Review: Herbert Hoover in the White House

herbert hooverHerbert 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?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Destiny and Power

Destiny and PowerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015.

Summary: Meacham traces the life of our 41st president from his family’s roots and values that shaped a man both deeply committed to service and country, and also highly competitive and ambitious. The biography traces both his skillful leadership in handling the transition from the Cold War era, and the inability of this deeply private man to communicate his deep care for and desire to serve his country that cost him a second term.

Reading this biography suggested to me that George H. W. Bush is perhaps under-rated both as a president and a person. For many, he is regarded as an asterisk between the Reagan and Clinton years. And yet, as President, he skillfully navigated the nation in international relations at the end of the Cold War era that avoided provoking hard-line reactionaries in the former Soviet Union, facilitating the reunification of Germany, the freedom of Soviet satellites from Communist domination, and the establishment of warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. He built an international coalition to decisively defeat Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and bring relief to the atrocities against Kuwaitis, containing Hussein without becoming embroiled in another “Vietnam”.

While growing up in a privileged New England family, he was a genuine war hero, surviving being shot down after a bombing run at Chichi-Jima. Before going off to war, he married Barbara, beginning a lifelong partnership between two very strong individuals. They experienced tragedy that deepened their compassion early in marriage, losing their daughter Robin to leukemia. They built their own fortune in the Texas oil industry of the 1950s. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then lost a Senate race in 1964 in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Subsequently, he served in Republican party leadership, as U.N. ambassador, our ambassador to China and as C.I.A. director.

There was the complicated relationship with Ronald Reagan. Losing to Reagan after a promising beginning in Iowa, criticizing Reagan’s age and “voo-doo economics” he is selected as running mate, despite Nancy Reagan’s opposition. He turns out to be the ideal Vice-President who becomes a trusted friend by never stealing the limelight, and is asked by Nancy to give Reagan’s eulogy, which he did paying tribute not only to Reagan but to Nancy.

The drive for success, for power accounted for the weaknesses and flaws in his story–compromised positions on civil rights in the early years, the Willie Horton ads in the Presidential campaign, the famous “read my lips” promise that he broke when it became clear that only additional tax revenues could address the nation’s fiscal problems in the early 1990’s. Meacham explores the drive in his character that led to these compromises. At the same time, we see a president willing to do what he saw in the best interests of his country even though it contributed to his loss of the presidency, ironically laying the groundwork for budget surpluses in the Clinton years. We also see a very private man torn by the political necessities of glad-handing, wearying of the process in the 1992 election, outshone by the young Democrat from Arkansas.

As impressive as anything else is the life he lived after his one term presidency. He kept a low profile and eventually became good friends even with Bill Clinton, as the two former presidents worked on tsunami relief. Meacham writes about his relationship with his presidential son and there is no evidence of the father second-guessing the son, even on Iraq. He dismissed comparisons on this score with the response that these were different circumstances, different wars. Rather the relationship was one of pride and support, allowing the son to be his own person and only offering counsel when asked. Generally, he was generous with his words even of political foes. The few exceptions: Donald Rumsfeld (always a rival) and Dick Cheney, whose vice-presidency Bush 41 criticized after the fact.

Years earlier, I read Kevin Phillips American Dynasty, which is a much more sinister view of the Bushes as an inter-generational political dynasty. His account and Meacham’s are very different. Perhaps it was the fact that Phillips book was written during the height of criticism of Bush 43’s Iraq policies just before the 2004 elections. This seems a much more measured appraisal and a pleasure to read. It presented a man of both great ambition and generally high principle as well as one far more decent than he was given credit in his 1992 defeat. While acting in his own best political interests at times, what was more striking were the times he acted in service to the country, even at the expense of his own interests, whether as CIA director, vice president, or in the 1990 budget deal raising taxes. I was struck with how fortunate we were to have one with his foreign policy skill at the denouement of the Cold War. While his presidency is still in the recent past and will be subject to continuing discussion, Barack Obama’s assessment on awarding the Medal of Freedom to George H. W. Bush in 2010 may be the most fitting:

“As good a measure of a president as I know is somebody who ultimately put the country first and it strikes me that throughout his life he did that, both before he was president and while he was president, and ever since.”



Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One has to be an awfully bad writer to pen an uninteresting biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Edmund Morris has written a wonderful account in this volume of Roosevelt’s life until the day he became President. Even Roosevelt’s earliest years are interesting as we read about the sickly, asthmatic young boy who creates natural history museums and responds to his father’s challenge (you have the brains but not the body) by beginning a program of weight-lifting and exercise and by relentlessly pushing himself physically. Then, after abandoning his childhood love Edith, he courts and marries Alice Lee.

