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Hoover

AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES
Written by KENNETH WHYTE
Format: Hardcover, 752 pages
Publisher: Knopf
On Sale: 10/10/2017
Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-59796-0
open close ABOUT THE BOOK
The definitive biography of Herbert Hoover, one of the most remarkable Americans of the twentieth century--a revisionist account that will forever change the way Americans understand the man, his presidency, and his battle against the Great Depression. 

A poor orphan who built a fortune, a great humanitarian, a president elected in a landslide and then routed in the next election, arguably the father of both New Deal liberalism and modern conservatism--Herbert Hoover is also one of our least understood presidents, conventionally seen only as a heartless failure for his handling of the Great Depression.
     Kenneth Whyte fully captures this rich, dramatic life: from Hoover's difficult childhood to his meteoric business career, his work saving hundreds of thousands of lives during World War I and after the 1927 Mississippi floods, his presidency, his painful defeat by Roosevelt, and his return to grace as Truman's emissary to help European refugees after World War II. Whyte brings to life Hoover's complexity and contradictions--his modesty and ambition, ruthlessness and extreme generosity--as well as his political legacy. Here is the epic, poignant story of the poor boy who became the most accomplished figure of his time, who worked ceaselessly to fight the Depression yet became the public face of America's greatest economic crisis. Here, for the first time, is the definitive biography that captures the full scale of this extraordinary life.

"In this fat, intensely researched, mostly admiring biography, National Post founding editor Whyte makes a convincing case for his rehabilitation and succeeds in providing 'a faithful portrait of the man in his times'… A thoughtful resurrection of a brilliant man who, aside from the Founding Fathers, did more good before taking office than any other president in American history." Kirkus (starred review)
 
"Moves at a brisk pace… Whyte delivers a clear-eyed, sympathetic portrayal of the American president best remembered for his inability to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression… [He] doesn’t shy away from [the] seedier aspects of Hoover’s life, but nor is he judgmental… With adept explanations of the Depression's complexities and a refreshing sense of objectivity regarding Hoover's approach to combatting it, Whyte portrays a figure to be neither pitied nor reviled, but better understood." Publishers Weekly
 
"Often ranked as one of our worst presidents—his very name evokes Depression-era shantytowns—Hoover gets a reconsideration here that sweeps over his entire career… [Whyte] charts Hoover's rise from childhood poverty to business mega-success, then reminds us of Hoover’s large-scale humanitarian works during World War I and after the 1927 Mississippi floods and his efforts (however thankless) to combat the Great Depression. And he was tasked by President Harry Truman himself with aiding European refugees after World War II, which not everyone knows. Get reading." —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal, "Barbara’s Picks"
open close ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KENNETH WHYTE is the author of The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, a Washington Post and Toronto Globe and Mail Book of the Year, and a nominee for four major Canadian book awards. He is a publishing and telecommunications executive and chairman of the Donner Canada Foundation. He was formerly editor in chief of Maclean's magazine, editor of the monthly Saturday Night magazine, and founding editor of the National Post. He lives in Toronto.
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PREFACE
 
A contemporary once described Herbert Hoover as the sort of man “to whom the incredible was forever happening.” Following a tragic childhood in which he was orphaned at the age of nine, he graduated (barely) with the inaugural class at Stanford University, made a name for himself in the rich goldfields of the Australian outback, and, still in his twenties, pulled off the biggest mining transaction in the his­tory of China. The deal closed months after he had been given up for dead in the Boxer Rebellion. Settling later in London at the height of the Edwardian era, he raised a family, established himself as a global mining tycoon, and gained international acclaim as a humanitarian in the early years of the Great War. After almost single-handedly res­urrecting the European economy during the Versailles peace talks, he returned to America, where he knew every president from Theo­dore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, serving five of them in important roles in addition to fulfilling his own term in the White House. He remained a momentous and controversial figure through the New Deal, the Second World War, and into the Cold War, ending his days chasing bonefish in the Florida Keys and writing books, several at a time, in a luxurious suite in the Waldorf Towers with Cole Porter and the Duke of Windsor for neighbors.

The challenge for Hoover biographers has never been a lack of exploit. Rather, it has been to find a coherent personality amid the nonstop action. As historical figures go, Hoover is a blur. He shielded himself from the scrutiny of journalists, independent biographers, and other strangers. Allergic to introspection, he rarely registered his thoughts and feelings in private conversation, let alone in diaries or journals. Wanting only to be remembered for his achievements, he destroyed an unknown quantity of his family’s correspondence. His three volumes of autobiography reveal little of personal significance and what is divulged is often unreliable.

Fortunately, much of Hoover’s life was lived in public, and he was often closely observed despite his reticence. Many of those working with him realized they were in the company of an extraordinary man and recorded honest and intimate impressions of him in their notes, letters, diaries, and memoirs. As well, important family correspon­dence escaped Hoover’s purges. The portrait that emerges here is largely constructed from these sources, many of them not previously utilized.

