Category: Well-meaning Bumbler
Term in Office: 31st president, 1929-1933
Political Party: Republican
Home State: California by way of Iowa
In a way, Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover are of a piece, and it shouldn’t be surprising at all that they rank so closely in my schema, or that both share the category of well-meaning bumbler. Consider it this way: both had an engineering background and a business pedigree. Both were shaped profoundly by religious forces outside of the mainstream, Hoover by the Quakers, Carter by born-again Southern Baptist Christianity. Each man belongs on my Mount Rushmore of Hard Workers (Polk and Nixon occupy the other two places.) Carter and Hoover both emphasized sacrifice and working together, but failed to inspire with persuasive words or moving oratory. Each faced a severe economic crisis during his presidency, and was defeated for re-election in a landslide against a charismatic, media-savvy figure who remade the American political consensus.
Hoover, though hardly a great president, is one of the most underrated. He usually ranks somewhere in the 30s, but I believe he deserves consideration in the mid-20s. I didn’t always see things this way. I am ashamed to admit that in my very first president ranking in 2005, when I was just 21, I put Hoover dead. stinking. last. Below Buchanan, below Nixon, below Harding, below any conceivable candidate for the worst U.S. president. I hated his reluctance to reform a sick and dysfunctional economic system. I hated his actions during the Veterans’ Bonus March. Fortunately for me, and maybe for Hoover, two key encounters intervened. One was my doctoral exams, forcing me actually read about Hoover’s administration for once (Joan Hoff’s Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, was a real eye-opener.) The other was my cross-country drive last summer, which included a stop to Hoover’s Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, which helped me consider Hoover’s administration in the context of his overall career.
In every presidential write-up I’ve done, I’ve devoted a paragraph to their background, and Hoover’s is especially important, so pay attention. Both in Iowa and in California, Hoover’s Quaker background was a crucial formative influence. The Quakers brought together hard-working individualism with the call of social responsibility to help others- in short, neighborliness. In a way, Hoover’s entire career was a variation on this theme: work hard, work smart, and, on your own initiative, volunteer to alleviate suffering. Work hard, he did. Hoover was one of the first to apply scientific techniques to mining, and quickly became a millionaire plying his craft in Australia and China. Despite having little personal charisma, Herbert Hoover became a media sensation, a savvy wunderkind who could swoop in and solve any problem with sharp thinking and Midwestern know-how. He became a household name during World War I as he used his connections and managerial prowess to convince Americans to spare extra food for the war effort, and managed the food shortages besetting much of Europe in the aftermath of the war. A participant in the hyper-rational, super-efficient worldview of that day, deploring waste, and seeking to maximize resources, he helped turn the corner. The man saved millions of people from starvation across the ocean before he turned 45. And as Secretary of Commerce, he did the same during the great Mississippi flood of 1927, raising money, building dykes, and getting shelter to those most badly hit– the precursor to federal disaster relief.
When Coolidge announced he was not running in 1928, the news left the field wide open for Hoover. He beat Al Smith, the Governor of New York, soundly in the election (Smith’s Catholicism was so foreign and scary to WASPs that Hoover’s Quakerism was never an issue.) But as you know, Hoover’s presidency was soon engulfed by the Great Depression, as the stock market crashed a mere six months into his presidency. Keep in mind that Hoover had badgered Coolidge all throughout his presidency to control the unwieldy private banking practices that characterized the 1920s. Now, the wrap on Hoover is this: the public thinks he did nothing. Chicago school economists think he did too much.
In contrast, I think he essentially had the right idea, but didn’t do nearly enough in that direction. Enough historians I respect believe that the New Deal was, like the Grinch’s heart, about three sizes too small to catapult the economy out of the Depression, despite its unprecedented scope. And Hoover’s reforms were significantly less ambitious than those of the New Deal.
In an effort to re-stabilize the economy, he helped devise the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a private lending agent of last resort, becoming the first president to truly intervene in the economy during peace time. He tried public works projects, a proven economy-stimulator, via the Boulder Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam. He attempted to tweak the taxation system in such a way that it placed less burden on those less able to play (for example, exempting food and inexpensive clothing from a sales tax) on a greater burden on those more able to pay (by, say, increasing luxury taxes.) His Revenue Act of 1932 was a triumph of progressive taxation, doubling the estate tax and drastically increasing the rate on top earners- a necessary corrective after the wealthy ran amok during the 1920s.