What follows is a whirlwind experience of becoming a young assemblyman ferocious to change the world, launching a cattle ranching venture in the west, and losing Alice at the birth of his first child. To console himself, he goes back west and loses himself in the ranch, complete with a winter-time pursuit of some outlaws who he apprehends and brings to justice.

We see all the elements of his life begin to coalesce. He returns to New York, he marries Edith, the childhood sweetheart, and makes an unsuccessful run for mayor. He begins a writing career that includes a landmark history of the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812, a number of biographies and a multi-volume history of the settlement of the west. He serves stints as a Civil Service administrator under Grover Cleveland, a New York City police commissioner (replete with stories of early morning prowls catching police off their beats!) and Under-Secretary of the Navy under McKinley.

This in turn leads to his “crowded hour” on San Juan Hill. His was among the voices protesting Spanish imperialism and oppression in Cuba. When the Maine incident gives the country its reason to go to war, he left his position to become a Lieutenant Colonel of New York volunteers and discovers himself a leader of men. Positioned opposite the key position to defeating the Spanish, he leads a charge up two hills and takes the decisive position with his “Rough Riders”.

The story captures the imagination of the country and he returns a hero. Of course this leads to another book, one of his best sellers, the Governor’s office in New York, and after a couple years to a Vice Presidential nomination, when McKinley’s Vice President dies. This volume concludes with the assassination of McKinley, and the telegram delivered to Roosevelt in the Adirondacks that informs him he is now the President of the United States.

Morris draws this life with rich detail, creating a portrait of the man and a coherent narrative of the events. He won a Pulitzer Prize for this work and I can see why. He combines extensive research with a riveting narrative that explores the inner drives that made Roosevelt who he was. His biography of Roosevelt has two further volumes, one of Roosevelt’s life as President, and one of his years after the Presidency. Both await on my reading stack and I eagerly look forward to them.

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Mr. President

I am in the midst of reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris and thoroughly enjoying it! My hunch is that you have to be a terrible writer to write a boring biography of Teddy Roosevelt. He was interesting from childhood! This is the first of a three volume effort by Morris and I am delighted to say that the other two are waiting on my “to be read” stack!

rise of roosevelt

It seems that this is a wonderful time if you are a lover of presidential biographies. Of course, we had the recent PBS series on the Roosevelts (it is really just a happy coincidence that the Morris biographies came to the top of the stack at this time!). It also happens that Doris Kearns Goodwin has written on Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in The Bully Pulpit, a book I received for Christmas that comes next after the Morris bios. I happen to love everything Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about from her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to Abraham Lincoln in Team of RivalsFor those fascinated by all things Roosevelt, she also wrote about FDR and Eleanor in an earlier book, No Ordinary Time.

Moving beyond the Roosevelts, there are a host of wonderful biographies that have appeared in the last ten years or so. First to come to mind are David McCullough’s biographies of Truman and John Adams. I happen to think the biography of Truman is the better of the two in exploring the character of this president who emerged from the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, even though Adams probably had the more interesting life. Not too long ago I read and reviewed Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams. John Quincy struggled in the shadow of his father but was a child prodigy, an ambassador in six countries, was a one-term president like his father, went on to congress, and argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. He died in the House. He was probably one of our most distinguished ex-Presidents. I’ve read several biographies of Thomas Jefferson but still think the best was Dumas Malone’s six volume study of Jefferson and His Time.

I could go on and on but perhaps the interesting question I ask myself is “why the fascination with presidential biographies?” At least for me I don’t think there is a single reason. One is a certain interest in leadership and how it may be exercised both well and badly. We certainly have examples of both in our presidential history! Another is that American presidential biographies are really American history with skin on it! I’ve read both extensively but to understand both the influences and limits presidents faced in trying to shape events is instructive. It took even a Lincoln three years to find a general in Grant who would fight, and it also took a Lincoln to hold the North to its task in the absence of a Grant.

Perhaps I read these, even as I read history more generally to understand how we get here. The actions of Presidents past have shaped the Presidency now. Sometimes, I think there is a bit of a longing as well that we might find one like one of the “great” presidents of the past to fill the office. Reading the bios and the history, it seems that somehow, the greatest of presidents occupied the office at the most perilous junctures in our history. Is it that ordinary people rise to extraordinary heights in such times? Or is it a kind of divine providence that we might pray for as the need faces us? One thing is clear is that there have also been mediocrities in the office and if we are praying people, we can pray to be delivered of such folk, particularly in perilous times.

What are your favorite presidential biographies? And why do you like reading them?