Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, Charles Rappleye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016 (expected publication date May 10, 2016).
Summary: This new biography of the Depression-era President presents a more nuanced picture than the aloof, somewhat helpless figure he has often been characterized to be. It shows a competent, caring, and principled administrator lacking the political skills requisite for presidential leadership in a time of crisis.
Most portraits of Herbert Hoover’s presidency characterize him as ineffectual, unfeeling and unable to lead the country in the greatest economic crisis that it has faced. Likewise, many of these portrayals lay this crisis squarely at his feet. His one term presidency stands in sharp contrast to his charismatic successor’s three-plus terms in office in the minds of most.
Charles Rappleye gives us a far more nuanced picture, one that recognizes the strengths of character, the Herculean efforts made to serve the country as well as the errors of judgment and lack of political leadership skill that led to his failed presidency. Hoover rose from humble Quaker beginnings to make a fortune as a mining engineer, to lead a humanitarian relief effort in Belgium after World War 1 and serve as a pro-business Secretary of Commerce under Calvin Coolidge. Having never run for elected office, he won a decisive victory in 1928 that swept him into the Presidency, so impressed were people with his integrity, problem-solving skills and the fact that he was a “non-politician”.
Even before the stock market crash of 1929, Hoover’s lack of political skill became evident in problems with a Republican Congress (his own party). Like some other presidents, he viewed the press as enemies and restricted their access to him. He disliked giving speeches and when he did, they were wordy, turgid exercises in boring elocution (a sentence Hoover might like!).
The Depression was a “perfect storm” of factors ranging from over-inflated stock prices, problems in the international banking and debt system following Versailles, and a terrible drought that afflicted a great part of the country. What Rappleye makes clear is that Hoover was far from passive and uncaring, working with businesses to sustain employment, in farm relief efforts, in work with private relief organizations to provide aid to the needy, and most significantly, in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to shore up failing banks to keep the financial system of the country afloat, using measures not unlike the TARP measures used by Bush and Obama administrations in the US’s most recent economic downturn. On a personal level, Hoover donated his full salary as president to charitable causes including many personal appeals for assistance.
At the same time, Rappleye delineates Hoover’s resistance to big government relief programs, preferring solutions of both private charity and job creation in the business and industrial sector. He also gives attention to Hoover’s principled refusal to abandon the gold standard when European countries had done so and reaped the benefit economically.
Perhaps Hoover’s greatest flaw was his inability to work with Congress or communicate his compassion to the country and that most crucial of presidential skills, to be “a purveyor of hope.” Here, Roosevelt stands as a marked contrast, from the very first moments of his presidency when he says, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Roosevelt didn’t lift the nation out of the depression and some of Hoover’s policies and recommendations were as instrumental as anything in stabilizing things–from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, to the recommendation of a bank holiday, which Roosevelt immediately declared.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that Hoover never saw this and after a period of silence, devoted significant energy throughout his life to vindicating himself vis a vis Roosevelt. At the same time, he became a model of post-Presidential service, helping with post World War II relief efforts, chairing a commissions under Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower for streamlining government. He founded a think tank, the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, which served as an archive of his and a number of other public figures’ papers. And he devoted himself to fund-raising efforts for the Boys Clubs. He died in 1964 at the age of 90.
Rappleye’s study of Hoover uses diaries and family papers not previously available to scholars that afford a glimpse into the inner life of this intensely private man in the most public office of all. His appraisal of Hoover seems to be even-handed, and marked with a certain respect for the personal integrity of the man while marking his flaws. His study also shows us that something more than competence is vital in presidential leadership, particularly in times of crisis. It is the contrast in our more recent era between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It is the quality of political skillfulness and the ability to connect with and assure the people that seems so crucial for effective leadership. This is a timely biography coming on the eve of a presidential election. Will we find such leadership? Will we need it?
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