two were "resumé candidates" who served in early-20th-century Republican Cabinets: William H. Taft and Herbert Hoover. Taft and Hoover also share the special misfortune of suffering overwhelming defeat in a bid for re-election.
Of the five, even considering that Grant and Eisenhower were great military leaders and Taft a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Herbert Hoover may have had the most extraordinary career – more extraordinary than those of all but a handful of the greatest Presidents, even though Hoover is generally classed among the weakest and the worst. William Leuchtenburg's brief study for the Times Books American Presidents series notes Hoover's astonishing range of achievements. Leuchtenburg pauses after each one to note that Hoover achieved it largely in spite of his appallingly anti-humanist principles.
It may seem strange to consider the Great Humanitarian, the feeder of Belgium and many another war-torn country, as an anti-humanist, but in Leuchtenburg's view few other conclusions are possible. Hoover, technocrat, autocrat, and acidulous reactionary, spent a life fairly alienated from the human race. It's not that he always said, or perhaps even felt, the wrong thing. He could move heaven and earth to feed hungry children, and he wiped the floor with racists who criticized his wife Lou's high-tea invitation to Jessie de Priest. But Hoover could also move heaven and earth to deny welfare payments to starving victims of the Depression. He could engineer relief to people displaced by the 1927 Mississippi floods (no Brownie he), but he could also engineer tax increases and tariff hikes when a stimulus was the only humanitarian reaction to economic catastrophe.
There is almost no way to redeem Herbert Hoover from the judgments of his contemporaries, which have been reinforced by those of 75 years of historiography. Hoover didn't cause the Crash or the Depression, Leuchtenburg is quick to point out. As Commerce Secretary in the 1920s, he warned against speculation and called for greater Federal oversight of just about every aspect of the American economy (as long as he was the one overseeing it). But faced with the gravest financial panic in history, Hoover retreated to the most rock-ribbed do-nothingism.
What's amazing is not that a Republican leader could have adopted such positions in 1930, but that so many Republican leaders ever since have done little but channel the early-30s version of Herbert Hoover. Robert Taft, Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, Bush 43, right down to the unenviable epigones who constitute President Obama's semi-loyal opposition of the moment, seem to have departed little from the Hoover playbook. Oppose government spending, oppose regulation, treat welfare and public works as the stiflers of character and responsibility, treat any form of community-building as a gateway drug to Maoism: this has been the "Old Guard" creed for three-quarters of a century. Central to this dogma is the somewhat bizarre notion, first fomented by Hoover himself, that the ills of the Depression can be laid at the feet of Franklin Roosevelt. Somehow, the Hoover line goes, the progressive innovations of the New Deal wrecked a vibrant American socio-economic system, just as millennial prosperity was peeping from around the corner.
Even more bizarre is to think that Hoover, after a dime-novel career as a brilliant, piratical mining entrepreneur, did feed Belgium white the U.S. was neutral in the First World War, and then fed the United States itself during its involvement in that war, and then exerted enormous influence on the rationalization of the American economic system (perhaps most notably in encouraging standardization; to this day, if most new light bulbs work in most old sockets, you can thank Herbert Hoover). And that after his Presidency, while he nursed a 30-year grudge against FDR, Hoover helped feed more and more countries, and helped streamline (and thereby increase the power of) an executive branch that he would perhaps have preferred to strangle in its cradle.
Herbert Hoover got things done. But somehow or other, when the nation most needed things to be done, he decided that it would be unthinkable to do them. Hoover put his name on a dam. But FDR's profile is on the dime: the dime that he and Eleanor raised by the thousands to help disabled children – and the dime that, thanks to Herbert Hoover, millions of Americans spent 1929-1933 asking their brothers if they could spare.
Leuchtenburg, William E. Herbert Hoover. New York: Times Books, 2009.