- - Sunday, August 9, 2015


It’s doubtful that Americans — or Republicans in particular — will pause today to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of the 31st president, Herbert Clark Hoover (Aug. 10, 1874). Yet, given the turmoil that the nation has faced in recent years over the size, scope and, most of all, debt of the federal government, Hoover merits another review.

No doubt, Hoover’s popular hallmark has been as the Republican president who contributed to the misery of the Great Depression times. “Hoovervilles,” the shantytowns of the early 1930s, were scarcely terms of endearment, although during World War I Hoover’s leadership as the federal government’s food administrator gave another meaning to his name:

I can Hooverize on dinner,

And on lights and fuel, too,

But I’ll never learn to Hooverize

When it comes to loving you.

Few Americans hold as many enviable records as Hoover. First, his story is as American as apple pie. Born of modest means in West Branch, Iowa and orphaned, Hoover graduated with a degree in geology from Stanford University and became a successful mining engineer and owner of his own firm, traveling around the globe several times when a big trip for many Americans was one to the country store. As a Republican, he was a progressive, to the left of Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding. As secretary of Commerce, Hoover had few equals. He not only promoted U.S. business interests with tangible results but used methods that drew upon the efficiency expertise of an engineer.

And he held that post longer than any other secretary. Lest we forget, too, as the Iowa presidential primary looms large next year, Hoover was the only president born in Iowa.

Hoover’s downfall as president was his sober-as-a-judge quality, a trait not inappropriate for earlier chief executives, but American society, by the third decade of the 20th century, began to demand emotive qualities heard on the radio or seen on the movie screen. As a Quaker, a religion without ministers, Hoover was not schooled in charisma, originally a theological term reserved for people with a divinely conferred, and outwardly visible, gift or power. As aviator Charles Lindbergh noted, Hoover “lacked a certain spark … that makes men willing to follow a great leader even to death itself.”

Second, and more importantly, when hard times befell the nation, Hoover drew a line in the sand in terms of the outer limits of the federal government. Limited and temporary government intervention in the economy was supported, but an unbalanced budget, federal debt and growing bureaucracy were not among his options. Not surprisingly, the campaign between Hoover and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 illustrated Hoover’s harsh critique of an expansionist federal government.

“The proposals of our opponents,” he said in a speech in New York in October, 1932, “will endanger or destroy our system … I especially emphasize the promise to promote ‘employment for all surplus labor at all times.’ At first I could not believe that anyone would be so cruel as to hold out a hope so absolutely impossible of realization to these 10,000,000 who are unemployed … If it were possible to give this employment to 10,000,000 people by the Government, it would cost upwards of $9,000,000,000 a year. It would pull down the employment of those who are still at work by the high taxes and the demoralization of credit upon which their employment is dependent … It would mean the growth of a fearful bureaucracy, which, once established, could never be dislodged.”

The parameters for contemporary America were set after the 1932 election. FDR, like President Obama to his predecessor George W. Bush, consistently blamed Hoover’s policies for the nation’s economic woes he confronted on his watch, no matter that Roosevelt continued many of Hoover’s policies and no matter that none really brought about an end to hard times until intervention in World War II.

To be sure, even philosopher-engineers had their heavenly city. Hoover’s was described in 1922 in a 72-page book, “American Individualism,” touted by a reviewer in The New York Times as “among the few great formulations of American political theory. It bears much the same relation to the problems of the present and the future that the essays of Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and Noah Webster bore to the problems that occupied men’s minds when the Constitution was framed.”

“Every time the government is forced to act,” Hoover argued, “we lose something in self-reliance, character and initiative.”

Hoover died in 1964, just as another large expansion of the federal government was taking place, in the form of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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