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The Problem of the Presidency: Assessing Herbert Hoover

Perhaps, Kenneth Whyte suggests, Hoover was not the failure he is often made out to be, and consequently, FDR is not nearly the success he appears to have been.

Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times
Kenneth Whyte
Oct 2017

There is no government position in the United States more prominent than the presidency. No official role brings more public attention and scrutiny, no seat vouchsafes the longevity of fame that it grants its occupants. It is not uncommon for a history buff or a precocious young student to have the 45 presidential names memorized in order; I’ve yet to meet someone who can list the names of the various Speakers of the House at all, much less in order. Certain particularly prominent members of Congress are remembered—Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun—but these are exceptional figures. Even the obscure presidents are vaguely recalled. William Henry Harrison is at least famous for having died a mere month into his term. Names like Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce ring a bell, even if we are unsure of their accomplishments. The president becomes a kind of symbol of his era; more to the point, his name often becomes the moniker for that swath of time: the Jacksonian age, the Nixon era, the Reagan years.

And yet no position in US government is so under-defined as that of the presidency. Article II of the US Constitution, the portion that lays out the role of the executive branch, makes for rather puzzling reading. After the great detail that document lavishes on the legislature in Article I, Article II looks like an afterthought. One might note that Article III, on the judiciary, is not much grander in length but the system of law was largely carried over from British precedent; the presidency was intended to be something new—a non-monarchical executive presence that was beholden to the people rather than heredity. The powers laid out in the Constitution, however, are meager. More space is devoted to how the person is to be elected (with a great deal of space devoted to that recurring bête noire, the Electoral College) than to what the job actually entails. The Constitution merely designates that the president is the Commander in Chief, can grant reprieves, can make treaties (with the approval of the Senate), can nominate people for specific roles (but appointment depends on the Senate), can call special sessions of Congress, and must make an occasional State of the Union address to Congress (the document states this must be done “from time to time”).

The notes detailing the discussions during the Continental Congress demonstrate that this exalted body spent precious little time on the executive branch. Perhaps this reticence to explore the question of presidential power stemmed from the awe George Washington—the presiding officer of the Convention and the man most people assumed would be the first president—inspired in the delegates. Or perhaps, and this seems in many ways more likely, the delegates felt that the real seat of power resided in the legislature, that it should be the active force behind government, and that the president would be a kind of figurehead who handed out nominations and dispensations, led the armed forces in wartime (a role clearly modeled on what Washington had already accomplished), and did rather little else.

The problem is, of course, that power in Congress is relatively diffuse by intention. This is a strength and a weakness. While, at least in theory, it encourages compromise and a balance of opinion, it presents a public relations issue. People tend to look for a focal point of power, a single person that will serve to represent the nation. While the Constitution does not designate that role to the president, it seems to have naturally fallen to that office, in large part because of the charismatic figure of Washington as its first occupant. But the president is no mere figurehead; indeed, that role gradually took on increasing significance—the office served as a kind of political sponge, soaking up any free-floating and indeterminate bit of power set loose within government. In the absence of a clearly defined role, the presidency became nearly whatever the president decided it ought to be.

The question then becomes: what kind of person ought to occupy the executive office? Even the ill-defined terms of the Constitution vaguely suggest two differing characters. One the one hand, there is the firm authoritarian in control of the armed forces (the primary and first-listed power of the office in the Constitution); this requires managerial acumen and discipline. On the other hand, there is the political operative doling out ambassadorships and other prestigious offices; this requires political savvy and the ability to appease various factions—disappointing everyone slightly and no one too much (unless that is the politically astute move). Manager and politician: most presidents strike some kind of balance between these aspects of the office. Some, like Warren G. Harding, preferred the role of politician to manager; he refused to sacrifice his golf and poker to the boring logistics of the executive office and yet remained a charismatic figure even when his administration was tumbling into disrepute. But there was perhaps no president more contemptuous of the political side of the office and more comfortable with the managerial side than Herbert Hoover.

When he was elected, Hoover was widely regarded as the answer to a nation’s prayers. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote in the New York Times in 1930: “We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably to watch the problems being solved. The modern technical mind was for the first time at the head of a government. Relieved and gratified, we turned over to that mind all the complications and difficulties no other had been able to settle.” Yet in hindsight, Hoover is widely dismissed as a failure as president, a capable man unable to face down the behemoth of the Great Depression, a well-intentioned leader who fumbled at the moment of crisis.

Kenneth Whyte, in his new biography, Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, asks us to reconsider the legacy of Hoover, not just as president but as a man who rose to political prominence during World War I to become one of the most famous public men of his era but who had never been elected to office prior to his rise to the presidency. Indeed, from the outset Whyte insists that understanding Hoover only through the lens of the Great Depression is to misunderstand him altogether. We must look also to his efforts as an engineer and a man of business, his rise to prominence, his stewardship of the modern school (post-New Deal) of conservatism, and his role as advisor to several succeeding presidents. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a man that was difficult to know, not at all personable, and indeed would be totally devoid of interest were he not at the center of so many cataclysmic historic moments that shaped the way the United States operated and came to understand itself.

