Book Review: Herbert Hoover
by Glen Jeansonne
New American Library, 2016
Not even the most ardent advocate of America’s coterie of morose and clench-faced caretaker Presidents would be likely to dream that one of their heroes would be the subject of not one but two excellent, sympathetic biographies published by major houses in one year, and yet that’s just what’s happened to poor benighted Herbert Hoover in 2016. First came Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House from Simon & Schuster, and now comes Herbert Hoover: A Life by Glen Jeansonne from New American Library. Both are quite good; Rappleye was the more clinical, whereas Jeansonne, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the author of an earlier book that concentrated on Hoover’s time in the Oval Office, goes for a more sweeping approach that risks forays into the territory of hagiography in order to put its much-maligned subject in broader context. That earlier book, Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933, was, perhaps improbably, an absorbing reading experience, and Jeansonne’s new book is the full life of the man and shares that same easy readability.
Readability in as well-sourced a biography as this latest one from Jeansonne covers a multitude of venial sins – including, in this case, the sin of hagiography. Our author has been studying Hoover for a very long time, knows more about him than anybody, and writes lines like “Few presidents have been so routinely vilified” without ever seeming to contemplate slipping an “albeit justifiably” in there at any point. Just as Jeansonne can write innocently of one of Hoover’s predecessors “Warren G. Harding was a man aware of his own intellectual limitations,” so too can he characterize Hoover himself as always more sinned against than sinning, a hard worker who never failed at any of the enormous tasks he set for himself, whether the single-minded drive to leave Iowa and become wealthy or the equally single-minded drive to spearhead European famine relief in the wake of the First World War or the hands-on way he grappled with the great Mississippi flood of 1927, which Jeansonne calls “the greatest natural disaster Americans had yet faced,” when 25,000 square miles of farmland and small towns were flooded, and nearly a million people were displaced. In all these challenges, Hoover was able to effect serious, even transformative results.
All but one, of course. Exhaustive research or no exhaustive research, Herbert Hoover will always be linked – and linked negatively – with the Great Depression, which raged into being on his watch in the White House, although it crippled virtually the whole world. Even in his own day, Hoover had no shortage of critics willing to make detailed cases about how he worsened the crisis, and in this book as in his earlier book on the subject, Jeansonne vigorously opposes the idea. Hoover was a money man, after all; he saw immediately the scope and severity of the danger facing America, and, among other things, he authorized $75 million on highway construction, and $500 million for the construction of public buildings, including $60 million for the Boulder Dam alone. “Direct relief was not the only item on Hoover’s agenda, only the most urgent one,” Jeansonne writes, before resorting, as he occasionally does, to wording more fit for an administration press corps briefing than a task-taking account a century later: “He planned to wage the war against the Depression along all fronts but did not intend to indulge in overkill, whether rhetorical, which he considered demagogic, or financial, because resources were finite.” The point that luckily comes through this kind of doublespeak is as easily forgotten as it is valuably remembered: any US President, faced with what confronted Herbert Hoover in 1929, would have failed to find a quick, painless solution. Any US President, presiding over such a catastrophe, would be forever associated with it – and often blamed for making it worse.
Fitting then to let this President’s foremost modern-day advocate have the last word on the most defensible parts of the man. History has perhaps grown complacent in its judgement of Herbert Hoover, but books like Jeansonne’s are the very things that help to move the dial:
Hoover’s life was one of undeniable accomplishment and indefatigable industriousness, even in lost causes. But most important about his life are his ideas, his ideals, and his character, which stand undiminished generations after his death. For him, there was no substitute for hard work and perseverance. In almost any pursuit, drive was more important than intelligence. Herbert Hoover did not gain the whole world, but neither did he lose his soul.