The Other Worst President

To understand Trump, we need to examine the man who failed America during the Great Depression

Herbert Hoover Campaigning for president
Photograph Courtesy The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-NPCC-17135

Kenneth whyte’s Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times has arrived with perfect timing. The book is a (mostly successful) attempt to revive the reputation of one of the most despised presidents in American history—Herbert Hoover, the man who, between 1929 and 1932, oversaw the worst of the Great Depression.

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Ordinarily, the questions Whyte raises would be mostly academic, but the presidency of Donald Trump, as it tends to do, has sucked this book’s significance into its sordid little vortex. Given how much damage America’s president has done in the past year to his country’s reputation through such actions as his attempts to restrict immigration and his plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the book poses a question that is terrifyingly relevant: How much do the personal qualities of a president lead to a successful or a disastrous presidency?

Whyte could hardly have selected a harder reputation for resuscitation. When Hoover was elected in 1928, the unemployment rate in the United States was about 4.2 percent, according to recent estimates. By the time he lost the subsequent election, the unemployment rate stood at 23.6 percent. He left his country’s economy in tatters, America’s image diminished, and the rest of the world ripe for the rise of totalitarianism. The Republican Party wouldn’t regain the presidency for another twenty years.

If the performance metrics alone didn’t make the task of re-evaluating Hoover difficult enough, there’s also the fact that he was subject to one of the most successful scapegoating efforts of all time. America’s next president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who mastered radio as a means of mass manipulation, converted the man into a stock capitalist villain, and the press and public gleefully joined in. Hoover himself—a diffident man with limited political skills—was incapable of fighting back effectively. There was no @hoover to fall back on.

The majority of the book, right up until it gets to the eve of the Depression, is a simple description of a life that has been overshadowed by a single catastrophic period. Here Whyte really is excellent: through mostly straightforward biographical detail, he takes a machete to the lies and the misconstructions that have grown over the name of Herbert Hoover, and the life revealed behind the propaganda is genuinely fascinating. Hoover’s life story is basically an answer to one question: What if one man had all the lousiest jobs in the world one after the other?

Conceived during the financial panic of 1873, Hoover managed to graduate from Stanford, in its first class ever, right in time for the panic of 1893. After a great deal of rejection, he scrounged a job on the graveyard shift at a mine for $2.50 a day, doing labour that he described as “competing with a mule.” By way of fantastic quantities of effort and with a little bit of unscrupulousness, he worked his way up to a position as a manager for a British mining consortium in Western Australia. That job was utterly hellish, Western Australia being a desert in which water sometimes sold for more than beer and everything living was poisonous. Hoover himself was a brutal manager whose only concern was better margins. “Men hate me more after they work for me than before,” he wrote his brother. “They’re coming to a perfect hell and I am the devil.”

Hoover’s power grew. His status grew. The scope of the demands on his incipient organizational talent grew. But everywhere, he faced nearly impossible challenges. After Australia, the British mining group moved him to China just in time for the Boxer Rebellion. And when he moved next, to London, he experienced a few years of material comfort before he was greeted with the First World War and the various nightmares of an embattled Britain.

During the war, the Hoover whom Whyte wants us to see emerges—a compassionate organizational genius. The Belgian people, whose country was occupied by the Germans, were starving—Hoover learned of their plight after a friend introduced him to a man trying to import cereals there. A British blockade of all German-occupied territory meant that the Germans themselves were starving and were extracting whatever sustenance they could from the occupied population. The British had no interest whatsoever in shipping food where they believed it would simply be appropriated by the occupying enemy. In the face of this impossible situation, “with five months of work, Hoover had secured the immediate financial future of what was by then the largest relief organization the world had known. Roughly $1.8 million worth of food was being purchased weekly from America, Australia, and the Argentine.” All of it went to northern Europe. Whyte painstakingly recreates the brilliant political machinations, both secret and public, that Hoover undertook to achieve this exceptional act of charity.

When America finally entered the war, in 1917, Hoover returned to his home country to take another truly awful job: running the United States Food Administration. While trying to restrict the American consumer’s habits, he was also trying to restrain the prices of key commodities. So on one hand, he had to tell American restaurant-goers that they couldn’t order steak. On the other hand, he was telling farmers they had to charge less for their product during a time of scarcity. Somehow, he managed to emerge from this bind as a popular figure.

Hoover was also instrumental in the rebuilding of a shattered Europe in the aftermath of the war—again, taking on one horrible job after another. It shows how distorting hindsight can be that it is now almost completely forgotten that Hoover helped to relieve the Russian famine of 1921–1922. This icon of brutal capitalism made superhuman efforts to feed communist children, at great political cost to himself. “Twenty million people are starving,” he responded to critics. “Whatever their politics, they shall be fed.” The socialist writer Maxim Gorky—not exactly your typical apologist for capitalist stooges—claimed that Hoover saved 3.5 million children and 5.5 million adults.

