Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
Herbert Hoover was one of the more intriguing and unconventional figures ever to have occupied the White House, but historians and biographers often have treated him unkindly. A nominal Republican, Hoover felt more at ease as a political shapeshifter who refused to toe the party line. His complex, brooding leadership style, combined with poor communication skills, served to frustrate friend, foe and voter alike.
Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” casts a new light on the remarkable career of the 31st president. The founding editor of Canada’s National Post and a former editor in chief of Maclean’s, Whyte is an impressive stylist with a penchant for explaining political history to contemporary readers. This well-researched volume proves that Hoover, far from being a political failure, should be rightfully acknowledged as the father of New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism.
Hoover was born in 1874 in West Branch, Iowa, to a Quaker family that Whyte describes as “plain pioneer folk . . . austere in almost every aspect of their lives, from their artless conversation, to their simple diet and drab clothing, to their record keeping.” His mother and father both died before Hoover turned 9, requiring him to move to Salem, Ore., to live with his uncle, Henry John Minthorn.
An uninspired student, he had an “unbroken four-year run of academic mediocrity” at Stanford University. This included failing his entrance exams, although Hoover was “waved through to admission on condition that he showed effort and improvement.” He graduated in 1895, but “strictly speaking, he did not earn his degree”: a conditional pass in English was removed when a “friendly professor rewrote one of his essays and submitted it on his behalf as evidence of his competence in the language.”
Hardly an auspicious start for a man who would one day lead his country.
Yet Hoover was intelligent, industrious and determined. He would eventually work as a mining engineer in Australia (becoming a partner in Bewick, Moreing and Company) and in China (becoming a director in the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company). In 1905 he founded the Zinc Corporation, which “eventually became one of the longest-running and most financially successful operations of its kind in the world.” Having accumulated significant personal wealth, Hoover later was involved in relief work during World War I.
But as “Hoover” illustrates, politics, rather than business, was his true passion. He had a “genuine desire to do good,” Whyte writes, and “his commitment to public service would prove so deep and enduring that it had to stem in large part from a sincere desire to be of useful service to his fellow man.”
Hoover’s presidency, one of the main thrusts of this book, was more in the mold of a progressive Republican like Theodore Roosevelt than a conservative like Calvin Coolidge.
He championed “cooperative action, [a] belief in a positive role for the state, and his willingness to stamp out predatory business practices.” He resembled “an echo of the late Rough Rider’s progressivism” with policies that endorsed “honesty and merit in public service . . . protection of the less fortunate,” and the reduction of waste and inefficiency. Moreover, “he had never been shy about federal interference in the economy” during the Great Depression and was comfortable “with intrusive government in exceptional circumstances.”
This earned him the admiration of progressives such as suffragist Jane Addams, civil rights activist Oswald Garrison Villard and Justice Felix Frankfurter. The liberal writer Walter Lippmann even called him “bold and brilliant,” noting “many felt, as I did, that they had never met a more interesting man.” He had a “long and productive relationship” with Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, although they made a “curious pair” because of their similarities (both were “hungry for power . . . and difficult to know”) and their marked differences (Wilson was East Coast to Hoover’s West Coast and more used to ivory towers than mining tunnels).
While Franklin Roosevelt, who beat Hoover in the 1932 election, may have been the father of the New Deal, many New Dealers would take “applause for initiatives that had been fathered by Hoover.” In fact, “especially at the start, Roosevelt had hewed closely to Hoover’s program of bank relief, agricultural aid, labor reform, industrial cooperation, federal aid to local government, and cuts to conventional spending.”
Hence, it was a Republican who opened the awful Pandora’s box to big government.
It doesn’t stop there. While Hoover called himself a liberal for years, the term gradually became, in Whyte’s words, “distorted in common parlance to describe people favoring the use of government to achieve social and economic outcomes.” Since New Dealers were liberals, and he wasn’t a New Dealer, the old “darling of the progressives” began “self-identifying as a conservative.” Whyte argues that “modern American conservatism, conceived as an antidote to the New Deal,” started in 1937 because of Hoover, “its prophet and philosopher.”
Although Hoover’s worldview is “difficult to pin down” at times, as Whyte notes, “he clearly played important roles in the development of the progressive and conservative traditions.” While this is fascinating on the surface, Whyte also presents this assessment: “That one man can in one lifetime be a leader to opposed schools raises the inconvenient fact that they have more in common than not.”
By Kenneth Whyte
Knopf. 728 pp. $35