One of the ironies of American civic life is that the two 20th-century presidents most severely judged by historians and commentators are perhaps the two best ex-presidents in the country's history. Jimmy Carter has yet to be the subject of a towering biography. Kenneth Whyte has just provided that monumental volume on Herbert Hoover.
Hoover's story is both triumph and tragedy. Born poor and orphaned young on a forbidding, windswept Iowa plain, Hoover ascended the commanding heights of business, performed selfless and indispensable work feeding the starving masses of Europe, was the longest serving (and, for his time, pioneering) secretary of commerce, was elected president of the United States – but, luckless like Carter, occupied the White House when the Western economy collapsed.
He's been blamed for that ever since – pilloried by Republicans, Democrats, some historians, some economists – and serves as the unfortunate poster boy for presidential incompetence. In truth – and Whyte piles fact upon fact to create a new truth about the 31st president – Hoover was the victim of an economic chain-reaction that no American chief executive could have forestalled and then reacted stoically but not imaginatively to the crisis. His crime was that the stoicism didn't fit the nature of the human crisis and that his imagination wasn't imaginative enough – two deficiencies that his successor and bitter rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rectified with dispatch.
One of the mysteries of Hoover's native Iowa is the origin of the name of a small Iowa coal town called What Cheer, about an hour southwest of West Branch, where the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum sits today and where Whyte, the onetime editor of Maclean's and president of Rogers Publishing, did much of his research. Hoover could have used some of the surpassing good cheer Roosevelt brought to the White House.
But good cheer was not part of the Hoover personality portfolio, as Whyte argues repeatedly, and convincingly. Page after page, episode after episode, Whyte shows us a man of impatience, insensitivity and impolitic behaviour, though balanced with great confidence and competence. Whyte rightfully credits his subject with adumbrating the New Deal with some of his measures to fight the Great Depression and, once established as a tireless opponent of the New Deal itself, with establishing the creed of modern American conservatism. These are not the standard popular interpretations, though they are not thoroughly unknown among professional historians and Whyte's volume will go a long way toward producing a more rounded view of Hoover in the general population, both in the United States and Canada.
Whyte describes his subject as "allergic to introspection" though, he argues, Hoover may have saved as many as 100 million lives – "a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history." This humanitarian work occurred during the First World War and continued, with interruptions for government service, through the aftermath of the Second World War. As a coda, Hoover headed two monumental efforts to reorganize the American government as the United States moved from the fringes of world power to the very centre of world affairs.
Over all, the Hoover story – and the Whyte book – is a distinctly American tale: persistence, ambition, grand plans (all covered with a shellac wash of overweening pride and overwhelming arrogance), played out over five continents and marked by three economic crises. The result is an astonishing alchemy of soaring achievement and deep disappointment. Hoover may have rescued the despondent from doom in Belgium but is remembered primarily – and, Whyte argues implicitly, unfairly – as the heartless ideologue who, variously, caused or failed to ameliorate the Great Depression in his own land.
Whyte serves as a learned but inviting tour guide to this extraordinary life, bringing a fresh eye and fresh perspective to an engineer who balked at social engineering, a man of great repute until he defeated Al Smith for president and then watched his reputation be dissipated and then destroyed.
One of his achievements, largely forgotten, was to have transformed the Commerce Department from a bureaucratic backwater into a formidable business force. "During his time at Commerce," Whyte writes, "Hoover would prove himself expert at the boarding house reach, gobbling up new assignments, responsibilities and offices, often directly from the plates of his cabinet colleagues." By 1928, he was a presidential candidate, though no Happy Warrior. "I'll not kiss any babies," he said, and didn't.
More than most Hoover biographers, Whyte portrays Hoover as aware of the financial crisis that was gathering, a threat that preoccupied him, and while the prevailing narrative for three generations has been that Hoover resisted governmental intervention in the economy, Whyte argues the contrary. "He had no doubt," Whyte writes, "that the growth of a national economy, the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the expectations of the style of activist government he embodied warranted Washington's intercession in a commercial crisis."
Bank suspensions, a devastating drought, a restive citizenry – Hoover was besieged by woes. But as the crisis deepened, Hoover preached that the states and localities, not Washington, should bear the burden, even though he embraced countercyclical government spending and a bailout of the financial sector.
Franklin Roosevelt and scores of Democrats until our own day have held up Hoover as the symbol of a heartless style of politics and of government's failure to address the basic needs of a people cursed by hurt and pockmarked by privation. Whyte's biography weighs in at 752 pages but restores the balance in an important, and irresistibly interesting, American life. Jimmy Carter should be so lucky.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a frequent contributor to The Globe.