Wednesday, July 11, 2012

1920s: Presidents of the '20s--Hoover

History 101 teaches that Herbert Hoover was one of the biggest failures as President, with the term "Hooverville" probably a correct answer on a test in every high school history class.  But aside from his presiding over the economy's crash and sudden plummeting into depression (and as a song in the musical "Annie"), I did not know much about him.  In fact, he is most known in contrast with FDR, who used unprecedented actions to try to reverse the slide.

As Hoover actually took over from Calvin Coolidge at the beginning of 1930, after the stock market crash, I read William Leuchtenburg's short biography to learn more about the Hoover of the 1920s, and how the nation would choose someone destined for infamy.  Was he simply the obvious safe answer to continue the string of Republican administrations?  I was surprised the answer was no. 

Harding was the transition from Wilsonian Democrats to Republican governments at the beginning of the 1920s and Coolidge was the accidental hands-off administrator that let the decade roar.  Harding only had minimal prior experience in Washington and his strategy was to offend no one.  Coolidge had even less experience and used a strategy of saying nothing.  And both were clearly in the conservative camps.  In contrast, by the time Hoover was the nominee at the end of the decade, he was a dynamo, a strong personality, known for taking strong actions, offending many, and not fitting neatly into the political parties.

The first part of Hoover's public career reminded me a lot of Robert Moses, the infamous "Power Broker" (and subject of Robert Caro's great biography), who at this time was just getting started in his role as the great mastermind and behind the scenes engineer of New York City who consolidated and wielded power to transform the city from a base of seemingly minor appointed positions.  While not elected, as head of the Food Administration under Wilson and then as Commerce Secretary for Harding and Coolidge, Hoover consolidated power and responsibility, creating mini empires out of previously lower level administration positions.  He had tremendous ego and ambition and defended his actions in the name of public good.  I don't know when the term was first used for a powerful person in our government, but his description as a Czar seems very appropriate.

Upon review it is not surprising that Hoover's aggressive style did not fit neatly into characteristic Republican profile (either conservative or progressive), yet his self-identified conservativeness and open criticism of government's abilities versus individual's did not put him in the Democratic camp.  So for ten years he existed as a powerful force and contrasting style within the relatively weak Republican administrations.  At the end of Coolidge's reign he cited the inevitability of Herbert Hoover as one reason not to pursue an additional term.  Is this a common trend in history, that when top leadership is weak that counter personality forces will emerge?  And the inverse, when leadership is strong that it is difficult for other strong players to develop?  Surely there must be other examples.

The 1920s America was one of heroes.  The public adored Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Henry Ford and others that symbolized the country's new position of leadership on the world stage and progression into the modern world through mighty feats.  With no heroes in the White House, Hoover was probably the closest fit for that role within the government with his famous actions to feed Europe and save food during the War and prominent roles afterward.  Plus his upbringing and early life success was straight out of a Horatio Alger story. His pre-presidential stature is largely forgotten today.

Moving to the next decade the two big questions are: Although he didn't cause the Great Depression did he make it worse?  And, if he did not inherit a crumbling economy, could Hoover have been a good or even great president?

The short answer to the first question is: probably.  While he could not have prevented the collapse, and it would have happened to anyone in his seat, he did not take the right actions to alleviate the situation.  In his defense, throughout the 1920s and in the 1929 election, there were no competing voices warning of impending depression and the need for preventative action.  Much of today's economic understanding and strategies were not known at the time.  However his attitude to downplay the severity, focus on adding tariffs, and limiting relief among other actions only exacerbated things and at a minimum caused the public to lose faith in government at a time it was most needed.  While what he did and didn't do was not necessarily inconsistent with common thinking at the time, it is exposed by the urgent and bold new actions taken by Roosevelt when he takes over.

As for his chance for success sans the collapse, Leuchtenburg argues that it still would have been slim.  He concludes that Hoover's engineering czar style of operating was not compatible with the office of the President.  He didn't have the ability to navigate the politics that are necessary for accomplishments in Washington.  And because he didn't fit well within the conservative or progressive groups within the party he did not have a core base of support.  While he may have been elected to a second term simply because he was an incumbent Republican in that era, he would not have accomplished much.  (Funny aside: as I was finishing the book I read Scott Adams of Dilbert fame asking if we should have engineers run the government.)

Alas, Herbert Hoover is cemented in history along with the legacies of Martin Van Buren, James Buchanon, U.S. Grant, and Grover Cleveland who presided over economic Depressions and effectively sat on their hands.

Leuchtenburg's book is good for this series.  He does not overly defend his subject and writes a compelling narrative.  I really enjoyed the years leading up to the White House.  I did expect the author to be building a case that Hoover has been given a raw deal by history because of the success and personality of the mining executive and Secretary. If I had stopped there the book would get five stars and Herbert Hoover would be my new favorite president.  But the latter half of the book is a less gripping story and includes all of the expected descriptions of his fall that do not need much analysis.  All in all, 4/5 stars for an unexpected good read.

Going into the three consecutive biographies, I expected Harding to be the most interesting book, followed by Hoover and then Coolidge.  How wrong I was.