Still, the presidency is not just about policy, it is about persuasion, especially in the 20th century. Having never run for a public office before seeking the presidency, Hoover lacked a set of tools that could have served him in good stead. Hoover had solved problems before through superior management and organization. The presidency was a different beast: he needed to persuade a skeptical public, he needed to cajole subordinates who did not always have his best interests at heart. The Rooseveltian bully pulpit was lost to him; he approached the presidency from a staid, bloodless managerial perspective, writing out dull, but truthful and fact-saturated speeches, often in his own hand. Such sleep-inducing orations did little to convince America that better days were ahead, he could not deal in the abstract commodity of hope. Nobody wanted to lick the Depression more than Hoover. Nobody. He worked the phones mercilessly, getting pledges between labor and management in place to avoid a potentially disastrous wave of strikes; he clung to his proven theory of associationalism, the belief that management, labor, and government could work rationally and efficiently to solve any crisis. He often called business owners personally, requesting that they keep workers hired, and at decent, livable wages. While FDR’s approach to the Depression was characterized by wild, often chaotic experimentation, Hoover’s was slow, plodding, rational, and methodical. But the public was never convinced that the president felt the depth of their suffering or their dreadful uncertainty of where their next meal would come from. What Hoover failed to project was sympathy and empathy in the midst of the Depression.
It is common currency to say that Hoover was ineffective, but I think it is worthwhile to explore what did not happen. Unlike several other countries beset by the Depression, large-scale rioting, sizable communist parties, or reactionary fascist parties gained only a limited amount of traction. Hoover also catches flack for the deplorable Bonus March attacks, in which thousands of World War I veterans were fired upon by their own army, but it does need to be said that Hoover did not order the attack, and was indeed horrified. Instead, it was a maneuver planned by Douglas MacArthur, who (surprise, surprise) exceeded the authority prescribed to him by his commander-in-chief.
It is also worth looking at foreign relations, a component of any president’s responsibilities, but one we forget to explore during Hoover’s because of our historical preoccupation with the economic crises. Because of his international business background and his relief efforts during the war, Hoover was a worldwide hero before he ever became president, and he used this backlog of good will to his advantage. In true Quaker fashion, his foreign policy was non-interventionist and non-coercive to a fault, a stance that is often mischaracterized by those who don’t know better as isolationism. He dismissed as imperialistic the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and worked to withdraw residual U.S. troops from Haiti and Nicaragua, an important precursor to the Good Neighbor Policy. Although the very high Smoot-Hawley tariff rates angered many, Hoover also arranged a moratorium on war debts and reparations, which helped calm the perilous financial situation in Europe.
I don’t know where else to put this, but I think it is also worth pointing out that Hoover’s three Supreme Court picks were all quite good, with swing vote Robert Owen, former Associate Justice and NY governor Charles Evan Hughes, and the brilliant Benjamin Cardozo all making excellent contributions to the court.
In other words, Hoover is only a failure if you judge him through the lens of the New Deal, as many progressive professors did in the 1940s and 50s and 60s. Many of them, like William Leuchtenburg ,went to college on New Deal programs, and clung to the New Dealer’s contempt of Hoover. If you make Franklin Roosevelt the standard of greatness, Roosevelt’s opponents will invariably fall short. For this reason Hoover has languished in the lower parts of the “Below Average” category, usually keeping company with the likes of Millard Fillmore and John Tyler. And Hoover did not help himself in retirement, often issuing screeds against socialism from the comfort of his 5th Avenue apartment complex well into his 80s, creating the optical illusion of a reactionary man diffident to the problems suffered by the man on the street. That’s a great pity, because his presidency shows something different. His ideas regarding public works projects were right-headed, but didn’t go nearly far enough, and he was slow to grasp that private philanthropy and patience were inadequate tools during a economic calamity of such great magnitude. As his presidency wore on, the economy failed to visibly improve, banks grew shakier, and a new wave of Democrats in Congress elected in 1930 refused to act on Hoover’s initiatives, waiting out the clock until a president of their own party took over. Indeed, Hoover lost across the board in 1932, save in a small handful Northeastern states.
Like Carter before him, Hoover demanded a degree of sacrifice and patience in difficult times. He believed that Americans could help each other out of the Great Depression, a nice enough sentiment that took his countrymen at their best, but badly underestimated the scope and scale of the Great Depression. It was a crisis that was set apart from the usual boom-and-bust cycle, and required a thorough reworking of the economy, and the artificial demand only World War II would eventually provide, to set things aright. But, you know, Hoover didn’t know that. Nobody had faced such a dire financial climate before. St. Augustine exhorted us, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” For Hoover, one of the greatest philanthropists of any age, we should reciprocate the charity he so often showed to others when we scrutinize his one, tumultuous term in office.