By William E. Leuchtenburg
Times Books, 186 pages, $22
In 10 months, the nation will celebrate, if that’s the proper word, the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Depression. A lot can happen (a lot had better happen) between now and Oct. 24, the date in 1929 when the stock market began its catastrophic slide. One can only hope that when we reach that historic milestone, we’ll still think of the Depression as the nation’s greatest economic catastrophe. If not—well, buddy, can you spare a dime?
Comparisons between today’s disasters and yesterday’s are so ubiquitous that one half-expects to turn on the radio and hear Fred Allen skewering greedy CEOs. The bank failures, the corporate collapses, the despair of the unemployed—yep, it’s that ’30s show all over again.
In keeping with the theme, Barack Obama’s election has inspired comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, when the nation rallied to a message of hope in the midst of ruin. And if Mr. Obama is the new Roosevelt, then his plans for a massive stimulus package must be the new New Deal.
And what of the outgoing president, George W. Bush? Two words come to mind: Herbert Hoover. It’s a tempting comparison: Like Hoover, Mr. Bush will leave office as a reviled and discredited public figure, destined to become a tackling dummy for a generation of Democratic presidential contenders.
But that formula isn’t quite fair—to Hoover. As historian William Leuchtenburg reminds us in his timely study of Hoover’s life, the man who presided over the hardest of hard times in the early 1930s was, until that moment, one of the most admired figures in the world. It could and indeed should be said of Herbert Hoover that few people in the 20th century did more than he to save other human beings from starvation and deprivation. His work as a relief administrator during and after World War I earned him the title of the “Great Humanitarian,” as well as the respect of muckraker Ira Tarbell, union organizer John L. Lewis and, wouldn’t you know, an ambitious New Yorker named Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. Leuchtenburg writes of Hoover’s efforts during the war, “At its peak, his organization was feeding nine million Belgians and French a day. … Under a ‘soupe scolaire’ program, some two million children got a hot lunch of filling vegetable soup with white bread, and, thanks to Hoover, cocoa too.”
And what was Mr. Bush doing at a similar stage in his life? Presiding over a mediocre baseball team, overcharging fans for hot dogs and beer and trading away his franchise’s brightest star, Sammy Sosa. A great humanitarian, indeed.
In a sense, though, Hoover’s administration of relief programs and Mr. Bush’s part-ownership of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1998 are comparable because of the myths both men fashioned out of their experience. Hoover decided, against the evidence and his earlier critiques of laissez-faire political economy, that the success of his relief operations was a tribute to voluntarism and private initiative, not government intervention. But, as Mr. Leuchtenburg points out, nearly “four out of every five dollars Hoover spent came out of government treasuries. Of the $12 million required each month to feed the Belgians, $10 million were provided by British and French officials.” Charitable contributions to Hoover’s relief efforts, Mr. Leuchtenburg writes, accounted for “only 4.5 percent of the funds” he distributed. While he fed the Belgians, he opposed spending government money to put them to work. “I cannot see anything but social harm in giving workmen payment as a right for idleness,” he told Belgian officials. If nothing else, let it be said that Hoover treated American workers no differently than he did those in Belgium.
As for Mr. Bush, the tidy profit he made from his purchase and sale of shares in the Rangers (he bought in with $600,000 of borrowed money and sold for $15 million nine years later) apparently convinced him of the merits of free enterprise—never mind that taxpayers built his team a new stadium and other amenities that drove up the team’s value and led to the future president’s windfall. Mr. Bush’s emphasis on private charities (remember the faith-based initiative?) and his slash-and-burn policy toward all manner of regulation would have cheered Hoover’s icy demeanor. Both men—the humanitarian and the frat boy—somehow managed to persuade themselves that their success had nothing to do with the generosity of taxpayers and public treasuries.
These attitudes, needless to say, influenced public policy. Mr. Leuchtenburg, a prolific author best known for his studies of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal, shows how Hoover’s carefully constructed fictions left him unprepared for a catastrophe that should have seemed familiar.
While he may have been an aloof know-it-all who made himself few friends in Washington (Mr. Leuchtenburg is persuasive on this score), Herbert Hoover understood something about human suffering, and not just from observation. Orphaned at age 10, separated from his two siblings and reared by a humorless uncle, Hoover was on far more intimate terms with despair and poverty than his future antagonist, Roosevelt, ever was. F.D.R. needed his wife, Eleanor, to show him how the other half lived; Hoover experienced it firsthand. Mr. Leuchtenberg notes that only once did Hoover refer publicly to his childhood, telling an interviewer in 1928, “You see, I was always hungry then.”