Helpful as the sources are in locating elements of Hoover’s per­sonality, making sense of what is found is another matter. His capaci­ties and achievements are obvious and awe-inspiring. Among the forty-four chief executives, he stands with the most intelligent and erudite, and none worked harder. He was the only president to have enjoyed two brilliant careers before the White House, and next to John Quincy Adams he was its most cosmopolitan inhabitant, having lived two decades abroad and circled the globe five times before the age of aviation. He was also a man of enormous goodwill, support­ing with countless acts of charity his needy friends and relatives, not to mention the family of a colleague who was jailed for swindling him out of a large sum of money. The number of lives Hoover saved through his various humanitarian campaigns might exceed 100 mil­lion, a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history. Yet at the same time he bristled with more than the usual array of eccentric­ities, tics, tempers, neuroses, failings, and contradictions. He carried through his days the scars of his miserable boyhood, and he seems to have been determined in certain phases of his existence to prove points and settle scores of interest only to his bruised psyche. A man of force, quick-minded and brusque, he could be dangerous in pursuit of his interests, and he would rightly be concerned during his political years to obscure certain records from his business career. Tormented by guilt and paranoia, he twice broke down when his least honorable deeds came under public scrutiny.

The cracks and tensions in Hoover’s personality expressed them­selves in curious ways. When frustrated in pursuit of a righteous cause, he could fight with the heart of a saint and the conscience of a robber baron. He had a habit of crushing individuals and organizations who shared his objectives. Disliked, as a rule, by other politicians, includ­ing many Republicans, he disapproved of them in turn yet sought to lead them as head of state. Somehow he inspired fierce loyalty in cho­sen colleagues and employees without going to the trouble of form­ing normal human relationships with them. He knew thousands of eminent personages around the world yet related better to children. Genuinely modest, he had an almost biological compulsion to see his name in the papers. An introvert, he rarely ate a meal alone. A faithful family man, he was for decades almost a bystander in his family’s life.

Hoover’s political nature is also difficult to pin down. He does not fall neatly into any of the familiar political categories—Democrat or Republican, progressive or reactionary, populist or establishment, nationalist or internationalist. Pragmatic by temperament, he seldom thought in terms of labels or ideologies. He preferred to be true to himself and his thoughtful, in many ways commendable conception of America. This outlook, together with his perseverance, his unflag­ging willingness to serve, and the tumultuous years in which he lived, led him all over the political map. By his retirement, and despite his essential pragmatism, he had reasonable claims to paternity of the two main ideological currents of the American century: New Deal liberal­ism and the modern conservative movement born in opposition to it.

If his reserve and his complexity make Hoover hard to know, the Great Depression, which began months after he was sworn in as America’s thirty-first president (1929–33), and which stands as the worst domestic tragedy to befall the United States in the century and a half following the Civil War, adds enormously to the problem. Generations of historians and economists have been preoccupied with the questions of how the Depression started, how it ended, its consequences for domestic and international policy, and the relation­ship of Americans to their government, among much else. Naturally, they have studied Hoover for his contributions to the Depression, his efforts to fight it, and his failure to reverse it. His biographers have tended to adopt this same lens in treating him. One, for exam­ple, has prosecuted him as a man whose deficiencies of character and leadership rendered him insensitive and inept in his nation’s hour of need, and another has defended him (the minority position) as a man of unexampled virtue whose life was an “almost unbroken record of success” and who did all that might reasonably have been done to combat the Depression.* Either way, the Depression, or more partic­ularly, Hoover’s management of it, is the essence of the story, the trial toward which everything in his life proceeds, and by which everything is measured. Indictment and advocacy shape and often overwhelm the story of the man.

I do not wish to diminish the contributions of any of these works to an important debate on Hoover’s role in a crucial historical event. I have learned from them, and I join their conversation in parts of this book. Hoover, as Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote, was “the pivot of the dizziest turn of the wheel in this permanent revolution called America,” and it would be odd to avoid discussion of it. I nevertheless find the Depression a problematic lens for the purposes of biography.
For starters, it is only in the vast sweep of history that the Great Depression appears as a single reference point. As Hoover knew it, it was not a discrete event but a maddeningly unpredictable series of emergencies of varied origin and severity—what he called “a battle upon a thousand fronts.” What’s more, the Depression had political, economic, social, and international dimensions, many of which had histories of their own dating back decades, and many of which would continue to haunt the nation through future decades. Hoover is a part of the whole story, and, as we will see, his profile shifts markedly at different points in the narrative.

Not only is the Great Depression large and complicated, but it is still in litigation. Its nature and its causes have been under dis­pute since its inception, not surprisingly given that it changed the course of American history and raised questions of policy that are still with us today. New facts and arguments are continually brought to bear in its discussion as others are reordered, reinterpreted, or shot to pieces. Our knowledge of the stock market crash and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, of the roles of fiscal and monetary policy and the gold standard, have all been substantially revised over time. Great swaths of the Depression story are reconsidered in these pages, including the Bonus Army episode, the Republican collapse of 1932, and the Hoover-Roosevelt interregnum. All this pleading is fair game. It is how we learn. Let it continue, recognizing that courtrooms are useful for testing evidence, scoring points, and rendering verdicts, but they are no place to learn someone’s life story.

