Herbert Hoover was a talented, complex man whose life has too often been pigeonholed as that of a failed president who passively allowed the Great Depression to deepen.
Finally, a biography that captures his life in full — from his modest origins as an orphan in Iowa to his role as an elder statesman — is available.
In "Herbert Hoover: A Life," University of Wisconsin professor Glen Jeansonne tells the story of an extraordinary life that is also relevant to our politics this year.
Based on his fame as a self-made millionaire, Hoover rode a groundswell of grass roots support to easily win the Republican nomination in 1928 despite having never run for office before.
Much of his appeal was based on his image as "the Great Engineer" who would bring the best practices of business to government. Sound familiar?
In another parallel to Donald Trump, Hoover had a reputation as a conservative that wasn't always accurate. While he revered the Constitution, Hoover was a believer in an activist, progressive government. As president, he laid much of the ground work for the New Deal.
One of Jeansonne's accomplishments is laying out just how much of the history of Hoover as a "standpat" president who did nothing to combat the Depression is wrong. The propaganda of Hoover's enemies quickly became the draft of history imbibed by both academics and the general public alike.
It is a cruel irony that for the last 30 years of his life, Hoover was reviled in many circles.
When he was elected in 1928, he was perhaps the most honored man in America. After making millions as a mining engineer in Asia and Australia, Hoover played a heroic role in feeding millions of starving civilians during World War I.
For eight years, he was an energetic Secretary of Commerce and a trusted adviser to Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. His work coordinating the federal response in helping the 700,000 people made homeless by the disastrous Mississippi Valley floods of 1927 was hailed as a masterpiece of management.
Hoover took his belief in engineering efficiency with him into the Oval Office. In the eight months he was president before the stock market crash of 1929, he made a comprehensive effort to expand and reform the federal government. After the crash, he abandoned the traditional approach of presidents to let the malinvestment created by economic bubbles be purged from the economy.
While a strong believer in liberty and freedom, Hoover had "emphatically rejected Laissez-faire as a rudimentary throwback." He opposed "unfettered markets," and advocated new policies that gave the federal government a much stronger role in shaping and steering the economy.
As historian Amity Shlaes points out, President Hoover jawboned employers into propping up wages thus delaying the flushing out of the malinvestment. He doubled federal spending in real terms in four years and dramatically raised income tax rates. He refinanced regional farm-loan banks so they would continue making cheap loans to farmers.
He proposed a Public Works Administration and created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to hand out loans to businesses.
Then there was the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff bill which raised prices on 20,000 imported goods and restricted trade at a time when the economy could least afford the shock. Hoover was not a strong protectionist, but he eventually caved to the pressures of special interests who claimed the bill would save American jobs.
In reality it was a special interest bonanza with Jeansonne observing: "Making tariffs is a messy business . . . with congressmen hovering like vultures to pick up road kill for their districts." The results were classic beggar-thy-neighbor economics U.S. exports dived to $1.7 billion in 1933 from $5.2 billion in 1929.
So activist was Hoover, that it could be said that Franklin D. Roosevelt ran to Hoover's right in the 1932 election by calling for a balanced budget and "economy in government."
Of course, Roosevelt proceeded to prolong the Depression with a series of chaotic, unpredictable interventions in th economy. But he learned a lot from his predecessor.
Indeed, Raymond Moley, one of of FDR's "brain trust" of key advisers, said, "When we all burst into Washington. . . we found every essential idea [of the New Deal] enacted in the 100 day Congress in the Hoover administration itself . . . Only the TVA and the Securities Act was drawn from other sources. The RFC, probably the greatest
recovery agency, was of course a Hoover measure, passed long before the inauguration."
Another "brain truster," Rexford Tugwell, wrote to Moley and said of Hoover: "We were too hard on a man who really invented most of the devices we used."
One area where Jeansonne excels is revealing just how vicious and "hard" Roosevelt allies were towards Hoover. John J. Raskob, the Democratic Party's national chairman, and his PR director Charles S. Michelson crafted a campaign of what Jeansonne calls "scathing invective" and "scurrilous venom," to discredit Hoover.
Hoover lacked regulatory authority over banks, which then were under state jurisdiction, as were such bodies as the New York Stock Exchange. When Hoover suggested that the New York legislature intervene to limit the financial crisis, then-Governor Roosevelt "not only declined to intervene but dabbled in stocks himself — though he did not need the money."
Later, as President-elect, FDR rejected Hoover's appeals to cooperate in preventing an international debt crisis Roosevelt told confidants that he would not do anything on the burning issue until he became president, and he would thus "leave that baby on Mr. Hoover's lap."
This treatment naturally made Hoover bitter, and he became an uncompromising critic of both Roosevelt and many of the New Deal programs that Hoover himself had inspired.
His conversion was no doubt sincere as he witnessed the Depression drag on and the personal liberty he valued constricted.
In later years, Hoover was welcomed back to Washington and charged with heading up commissions on government reform for both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
He established the distinguished Hoover Institution at his alma mater of Stanford University, which continues to do fine work to this day.
He remained a humble and generous philanthropist, ultimately giving away over half of his income from business profits.
What Jeansonne's biography does most effectively is provide a window into Hoover's fine qualities as a human being, while at the same time highlighting how he became a classic example of the right man elected to high office at precisely the wrong time.
John Fund is a columnist for National Review magazine.
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