Washington Under Fire

A DISCUSSION of his successor’s policies by an ex-President of the United States is something of an event, and while a book containing it should be judged on its merits and by the standards applicable to the work of any other writer, most of the readers of The Challenge to Liberty, by Herbert Hoover (Scribners, $1.75), will inevitably do more than that. They will be looking for an explanation of the author’s own former policy, and even more for some indication of what that policy would be now if the writer were still in office, or what it would probably be if he should ever be reëlected. On the whole the book is more interesting from the second of these two points of view than from the first.
There are many, and the number seems to be growing, who would probably agree that some of the expedients recently tried are ineffective in the present and ominous for the future, and that some may be of doubtful constitutionality. But this book seems to indicate a greater conservatism than that. In the view of the author there has been in history a mighty surge of progress ‘swept onward from generation to generation,’ away from the depth of misery he imagines as existing in the Middle Ages, and tending always upward toward the freer life of the present, especially in America, where, in proportion to our numbers, we now have ‘four times as many telephones, five times as many radios, and six times as many automobiles as any great nation of Europe.’ One need be neither an uncritical supporter of the New Deal nor an opponent of the order for which Mr. Hoover stands if he ventures to dissent from an optimism based on such data.
The most serious aspect of the present revolutionary measures is, says Mr. Hoover, the political one Necessary limits of government have been forgotten or evaded, a gigantic bureaucratic machine has been called into existence, the legislative branch of our government lias abdicated in favor of the executive, these things threaten to become permanent and, if they do, must destroy our liberties. It is a gloomy picture— ‘the people find they are marching backward toward the Middle Ages — as regimented men.’ It would be idle to deny that in some of these specific strictures Mr. Hoover is expressing fears that are haunting increasing thousands of his fellow countrymen, and not altogether without reason; and these criticisms are occasionally put with a telling force that evidently comes from deep conviction. It is when we look beyond the particular dangers to their underlying causes that the disappointing character of this book appears most plainly. Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Nazi ism—these are the extremes toward which we are told we are being driven headlong by the present administration, but there is slight recognition of the deeper causes which have operated to create these dangers and no suggestion of a real remedy. For instance, we are told over and over that we must return for our salvation to our old system of checks and balances, but there is nowhere any hint that it may have been this very ’system which served to render our legislators ineffective and irresponsible and thus contributed to the paralysis from which regimentation, if it comes, will emerge.
It is probably not so much what he finds in this book as what he fails to find which leaves in a reader’s mind a general feeling of disappointment.
The nature of Frank R. Kent’s book is accurately indicated by its title, Without Gloves: “a realistic running comment on the great federal experiments, their operations and operators’ (Morrow, $2.50). The comment includes the period between April 15, 1933, and June of the present year. During the epoch-making session of Congress and the months succeeding, which these dispatches cover, we have embarked on policies never dreamt of before 1932 and the letters of Washington correspondents have been read with an attention never given them before in time of peace. Mr. Kent’s high place among these correspondents is no mystery to anyone who reads this collection culled from the successive issues of the Baltimore Sun. The comments are concise and clear; they are readable and they are penetrating; and they never trail off, as some do, into mere personal gossip. The personalities of the new administration are by no means neglected, but. Mr. Kent never forgets that in the long run it is the measures, not the men, that count. The experiments ‘must turn out successfully. When you depart from the rules you must be right.’
The great value of a running critique like this is in clarifying the ideas of its readers, rather than in winning support for the writer’s own. It compresses into clear and compact phrases what the reader may have vaguely felt. In short, it does much to formulate and give point to public opinion one way or another, and to direct it to the issues on which political fortunes are decided.
Mr. Kent, from beginning to end, is frankly critical of the New Deal in most of its parts, and his criticism becomes sharper as time goes on; but the criticism, if sharp and not invariably well grounded, is always aboveboard, and it is never peevish. ‘ When you depart from the rules you must he right.’ In Mr. Kent’s view the new departures are seldom ’right’: they are unsound, and must fail because unsound; but there is no sign in bis dispatches of the cheap and unpatriotic partisanship which gloats over their failure. It is just such ’blind and stupid partisanship’ in Congress which he finds to be ’the country’s most deadly curse. . . . The amazing thing is that men of personal character and intelligence still lend themselves to such a game.’
As early as March 7, Mr. Kent put his finger on what we can all see now to be the crux of the question of recovery: ‘The real problem is the relief problem. There is no sense in not plainly stating it. It is at the bottom of everything, and has to be solved if we are to keep solvent. Unless it is, the whole New Deal is doomed.’ The observation is fairly typical of the whole book.
Sensitive worshipers of the New Deal will be hurt by this ‘running comment,’ but its discriminating well-wishers ought to welcome such penetrating criticism whether they agree or not. It is only by knowing where our mistakes lie that we may ever hope to correct them. We all want to know what parts of the New Deal are sound and what parts unsound. Keen and disinterested criticism alone can make that clear. On the whole that seems to be the kind of criticism which Mr. Kent’s dispatches contain: they are usually frankly hostile, rarely actually unfair. If the New Deal really deserves to live, but if it is ultimately killed, the crime cannot be laid at the door of honest critics even if somewhat biased. The true criminals will be among the skulking political pack who scent in opposition a chance of personal advancement, or — what is far more likely — among those political parasites who see an even better chance of it in loud-mouthed support.