Notwithstanding my own contributions to the Great Depression debates, I have made a deliberate effort to privilege understanding over judgment in this narrative. It is the right approach for biography, and it seems only reasonable when one acknowledges that none of the policy makers, regardless of partisanship, ideology, or nationality, had a tight grip on what needed to be done with the economy after it crashed in 1929. It seems more reasonable still when we admit that our own expertise in managing such crises remains imperfect after ninety years of intensive study and additional practice.

My intention with this book is to spring Hoover from the Depres­sion and present him in another context, that of his full life. This is not simply to say that he had a life beyond the Depression. It is to recognize that he was molded by a series of experiences stretching from the Gilded Age to the Cold War. His boyhood shaped his busi­ness experience, which informed his humanitarianism, which fash­ioned his approach to public service and his philosophy of American life, which in turn dictated certain attitudes to the challenges of his presidency, to the New Deal, to the next war, and so on. One thing leads to another and helps to make sense of the other, and it is only by following Hoover through his days as he lived them, one adventure at a time, without foreknowledge of outcomes or benefit of hindsight, that we can arrive at a faithful portrait of the man in his times.

His times are crucial because the United States was on a momen­tous journey of its own throughout Hoover’s adulthood. The long road from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy wound through booms, busts, cataclysmic wars, uneasy peace, and all manner of political and social upheaval. For the American people, as for Hoover, the Great Depression was not an island in time but one of a series of closely entwined events that combined to transform their nation in stunning and irreversible ways. These events are inexplicable without reference to one another: the Depression would not have happened as it happened, or at all, without the Great War, and the Second World War would not have happened as it happened, or at all, without the Depression. I do not pretend that this is a revelation. I mention it only because we can get locked into reading history one episode at a time when, in many instances, as with a biographical subject, a longer view helps us to see things afresh. Indeed, by following the journeys of Hoover and the nation together through these decades, we gain a deeper appreciation for how each evolved, and how they affected each other. We notice the many ways in which they are mutually illuminative.

One of the wonders of Hoover is that he was incomparably a man of his times. He shows up not just at one dizzying turn of the wheel but at all of them in the most consequential half century in American his­tory. He participated in and often embodied crucial national conflicts between traditional and modern, rural and urban, east and west, indi­vidual and collective, local and national, rich and poor, wet and dry, isolationist and interventionist. His involvement was consistently at a high level, and he always represented a strong point of view shared by some considerable portion of the American public. His prominence and ubiquity make him an invaluable guide to the epoch. This applies at a high level: he sharpens our insight into how the bucolic, wood-smoked America of his youth became the centralized, citified global powerhouse of his maturity. It also applies to particulars, for instance, the development of the nation’s leadership. Through Hoover we see how a new class of professional managers emerged during and after the Great War, how the minds of these men (they were all men) were opened and haunted by that conflict, how they came to believe that they could manipulate the nation’s economy for the betterment of its people, how they tentatively assumed stewardship of a broken sys­tem of international finance, how they laid years of groundwork for what in retrospect looks like a sudden leap from the austerities of the Coolidge era to the unbridled activism of the Roosevelt years.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm called the twentieth century “the age of extremes,” and although he had world history in mind the phrase is appropriate to American experience. In Hoover’s time, bloody international wars, unparalleled privation, and intellectual provocation lived in close quarters with massive economic expansion and social progress. He shared the extremes in his public and pri­vate lives, notching a range of achievement and failure unmatched by any American of his era, and perhaps any era. His highs, of which there were many, were wondrously high, his lows, also numerous, were unbearably low, and there were few points in his life at which reversal, in one direction or the other, did not beckon, whether by his own actions or by circumstances beyond his control. Any complete portrait of Hoover needs to embrace these ups and downs, volatility being a constant of the age.

Despite the extremes, the welfare of most Americans improved strikingly between Hoover’s youth and his old age. The same cannot be said for him. His presidency was more interesting and impres­sive than is generally acknowledged, but there is no getting around the fact that he was bounced from office in 1933 with the economy in pieces at his feet and one in four Americans unemployed. This inglorious political defeat at the pinnacle of his career is a fact, one it took him many years to absorb, and one from which he never entirely recovered. He would campaign doggedly for his vindication and adopt a brooding, obsessive animosity toward the political virtuoso who trounced him, Franklin Roosevelt. Both pursuits yielded modest results.
To his enormous credit, Hoover did not allow his defeat and his enmity to destroy him. Nor did he let his battered prestige discourage him from pursuit of his admirable vision of American life, or interfere with his dedication to the service of the American people. He contin­ued to work, to strive, to squeeze all he could from his existence, dis­playing toward his countrymen a magnanimity, seldom reciprocated, that deserves to be considered among his greatest achievements.