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An American president who just couldn’t get it right

NONFICTION

Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency

By Charles Rappleye

Simon & Schuster

551 pages, $32

By Edward Cuddihy

It often is said that fiction – unlike real life – must make sense. It must be logical. And its characters must be driven by clear motivation.

If that is true, Herbert Hoover would have made the worst fictional character in modern American literature.

Eighty-five years after his failed presidency, the actions and inactions of this one-term president still make little sense. There is no logic behind why nearly everything Hoover attempted in the White House turned sour.

And the motivation for his greatest perceived failing – his inaction in times of crisis – defy all reason.

It would be so convenient to write off our 31st president as a highly successful, self-made businessman, a self-proclaimed political outsider, pushed by a crisis way beyond his comfort zone into a permanent state of frozen bewilderment. Franklin Roosevelt, the most influential President of the 20th century, fostered that characterization of Hoover through constant repetition until it found its place in presidential lore.

But the facts just don’t back it up. Hoover had been successful at everything he ever had attempted. He was highly intelligent and hard working to a fault, if sometimes arrogant and extremely shy. In the words of a respected colleague, Hoover was “honest, earnest and courageous.”

True he never held elective office before winning the 1928 presidential election in a landslide, but he had successfully navigated the highest levels of federal bureaucracy under two presidents, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

So then why was Hoover such a sorry president, such an abject failure that his name became a pejorative for a generation of Americans?

That is the question author and social historian Charles Rappleye attempts to answer in his hugely successful new book, “Herbert Hoover in the White House.”

The Hoover psyche has been examined before, but usually Hoover either was derided by New Dealers for total incompetence, or defended as the president who got a bad rap. Rappleye is not old enough to be entrapped in the divisive politics of the Depression Era. Hardly anyone is, anymore. Besides, his journalistic instincts wouldn’t allow it.

His goal is to take a hard, objective look at Hoover’s White House while being neither a Hoover apologist nor reprover. After extensive research into official reports, diaries, meeting notes and other writings, plus Hoover’s personal files not made public until after his death in 1964, the author stipulates that Hoover’s was a failed presidency.

But the perfect answer to why that is so continues to escape us.

The Republican Hoover was elected with great fanfare and public enthusiasm as a non-politician to succeed President Coolidge. He won 40 of the then-48 states and was seen as the man equipped to lead the nation into a new era. Despite economic rumblings on the horizon, expectations were sky-high.

Hoover was no sooner inaugurated than the clouds of economic disaster began to darken the landscape. Always dour and gloomy by nature, he began warning of a serious worldwide financial downturn months before the crash of October 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. The nation would struggle under the stifling weight of the Depression for a decade.

Most Americans alive today recognize the Great Depression as a dark chapter in our nation’s history. We’ve read of the misery, deprivation, hunger and despair. Some heard parents blame Hoover for the bread lines, the unemployment, the scavenging, even the drought that led to farm failures across the heartland. Any clutch of wretched hovels became known as “a Hooverville.”

But few today could detail how or why the Great Depression occurred, or why all attempts to stem it failed. Rappleye does a new generation a service in explaining in detailed yet understandable terms the economics of the Great Depression and its worldwide implications.

It is enlightening to read how the same questions were being debated in Congress in 1929 and 1930 as those faced by President Obama during his first term: Bailouts, banks too big to fail, credit droughts, government handouts to the rich, real estate bubbles, income disparity and government intrusions into business.

The deeper Rappleye investigates the more thoroughly he is convinced that President Hoover analyzed the problems with great aplomb. Further, the president’s pleadings and urgings disclosed in the documents of those closest to him reveal many of his fixes were in line with today’s best economic thinking. Others were clearly erroneous.

But few of them ever got accomplished, even though Hoover had the luxury of majorities in both houses of Congress. In fact, according to Rappleye, much of FDR’s New Deal came right out of the Hoover playbook, but each time Hoover attempted a bold fix, he vacillated and tinkered until bold ideas became shadowy failures.

And therein lies the enigmatic presidency of Herbert Hoover. He recognized the hunger in Europe after World War I and is credited with fixing it. He recognized the hunger of the Great Depression but insisted: “Nobody is starving ... The hoboes are better fed than they ever were before.”

As a small-town Iowa orphan and a wealthy, self-made mining engineer, he eschewed the press and shrank from the public. One aide claimed he had a “tin ear” for politics. The secretive Hoover pushed the levers of government from behind a curtain and nothing happened.

Rappleye cites the example of the bank holiday. Hoover worked tenaciously behind the scenes for a national bank holiday to stave off the bank failures ravaging the country. He couldn’t get any official body to declare the holiday. Such an action wasn’t within the president’s realm, he insisted. Thirty hours after FDR’s inauguration, the new president simply declared it himself.

Hoover’s strong ideology and lack of a pragmatic nerve worked against what he told confidantes he wanted to accomplish. In some cases, like staying with the gold standard and refusing to deflate the currency, history has simply proven him wrong.

In other cases, like the shameful rout of the Bonus Army from Washington, his fierce loyalty to subordinates, in this case the arrogantly defiant Gen. Douglas MacArthur, further tarnished his public image.

Hoover was cerebral and intense, but didn’t appear to understand the system. The concept of a bully pulpit was anathema to the reserved Hoover.

Hidden away in the president’s personal papers made public years after his death, and quoted by Rappleye, was a personal letter that seems to nail the Hoover failing from Alfred H. Kirchhofer, the editor of The Buffalo Evening News.

Understand, Kirchhofer was a supporter and campaign adviser to Hoover, and was on a first-name basis with the Republican national leadership and the party’s presidential candidates right through the 1940s.

In his typically blunt and terse fashion, Kirchhofer wrote to the president in 1930: “The public, generally speaking and without regard to party, thinks the administration to date has been a failure ... You can’t put over your job without selling it to the public. I think it is as important as anything you can do.”

For all his brains and industry, Hoover never could fathom what a newspaperman in Buffalo could see clearly, what FDR knew instinctively, and what George Washington demonstrated in his first term.

That is: With the goodwill of the people, nearly anything is possible in this country. Even failure has a sweet scent. Without the people, all your best efforts go for naught.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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