Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Herbert Hoover by Eugene Lyons
by Eugene Lyons
Eugene Lyons was the editor of Readers Digest in the 1950s. Before his conversion to Republicanism, he was a strong and ardent believer in the socialist utopia. As a reborn conservative, however, he was quite sympathetic to Herbert Hoover and this biography, while informative and well written, is rather one sided and a defense of Hoover the man and his policies.
Like Richard Nixon, Hoover was a Quaker. The Hoover family roots can be traced to Miami, Ohio where Hoover's grandfather settled in the Western Reserve in 1802. Hoover's father would take the family further west to Cedar County, Iowa where Herbert Hoover was born and raised in a Quaker village where plain English (full of "thees" and "thous") was routinely spoken. His Quaker upbringing would set the stage for Herbert Hoover who, before his presidency, was known as the world's greatest humanitarian.
Educated at the brand new Stanford University, Hoover excelled in his study of mining engineering. It was there that he met his bride, Lou Henry, who would follow him across the globe.
Hoover went to work for various mining companies and had an uncanny knack for knowing where to find various ores and minerals. He made a small fortune in mining before he took up public service as his life's work.
Time and place are the essence of successful politics and Hoover was in the right place at the right time to make a name for himself. He was in London with his family on business when the fateful shot in Sarejevo was fired to start World War I. The American Ambassador to the Court of St. James called on Hoover to help him assist American tourists who were now fleeing Europe in droves. Hoover's brilliant ability to organize and plan massive events was revealed for the first time when he was able to mobilize resources and transport thousands of Americans out of Europe.
During World War I, Hoover dedicated himself to feeding the starving millions of Europe who were displaced by the war. His famine fighting efforts in Belgium, approved by both the German and American governments would earn him international acclaim.
He began his formal government service in the cabinet of Warren Harding as the Secretary of Commerce. What is interesting about his approach to commerce in the cabinets of both Harding and Calvin Coolidge was he was generally regarded as a liberal within the Republican Party. He sought and occasionally won victories over the "stand-patters" who endorsed unfettered capitalism. He wanted to regulate advertising to assure that it at least contained a modicum of truth. He also recognized the rappant speculation in the stock market by those traders buying on margin before Coolidge and most economists. While he recognized it, he wasn't able to do much about it. But he was far from the cold, taciturn promulgator of "rugged individualism" that history portrays. In fact, he recognized the need for at least modest government oversight and regulation of the economy.
He was the brightest star in the Coolidge cabinet and therefore, the leading contender for the Republican nomination in 1928. First, he had to be sure the enigmatic Coolidge was not going to seek a second full term. Coolidge did allow his name to be placed on the Ohio primary ballot, but this was probably to stem the budding candidacy of Ohio senator Frank Willis who was hoping to ride favorite son status into the convention on a dark horse platform. However, a stroke would fell Willis before the primary. (Willis' last speech was delivered in the Toledo Civic Auditorium, known today as the Erie Street Market. He would die the next day at Ohio Wesleyan University).
Lyons quotes Arthur Schlesinger's eulogy of John Kennedy when he said, "No man had been elected President of the United States who had not schemed and labored to be there." While I am not the presidential scholar that Schlesinger was, I agree with Lyons when he asserts that Schlesinger had forgotten Herbert Hoover (as well as Harry Truman). Hoover had no political machine. He had no base and he went into the Republican convention in Kansas City with few primary delegates. However, he was the most popular man in America and was selected by the delegates based entirely on his reputation as an organizational man who could get things done.
Hoover was a boring speaker. He tended to deliver lectures and was a techno-cratic detail man long before Jimmy Carter. His opponent, Al Smith of New York was a loud, boisterous cheerleader who excited crowds. The 1928 election was nearly a replay of the 1896 and 1900 elections between the reserved William McKinley who campaigned from his front porch whilst the bombastic William Jennings Bryan shouted that he would not have the nation die on a cross of gold.
Republicanism had reached its apex in 1928 following more than 10 years of prosperity and peace and Hoover won an easy election over Smith. For Hoover, it would be all down hill from there.
Here, we should compare Hoover to Carter and their successors, Roosevelt and Reagan. Hoover had a much stronger understanding of public policy and the machinery of government than did Roosevelt. The same can be said of Carter versus Reagan. However, when our nation faces a crisis, they need leadership they can believe in and neither the uninspiring Hoover, nor the timid Jimmy Carter were up to the task where Roosevelt and Reagan led the nation back to prosperity -- not through government programs -- but through inspiring leadership.
The causes of the Great Depression are many and the subjects of volumes of books. Obviously, the 1929 stock market crash was a factor, as was the bass-ackwards international debt structure created by the need of the victors to claim reparations from vanquished Germany, an economy that was based almost entirely on building homes and consumer goods, and drought conditions across the Midwest. Whatever the cause, Hoover mobilized the forces of government to fight it.
Any student of the presidency will tell you that presidents receive way too much credit and too much blame for bad economic times. History today still puts the Great Depression on the shoulders of Coolidge and Hoover. People also over-estimate the president's ability to fix what ails the economy. Despite a litany of employment programs, food programs, and economic plans, Hoover could not get the U.S. economy out of its slump which now affected the entire world. The election of a Democratic Congress in 1930 hindered Hoover's efforts as the new Democrats were determined to deliver a knock-out punch to a president who was on the ropes.