This makes Whyte’s book something of an oddity: a compelling account of a character mostly lacking in charisma (although Whyte certainly mines the rare moments of personal warmth in Hoover’s life—many of them involving his favorite pastime, fishing). If a typical biography affords its reader the opportunity to spend some prolonged time in the virtual presence of a man one might like to know, Whyte’s book presents an unapproachable, distant subject. We are not attracted to Hoover in reading this biography but perhaps that is precisely what makes it so effective. Hoover wanted to be known for his deeds, his actions, not his personality and that kind of distanced assessment allows us to once again contemplate the role of the presidency, how it became what it is, and whether or not it should remain that way.

Whyte attempts to account for Hoover’s reserve by examining his childhood. Born in 1874 to a Quaker couple in West Branch Iowa, Hoover found himself orphaned by the age of ten. He was a serious boy and if he wasn’t as preternaturally bright as some of his classmates, he made up the difference through diligence and application. The young Herbert was shipped off to live with his uncle, the severe Dr. Henry John Minthorn, in Newberg, Oregon. Herbert never had a close relationship with his uncle, and perhaps the strained living situation only further contributed to his inherent reticence with respect to others. He eventually enrolled as one of the first students at the newly established Stanford University, studying mechanical engineering and geology. He was a mediocre student at best but was an enterprising business man as a matter of nature. While at Stanford, he created two businesses (a newspaper delivery service and a laundry service) and then sold them to classmates; “Have considerable business worked up,” he wrote,” & 3000000000000 schemes for making more” (36). At Stanford he met his future wife, Lou Henry, and attained his first experiences as a mining engineer.

Upon graduation, Hoover gained employment as a mining engineer for the London firm of Bewick, Moreing and Company. He was assigned to the Australian goldmines—a considerably dangerous task—and he had to lie about his age to secure the position, growing a mustache to bolster the fabrication. Hoover proved himself, as he would throughout his life, to be an exacting and precise supervisor, as demanding and unforgiving of himself as he was of others; he was promoted within two months of his arrival in Australia. At 24, he was sent by his firm to China as a technical adviser to the Chinese mining efforts, although he was clearly angling to assist his firm in elbowing their way into the Chinese concern. Hoover’s actions in China were not always the most admirable and Whyte provides a balanced account of his sometimes-compromised moral position.

By the time Hoover entered public life, his character was well established. He had little forbearance toward inexpediency, admired science and expert opinion, was adept at pushing his agenda by means of bull-headed determination rather than suave rhetoric or political nuance, insisted on being the sole man-in-charge in any endeavor he undertook, and strongly desired to belong and be seen to belong through public service. When the First World War broke out, Hoover was running several businesses, having broken off with Moering on less than amicable terms, and residing in London. Hoover assisted the US consulate in London in aiding American citizens stranded in the now-chaotic city and unable to use US currency to book hotel rooms. It is at this point that Hoover the public servant emerges—and with considerable force and almost immediate acknowledgment.

What’s important to understand in Hoover’s undertaking is not simply that he wanted to take part in public life, but rather the manner in which he did so. In a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his career (particularly before becoming president), Hoover crowded out any “competition” in any endeavor he undertook. After determining that these stranded Americans would be best served by short-term loans and passage home, he immediately founded and chaired a charitable company that would assist the distressed: The Committee of American Residents in London for the Assistance of American Travelers. To buttress the committee’s credentials he had stationary and operating quarters within days. Keep in mind, Hoover had no official standing, no permission from the US Ambassador to London, no history of charitable work. He simply saw a hole and filled it and worked very hard doing so. Hoover, throughout his life, was a diligent worker, at his desk early and toiling until late into the night. But, of course, that hole was also being filled by other entities; Hoover was hardly the only man to have the idea of assisting stranded Americans. The day before Hoover founded his committee, the banker Fred I. Kent founded a very similar one, the American Citizens’ Committee. Indeed, the latter committee was the one to gain funding from the ambassador. In this case, Hoover merely had to wait out his opponent. As the immediate crisis waned, Kent’s group dissipated while Hoover’s remained.

Germany invaded neutral Belgium, bringing Great Britain into the war and once again shifting Hoover’s public life. Belgium relied on importation for 80 percent of the food they consumed and the German army ravaged the Belgian crops. Meanwhile, the British established a naval blockade against Germany and all occupied territories, thus cutting off the supply of food on which the nation relied. Belgium was starving. Hoover undertook an unprecedented human relief project in setting up and chairing the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The complexities of the situation were astounding. While Hoover quickly managed to secure the food and the shipping, it was far more difficult to convince the British that Hoover’s food should be allowed to breach the blockade; the British military felt that this was merely supplying the German occupiers with sustenance. What would guarantee that the Belgians would actually receive the food?

