- - Wednesday, July 6, 2016



By Charles Rappleye

Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 576 pages

Herbert Hoover, the 31st U.S. president, confuses more historians than he inspires. He’s been called a “conservative,” “big government Republican,” “progressive conservative” and even a “liberal.” Some believe he always supported laissez-faire capitalism, whereas others feel he was a government interventionist at heart. He’s been blamed for making the Great Depression worse, while several claimed he tried to make it better.

The consensus about Hoover, in other words, is that there is no consensus.

Charles Rappleye’s “Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency” attempts to shines some new light on this subject. “This book is not an effort to resurrect Hoover as a forgotten hero ready for a new turn in the sun,” he writes, as “[h]is was a failed presidency.” The author’s desire to “fill in gaps papered over by homilies and assumptions that are now wearing thin” is still a welcome move to complete Hoover’s historical record.

How did Hoover, often regarded as a “profoundly shy” man with an “inward reticence that found outward expression in eyes averted to the ground,” conquer a “hostile Republican Party” and become president? With determination, sheer will and a far more complex character than we ever realized.

“He was a nettlesome, idiosyncratic loner,” Mr. Rappleye notes, and was also “peevish, restless, rarely at ease when not wielding a fishing pole.” Yet, Hoover was “also driven, broadly capable, and supremely confident of his own acumen.” He was therefore able to “surmount what seemed to be impossible odds largely because he believed he could, and was able to inspire that belief in others.”

For example, his popular “story arc” for the 1928 presidential election, an “orphan boy to wealthy mining engineer,” was quite the tall tale for the prairie-born blacksmith’s son. Even though he had an “aversion to the podium,” and the fine art of ad-libbing “was simply not in his repertoire” he still spoke in a confident manner. He “made prosperity his core message” to enthusiastic audiences, supported by the twin principles of a “progressive economic system” and “vigorous cooperation by the government.”

It worked. Until the 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression muddled his one-term presidency, that is.

While a strong believer in liberty and freedom, Hoover had “emphatically rejected laissez-faire as a rudimentary throwback.” He opposed “unfettered markets,” and was a disciple and an advocate of a new school of public policy that afforded government a critical role in operation and management of the economy.”

Hence, his three-hour conference in the White House Cabinet Room in November 1929 “exemplified the Hoover Method.” In a nutshell, it would “let government lead by exhortation, by hosting gatherings and fostering cooperation, rather than impose policy by fiat.”

This view was certainly not in line with small “c” conservative thinking. In fact, it had more in common with Theodore Roosevelt’s old Bull Moose/Progressive Party (which Hoover had supported in the 1912 presidential election). Regardless, the president certainly took an active role in attempting to stop this painful economic downturn.

Unfortunately, Hoover would “confirm his reputation for political ineptitude” in the White House. A “bungled and altered announcement” for the Supreme Court, for instance, left a judge associated with former President William Howard Taft out in the cold. As well, a top political adviser, Republican National Committee Chairman Claudius Huston, faced an embarrassing financial scandal and was forced to resign.

As political commentator Walter Lippmann wrote in a June 1930 Harper’s magazine essay, “a close examination of Mr. Hoover’s conduct in the critical matters will disclose a strange weakness which renders him indecisive at the point where the battle can be won or lost.” Fairly or unfairly, it was a label he could never shake in his career.

Meanwhile, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal haunted him at every turn in his re-election bid. Hoover believed his economic measures (Farm Board, Home Loan Banks, moratorium and so forth) had done just that. He felt FDR had turned his “painstaking deliberation against him” and took away his vaunted economic strategy.

He couldn’t combat his opponent’s immense popularity, however. FDR’s “effort to align himself with the common man, and Hoover with the economic elite,” along with Hoover’s “famously thin skin” and “Roosevelt’s success in defining his opponent,” all worked against him. He was ultimately crushed in the 1932 presidential election.

Hoover the vulnerable doesn’t transform into Hoover the venerable in Mr. Rappleye’s book. But at least there are some moments, however brief, of Hoover the fractured visionary.

• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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