THIS IS HARDLY THE Herbert Hoover preserved in American folk memory. Today, the mere mention of his name conjures images of a coldhearted bureaucrat indifferent to the plight of millions who were hungry in the early ’30s. When Dick Cheney tried in vain to win Republican support for the auto company bailout last month, he warned Senators that they would be seen as neo-Hoovers willing to put ideology ahead of humanity. Too bad none of the Senators in question has ever exhibited a sense of irony, for it seems clear that the vice president himself has emerged as the new Hoover, a whipping boy for Democrats yet unborn. Forget Mr. Bush: It’s Mr. Cheney who’s emerged as the snarling face of this latest failure of so-called free-market capitalism.
Unlike the vice president, Herbert Hoover’s heart bled for the world’s victims, especially children. He stood accused of propping up Bolshevism in 1921 when he organized emergency food supplies for famine victims in the Soviet Union. “Twenty million people are starving,” he told a critic, his fist pounding a desk. “Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” And so they were.
The Herbert Hoover who emerges in Mr. Leuchtenburg’s telling knew how to respond to humanitarian emergencies. He knew how to feed the hungry. He knew how to marshal resources, cut through red tape and get help to those who needed it. And he knew that kids needed not just soup and bread, but a little cocoa, too. Yet when he was confronted with mass suffering in his own country, he froze up. He couldn’t mobilize the creativity, ingenuity and, yes, passion he’d brought to earlier projects.
Why? Mr. Leuchtenburg’s Hoover is hostage to a self-crafted narrative that bore only passing resemblance to reality. He really did believe that his remarkable achievements had more to do with charity and grit than government intervention. Not unlike his immediate successor, Hoover really was wary about handouts, make-work projects and budget deficits (although his successor rather famously managed to overcome his fears).
Hoover, Mr. Leuchtenburg writes, “cocooned” himself “from the magnitude of the deprivation.” His aides simply denied that things were as bad as the public thought they were. Amazingly, Hoover’s interior secretary insisted that the nation’s children would benefit from the suffering because jobless parents “were more attentive.”
There’s more, I think, to Hoover’s failures than Mr. Leuchtenburg lets on in this slim but powerful study. Hoover was a big-p Progressive in every sense of the word, meaning, in my view, that he could not get over the Progressive’s moral disdain for the poor, especially those in urban areas. Like British administrators during the Irish famine of the 19th century, American Progressives like Hoover suspected that the root cause of poverty and deprivation was lack of character and poor values. Hoover suspended moral judgments when innocent civilians were caught up in the effect of war. But when millions were hungry in peacetime America, Hoover, I suspect, had a hard time shaking off the thought that somehow it was their fault.
F.D.R., who worked for the most Progressive of Progressives, Woodrow Wilson, had the benefit of studying the ways and means of Tammany Hall during his formative years. Al Smith and Robert Wagner, two of the most small-p progressive politicians in New York history, never presumed to judge the poor. Roosevelt’s New Deal, implemented with the cooperation of the nation’s urban political machines, spared America moral uplift and personal improvement. That’s why it remains so well remembered, and so worthy of emulation today.
Mr. Leuchtenberg does not spare Herbert Hoover even as he describes the man’s achievements. He was a dour, unpleasant man whose relations with Congress were poor almost from the beginning. The author convincingly argues that Hoover would have failed as president even if the Depression hadn’t ensured him a place in political Hades.
HERBERT HOOVER IS THE latest in a series of short presidential biographies edited at first by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and now by Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz. Like the other books in the series, Mr. Leuchtenburg’s biography reminds us that the personalities, actions and beliefs of political leaders have a profound effect on the rest of us. That concept, which may seem like common sense to most lay readers, is well nigh heretical among many academic historians. Presidential historians are a dying breed on campus today; graduate students are encouraged to examine the lives of the voiceless—the enslaved, women, the nonwhite poor—rather than focus their research on politicians. In some ways, this is a necessary corrective to the Great Man narrative of old-fashioned history, but it doesn’t bode well for those cable television programs that depend on academic drop-ins to provide gravitas and perspective.
Mr. Leuchtenberg has been writing presidential history for more than a half-century, and he remains one of the finest interpreters of our nation’s past. His new book is a superb example of the vitality and importance of political history.
What a shame, for all of us, that it’s also spot-on relevant.
Terry Golway is the director of the Kean Center for American History at Kean University and a regular contributor to The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.