HERBERT HOOVER was not a man of grand appearance. He was rather short and squat, with a large, round head that he often turned to avoid the gaze of those to whom he was speaking. The habit was disconcerting, and contributed to his public image as a restive powerhouse with no time for foolishness. Contemporaries sometimes remarked on the air of aggressiveness that hovered around this taciturn man, fitting enough for one who seemed to have been hatched full grown from the obscurity of a foreign business career and deposited suddenly at the center of American political affairs.

Early on in his public life, Hoover was seen as a kind of national resource, a nonpartisan Mr. Goodwrench for whom no job was too difficult. He became a bureaucratic superstar in a culture said to despise bureaucracy, and from his cabinet post at Commerce in the 1920s his reputation blossomed until it overshadowed both the presidents under whom he served. He slipped into the White House from the gray world of administrative routine, reaching the top without the slightest pause for apprenticeship in elected office.

Most scholarly accounts of Hoover's career focus, naturally enough, on his time of public service. But what was Hoover like on the way up, whence did he come, and what youthful dynamism powered his spectacular rise? George H. Nash's new book, the first installment in what promises to be a definitive, multivolume life, examines in depth the pre-public years, 1874-1914. Beautifully researched--the result of six years of travel and digging into difficult sources--his work lights up, at last, the obscurity of Hoover's early days.

Even Hoover was once a child, though his most intrepid biographer is hard put to find any poetry in it. Orphaned as a young boy, on the death of his mother he "began to develop a certain detachment from his surroundings, a protective reserve that masked the loneliness of one who was, inevitably, an outsider." The theme of the self-sufficient outsider recurs throughout the text. Stanford University, which he entered in 1891, became his second "kind mother" in more than the usual sense. As one of his classmates put it, he developed "a kind of complex" about his alma mater. After graduation he became a university president's dream, a rich and powerful alumnus who thought quite literally of the campus as his home, of its graduates as his deserving relatives, of its needs as family obligations.

Stanford was happy to take credit for Hoover's success, and it deserves some of the blame for his shortcomings as well. We have had more than our share of shallow men in public life, and what Stanford turned loose on the world in 1895 was almost a parody of the narrow expert, trained perhaps, but hardly educated. Hoover was abysmally ignorant of anything but the most practical aspects of geology, and quite dead above the neck as to just what it was that troubled the greatest intellects of the 19th century in history, philosophy, and the emerging social sciences. No doubt his single-minded capacity to get to the bottom of things owed as much to his deficiencies as his virtues. He had enough awareness of this narrowness to be embarrassed by it, and while there is little evidence for it in his opinions at the time, he later claimed to have submitted himself to a cultural overhaul in his early thirties during which he read "several thousand books" in his spare time.

Perhaps a broader education would have incapacitated him. As it was, young Hoover left his beloved campus with nothing but a credential, and a determination not to muff his chances. He was part of a new class of American technicians who scoured the world looking for opportunities in the service of international financiers who were opening up resources in foreign countries. Hoover found he could use his expertise as a stick with which to beat both superiors and subordinates, and the bafflegab of efficiency became his political weapon.

His adventures began as a manager in the goldfields of Western Australia in 1897, and for the next 15 years his travels would take him not only to China and Russia, but to frontier mining districts on nearly every continent. Hoover flourished in an entrepreneurial culture bounded at one end by the rough life of boom towns in faraway places, and by the treacherous environs of London's financial district on the other. The value of Nash's study rests on his skill as a guide through the evidence left in the wake of the hugely successful business career that Hoover built up in this period. Over 400 pages are devoted to the subject, each so dense with detail that the reader may find himself yearning for more signposts and less terrain as he makes his way along. The underlying theme of this story is the struggle of professional and predator within the breast of a gifted young man. Both were strong in Hoover. The identity to which this fledgling president aspired was that of the disinterested professional immune to self interest, the man who spoke truth to power, regardless of consequences. He once advised a friend who was writing an autobiography to downplay his triumphs as a speculator and promoter, and adopt instead the stance of the neutral engineering advisor to troubled companies. "You will find," he said, "that point of view holds public esteem."

Public esteem was important to Hoover, and Nash makes it clear that he cared too much for his good name to leave it entirely to chance. Quarrels and lawsuits dogged him, but he was brilliant at manipulating newspapers from behind the scenes, with the result that he usually enjoyed a good press. He was forever collecting private testimonials to his integrity for use in later disputes. Occasionally he emerged from these with his honor a bit tattered, as in the Kaiping mining controversy in which he and his colleagues were faulted with "fraudulent misrepresentations" to Chinese officials during their drive to open up China's coal fields to foreign exploitation in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion. He spent a good deal of time in stock market manipulation, through pooling and contrived publicity. But his integrity never suffered the direct hit which would enable his enemies, and later historians, to dismiss him simply as a humbug.

Hoover was lucky in his marriage in 1899 to Lou Henry, whom he had met as a student. Like him, she was a geologist, but also a woman of great charm and varied interests who filled his home with company. In private life he was always fiercely loyal to friends and family, and given to extraordinary acts of furtive generosity. Through an odd quirk of personality, even his good deeds were often done by stealth. He would work through a middleman instructed to "play the sphinx," and even his beneficiaries were left in the dark. For many years his friend, Ray Lyman Wilbur, did not know who it was that helped him pay for his medical schooling, and when he did learn of it, it was not through Hoover.

Still when one thinks of the tasks that lay ahead of him, perhaps the best that can be said for his pre-public career is that he outgrew it. By 1908, business had begun to lose its enchantment for him, and he complained to a friend "just making money is not enough." Something new was rising in his soul, and he longed "to get into the big game somewhere." Thus was born the public servant, and some of the past would have to be scuttled. His early views, quite primitive on nationalism, race and the rights of labor, began to soften in the gentle world of Edwardian England, where he now made his home. He had survived the rigors of free enterprise, and learned enough to feel some good natured contempt for it. Business too, he began to suspect, would have to be modernized for its own good. As the curtain descends, we find Hoover living comfortably in London on the eve of the Great War, a rich man with a Carefully built reputation for getting things done, waiting for something to do.