History paints Hoover as standing idle while the nation suffered and homeless resided in Hoovervilles -- tar paper shacks in slum neighborhoods. (For those who are interested in Toledo history, know that Toledo was the hardest hit city in the nation by the Great Depression and a large Hooverville with several hundred people sprang up along the Maumee River where the Port Authority offices are located all the way down to where the Craig Bridge lands on the west bank). Lyons points out that the nation had weathered similar depressions in the administrations of Van Buren, Buchanan, Grant, Cleveland, and Teddy Roosevelt. Each had its own set of causes and circumstances, yet the federal government took no action to deal with those crises and the economy eventually recovered in short order. While the father of federal intervention in the economy was Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover took it to a level never imagined by his predecessors. For all of his work and anguish, the country continued to suffer.
The Great Depression is a historic term used to describe the years 1929 - 1941. However, the circumstances that mitigated and exacerbated the Depression changed over the years. There were, at times, strong signs of recovery, only to be met with further downturns. The worst years were 1931 - 1932 which did not bode well for the president facing re-election.
Franklin Roosevelt, Speaker of the House, John Nance Garner, and congressional Democrats were vicious in their attacks on Hoover and probably did more damage to the economy in their campaign than Hoover did with his programs. Lyons points out that the Democrats never attacked Hoover's programs, but instead went after him personally as a cold, uncaring man who was content to let Americans starve. The Democrats were successful in ruining the reputation of the man who had been hailed as the world's greatest humanitarian. Roosevelt defeated Hoover in a landslide and Democrats gained overwhelming control of Congress in 1932.
As most defeated presidents do, Hoover tried to enter "The Wilderness" and stay out of sight and mind before rebuilding his reputation. Franklin Roosevelt, however, made Hoover feel more like a deer hunted in the woods than a man alone in the forest. Not content to defeat the man in an election, Roosevelt and his men continued to attack and besmirch Hoover long after he left office. The powerful Roosevelt was able to distract the nation from the ineffectiveness of his own relief programs by reminding them that Hoover had started the mess he was trying to fix. The petty Roosevelt even removed Hoover's name from Hoover Dam, renaming it Boulder Dam.
Hoover was not a sore loser. Between the election and inauguration, irresponsible statements from Roosevelt cronies triggered a run on banks, causing their collapse. Hoover wanted to work with the president-elect to stem the crisis. He offered to introduce any program that Roosevelt thought would help. Roosevelt remained silent on Hoover's offer, content to let the nation suffer some more before he came in as the conquering hero.
The Roosevelt years were misery for Hoover who valued his reputation as an honest man and humanitarian. As the depression wore on, he bore the brunt of the nation's anger without a pulpit from which to defend himself.
Like the disgraced Richard Nixon, the unpopular Hoover sought and found adoring crowds in Europe where he had nearly saved the continent from its own deprivations. In 1938, he toured Europe and met cheering crowds at every stop except one, Berlin.
In Berlin, Hoover met with Adolph Hitler. It was to be a short, courtesy meeting arranged by the American embassy which was dedicating itself to promoting American neutrality. It turned into a one hour meeting. Coming out of it, Hoover characterized the Fuhrer as an intelligent, lucid man capable of great thought. However, Hitler grew angry and animated when the subjects of Communism and Democracy were raised. Hoover agreed with Hitler on the former and quietly defended the latter. He was ultimately disturbed by what he saw in history's greatest monster.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Hoover went back to doing what he did best. He organized and ran a myriad of programs to help displaced refugees, feed the starving, and comfort the suffering in Europe. For all of his work throughout the conflict, he received neither acknowledgment nor recognition from Roosevelt.
Roosevelt's death and the rise of Harry Truman gave Hoover his shot at redemption. Truman actually liked Hoover and was willing to deploy his abilities to help the country restore an orderly government in the aftermath of the war. He chaired a bipartisan committee including members of Congress who studied how to restore the nation to a prosperous, peaceful country. His engineer driven technocratic abilities were well suited for this task.
His post-presidential years were busy. He was an active member of the Stanford Board of Directors, served as chairman of the Boys Clubs of America, and completed the aformentioned tour of Europe. Slowly, his standing rose with the American people who, with few exceptions like the drunkard Franklin Pierce and the thoroughly unlikable James Buchanan, slowly warm to and and eventually embrace their elder statesmen. As Truman passed the baton to Ike and resurgent Republicans were in control again, Hoover acquired that elder statesman status. When he died in 1964 at the age of 90, he was mourned by a country that had spent an entire year mourning the deaths of JFK as well as Douglas MacArthur.
Lyons does not incorporate much about Lou Hoover into his biography. He does claim that she was one of the most intelligent and able first ladies to inhabit the White House. She shared her husband's passion for good works and was at his side, helping, at every step of his career. She was a strong backer and served as national chairwoman of the Girl Scouts of America. Like women of her time, she served as a supporter and confidante of her husband.
Hoover's place in history is well defined and unlikely to change. History regards him as a failure and that reputation is somewhat deserved. Like time and place served to launch his political career, time and place ended it. The depression was not of his making, but he failed to resolve it. However, he is not the cold, dispassionate man who dined in high style while America starved as liberal historians would have him portrayed.