Hoover leveraged fear of American interference on the part of the Germans to prevent them from stealing the food and the reliance of the British on American money and arms to force a relaxation of the blockade. In chairing the Commission, Hoover found himself on speaking and negotiating terms with the leaders (or their representatives) of most of the major countries and gained international fame—all in a position that he basically created for himself, without having been elected or appointed. In April 1917, Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover the head of the US Food Administration, making him, in effect, a “food czar” who oversaw the production and dissemination of food during the war. At the war’s conclusion, the returned to Europe to oversee the relief effort there. By this point, Hoover (who had lived abroad for much of his adult life) was one of the most famous men in the United States.

Already by the 1920 election, his name was being bandied about as a possible candidate for the presidency. But there was a clear problem: having never held elected office, having been absent from the US during his adulthood when he was eligible to vote, having basically created a public life for himself outside of the networks that funneled political power in the nation, he had no party affiliation (indeed, the progressive wings of both parties laid vague claim to him) and was an outsider to the process. He elected to join the Republican party—his success in business made that the obvious choice—and then declared (as he would throughout the remainder of his life) that he would not run (that is, he would not overtly campaign) but would not refuse to serve if nominated. Warren G. Harding, of course, was elected and Hoover soon became the Secretary of Commerce. This position was thought of as being among the least prestigious and having a limited role. Hoover immediately worked to expand the responsibilities and presence of the Commerce Department, sometimes taking over powers and obligations traditionally assumed by other departments. In all things, Hoover wanted control; if he was able to get away with it, it was largely because he always proved himself to be so capable.

Whyte adeptly demonstrates that understanding Hoover’s role as president requires a careful examination of his public life prior to his election. But, of course, it is his term as president that will attract the majority of this book’s readers. The question that will resound in one’s mind after reading the first half of Whyte’s book, then, is a simple one. Given the fact that he was so capable, given the fact that he was hardly a stalwart Republican but was rather a true progressive open to good ideas from either side of the aisle, given the fact that he had forged so many strong international relationships and had earned so much well-deserved respect, and finally, given the fact that he recognized long before the men that ran the Treasury or the Federal Reserve that economic downturns were not simply “acts of God” but could be managed through well-placed governmental measures—given all that, why wasn’t his presidency a success?

Whyte’s answer is somewhat surprising. Perhaps, Whyte suggests, Hoover was not the failure he is often made out to be, and consequently, FDR is not nearly the success he appears to have been. Assessing Whyte’s argument requires a careful sifting of the evidence he presents; but it is worth the effort and Whyte makes a strong case. In essence, this reassessment of history returns us to the ambiguity of Article II of the US Constitution, with which we started. If we accept Whyte’s understanding of the facts of the matter—that is, that many of the policies that helped stem the tide of the Great Depression were already enacted or prepared by Hoover even if the actual recovery mostly took place during FDR’s tenure—then the dichotomy of Hoover versus FDR is merely a particularly illuminating instantiation of the dichotomy that underlies the potentialities inherent in Article II: do we want a manager or a politician in the executive office?

Without a doubt, Hoover was a brilliant manager. Equally, Roosevelt was the embodiment of political savvy—he knew how to appeal to the maximum number of people. The mere fact that he was elected to office four times demonstrates that the country had so thoroughly identified with him that the dividing line between his cult of personality and the national spirit was almost totally effaced. One of the fascinating aspects of Whyte’s book is his careful detailing of the differences between the Republican and Democratic publicity and campaign machines at this time. It was during Hoover’s term that the Democratic machine became a full-time entity; in essence, the campaigning never stopped. The Republicans simply couldn’t keep up. Moreover, a man like Hoover, willing to work behind the scenes but reluctant to be seen as actively campaigning even for reelection, never stood a chance against FDR.

It is certainly not the case that FDR never faltered in his position. But whereas any failure on Hoover’s part was regarded as a breach of contract, FDR’s mistakes were viewed with sympathy and forbearance. The country participated in the mystique of FDR, he was the image of the United States; Hoover only ever worked there.

It is perhaps impossible to read this finely crafted biography and not consider its contents through the lens of today’s concerns with the executive office and its occupant. Whyte doesn’t broach the subject, and I think the book is the better for it. Hoover should be considered within the context of his times and the concerns of those times. And yet any reader, I think, will return continuously to thoughts of that office in this contested moment. The current president sees himself (and many of his supporters regard him) as a phenomenal manager. Like Hoover, Trump never held an elected office prior to taking the largest seat in the nation. Unlike Hoover, Trump is all too comfortable in the role of self-promoter. Like the Democratic machine in Hoover’s day, Trump never stops campaigning; one might reasonably wonder if he does anything besides. If your instinct in thinking about Article II was that the best possible president would be a manager and a politician, then Trump ought to make you question that seemingly obvious assumption. Regardless of how you estimate his potential and managerial abilities prior to taking office, he is clearly struggling to function as a manager while operating as a full-time campaigning politician. Perhaps this is what Hoover can still teach us. Eventually, the campaigning must stop and the work must begin.