Hoover: Giv­ing a pres­i­dent his due

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - Re­viewed by Joseph C. Goulden LIFE OF HER­BERT HOOVER: FIGHT­ING QUAKER, 1928-1933

THE

By Glen Jeansonne

For years, many ac­cepted the the­sis that Her­bert Hoover was the worst pres­i­dent of the 20th cen­tury and justly de­served the rep­u­ta­tion of tip­ping the United States into the Great De­pres­sion. More­over, the line went, he did noth­ing to set things right there­after.

The fact is, most “con­ven­tional wis­dom” about Hoover, both taught in col­lege class­rooms and com­ing through “his­to­ri­ans,” is flat-out wrong. Such is the in­escapable con­clu­sion one must draw af­ter read­ing Wis­con­sin aca­demi­cian Glen Jeansonne’s richly de­tailed ac­count of the Hoover pres­i­dency, 1929-1933.

When “Bert” Hoover won the White House in 1928, the or­phan boy from Iowa was one of the more pop­u­lar men in Amer­ica. He had over­come fi­nan­cial ad­ver­sity to earn a huge for­tune as a min­ing en­gi­neer. He ran hunger pro­grams in Europe and the Soviet Union af­ter World War I. As sec­re­tary of com­merce, he di­rected re­lief in the Mis­sis­sippi Val­ley when floods in 1927 left 700,000 peo­ple home­less. He won the pres­i­dency with 58.1 per­cent of the vote, car­ry­ing 40 states, “one of the most lop­sided vic­to­ries in Amer­i­can his­tory up to that time.” The Republicans had large nu­mer­i­cal leads in both the Se­nate and House.

Un­for­tu­nately, Hoover took of­fice just as the eco­nomic boom of the 1920s lost steam. Fore­most among the vic­tims were farm­ers, who had in­creased out­put dur­ing the war to sell to Europe. The heart of the prob­lem was con­tin­ued over­pro­duc­tion “and the re­sis­tance of farm­ers them­selves to con­trol­ling it.” In­stead, they wanted the gov­ern­ment to set prices or give them some form of di­rect cash pay­ments. Farm bank­rupt­cies surged. Fool­ish mar­ket spec­u­la­tion shook the fi­nan­cial world.

As Hoover strug­gled to find fea­si­ble long-term so­lu­tions, he fought op­po­si­tion not only among Democrats but also within the GOP, no­tably the so-called “pro­gres­sives” from small states who were bent on pro­tect­ing their ru­ral con­stituents.

An even larger fac­tor was a vig­or­ous Demo­cratic pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, funded by fi­nancier John J. Raskob, the party’s na­tional chair­man, and crafted by hatchet-man jour­nal­ist Charles S. Michel­son, the pub­lic­ity man­ager. Lack­ing a pro­gram of their own, the Democrats set about de­mo­niz­ing Hoover as re­spon­si­ble for the coun­try’s eco­nomic woes.

Us­ing what Mr. Jeansonne termed “scathing in­vec­tive” and “scur­rilous venom,” Michel­son was to “skewer Hoover per­son­ally for all four years of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, a job he rel­ished. Michel­son ghosted speeches for sen­a­tors, rep­re­sen­ta­tives and other pub­lic fig­ures, which they lip-synced.” Thus be­came “the process of ce­ment­ing Hoover’s place in his­tory as an in­ept, un­car­ing pres­i­dent.” (Mr. Jeansonne cor­rectly writes that Michel­son’s boast­ing mem­oir, “The Ghost Talks,” “could have served as a primer for Machi­avelli.”)

But how much re­spon­si­bil­ity did Hoover ac­tu­ally bear? Here is where univer­sity pro­fes­sors — plus un­count­able his­to­ri­ans — have led students astray for six decades. Prom­i­nent in their in­dict­ment of Hoover is the Smoot-Haw­ley Tar­iff, blamed for ac­cel­er­at­ing the De­pres­sion by in­creas­ing im­port du­ties. As Mr. Jeansonne ob­serves, “Mak­ing tar­iffs is a messy busi­ness, less akin to sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion than to hog butcher­ing, with con­gress­men hov­er­ing like vul­tures to pick up road kill for their dis­tricts.”

Hoover’s aim was a mod­er­ate re­vi­sion — that tar­iffs be levied based on what it cost to man­u­fac­ture any spe­cific item do­mes­ti­cally and over­seas. But the pu­ta­tive pro­gres­sives — act­ing in the name of their farm­ers — cre­ated a night­mare of a bill, with 1,253 amend­ments added in the Se­nate alone.

Mr. Jeansonne ar­gues that Smoot-Haw­ley “did not cause the crash or the De­pres­sion be­cause the crash had oc­curred be­fore its en­act­ment and the econ­omy was al­ready spi­ral­ing down­ward by the time it was law. More than 40 nations had al­ready in­creased tar­iffs be­fore it be­came law, so it did not ini­ti­ate trade wars.”

Con­trary to Demo­cratic mythol­ogy, Hoover in­deed sought a num­ber of re­lief pro­grams to help in­di­vid­u­als, draw­ing upon his vast ex­pe­ri­ence in re­lief op­er­a­tions. In 1931, he pro­posed a Pub­lic Works Ad­min­is­tra­tion to na­tion­al­ize pub­lic con­struc­tion un­der a sin­gle agency. Con­gres­sional Democrats glee­fully added pork-bar­rel pro­vi­sions they knew would be ve­toed, killing the mea­sure.

Her­bert Hoover de­serves a re­count in his­tory.

Per­haps Mr. Jeansonne has made a start. Joseph C. Goulden is au­thor of “The Dic­tio­nary of Es­pi­onage: Spys­peak into English” (Dover, 2012).

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