By the time Hoover won the presidency in 1928, two facts had been established about him: he was a genius of public administration, and he possessed a deep-seated sense of duty towards the impoverished, no matter who they were. He also knew the costs of economic panic personally. In short, it is hard to imagine a man you would want in power during the Depression more than Herbert Hoover.

So why did he fail so spectacularly? At this point, Whyte’s book takes a more classically revisionist turn. Strict biographical retelling gives way to argument. Whyte wants to justify Hoover’s presidency. So he emphasizes the mild steps that Hoover took to prevent the Depression—he clearly knew that a crash was coming. He shows the concrete actions Hoover took to alleviate suffering and shore up the crumbling economy. Many in the American press at the time were highly enthusiastic about his response to the immediate crisis, claiming that he had “thoroughly anticipated the debacle and mapped out the shortest road to recovery.” Hoover pleaded with the public. He forced large groups of companies not to fire their workers. He took what were probably the correct steps with the Federal Reserve.

But none of it made a significant difference. Unemployment kept swelling. The cities filled with groups of destitute, hopeless men. Hoover felt he was powerless in the face of the rising fear. “This is a cruel world,” he told his press secretary, and, for once, he could do little to intervene.

The great Roman general Fabius said that results are the teachers of fools. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times is a wonderful study in the value of humility in politics, not just by those who make decisions but by those who judge the decision-makers—journalists and historians both. I wonder if it’s that humility of spirit that reminds me so forcefully of Conrad Black, another author of door-stopping tomes. I mean, because Whyte writes in such a diametrically opposed spirit. Conrad Black and Ken Whyte will always be bound together, at least in my mind, since they founded the National Post together and travelled in roughly the same conservative pseudo-intellectual circles, the kind where people think they’re brave to write op-eds against community organizers and erudite if they bring up Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Hoover, and Whyte’s equally excellent study of William Randolph Hearst, The Uncrowned King, are the kind of books Conrad Black tried to write but couldn’t. Take the opening sentence of Black’s Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from 2014: “Canada has often had a perilous existence, but not for a long time has the threat been ravenously belligerent neighbours or exploitive colonizers.”

Whyte doesn’t need twenty-five-cent words and redundancies. Being the opposite of Conrad Black turns out to be a highly effective writing strategy. Whyte avoids both pretense and axe grinding. He brings a humanizing touch to geopolitics, and even when dealing with arcane subjects like deflationary economics, Hoover makes for fluid, attractive reading.

Hoover, after his failure in office, retreated into a nostalgic rage that will come across as highly recognizable to the contemporary news reader. The Democratic elites who controlled the mass media humiliated Hoover, and he loathed them in return. The world in which he had triumphed, the world he recognized, had simply passed. One of Hoover’s last acts as a politician was to advise Barry Goldwater to be harder on the Democrats, which makes Herbert Hoover a progenitor of the current brand of resentful American conservative politics.

The people who knew about how hard the business of government is knew how competent Hoover was, and these included Robert F. Kennedy, who remembered Hoover’s “marvellous contributions to our country and to his fellow man.” By the numbers—either economic data or historians’ top-ten lists—Hoover was one of the worst presidents in US history. Under examination, he turns out to have been an extremely brilliant man, vastly more practical than ideological, who nonetheless failed utterly.

One of the great bugbears of historical biography is its inherent tendency to exaggerate the power of individuals to change history. It’s natural enough: the idea of men shaping history rather than history shaping men flatters the vanity of both the biographers who devote themselves to individual lives as well as the subjects of those biographies. But Hoover’s is the case of a person who could not shape history; even though he was incredibly capable, he could barely budge it. The times steamrolled the man. Government spending in 1929 was totally insufficient to overcome the fear that gripped America. The gold standard spread deflation globally, but a world without the gold standard was inconceivable to Hoover.

Whyte argues, convincingly, that Hoover was perfectly poised to deal with the Depression, which makes his failure only more fascinating. Hoover was just not prepared for the world as it came to him. Economic history is littered with similar humiliations. After the 2008 US market crash, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan admitted that an ideology that had served him for forty years failed: “I have found a flaw,” he said. “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by the fact.” Well, weren’t we all.

To return to the big question hovering over Hoover: How much does presidential competence matter? From the point of view of 2017, Hoover seems like a relic from a better age. The last demonstrably competent Republican president, the elder Bush, lost power when I was sixteen. The others have been stupid beyond belief—either naturally ill-equipped or maliciously negligent, but always the steadfastly incompetent sons of privilege. Hoover was a poor orphan who rose, through extravagant intellectual gifts and a profound sense of morality, to the most powerful position in the world. He was as intelligent and decent as they come, and it didn’t matter.

We can only hope that the opposite holds true as well—that a badly equipped, unintelligent, and morally bankrupt president will have a similarly negligible impact on history.

Stephen Marche
Stephen Marche is a Toronto writer. He is currently at work on a book about the risks of civil war in the United States.