Now the second:
Few if any Americans have dedicated more of their lives to the service of others than Hoover. A wealthy man by age 40, he turned his back on opportunities to earn more—and dissipated much of what he had gained—to devote himself to humanitarian work. As a private citizen, he organized food relief for German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. He undertook an even more ambitious task of rescue in Russia and Ukraine during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power. Then, as commerce secretary, he took charge of the response to the devastating flooding of the Mississippi Valley in 1927: floods that drove hundreds of thousands from their homes to temporary camps and left the region in economic shambles.
It wasn’t just that Hoover did these things well. He invented the idea that these things could be done at all, or at least done on any large scale.
Yet this hugely compassionate person was also a high-handed authoritarian, morbidly sensitive to criticism. Undemonstrative and withdrawn, the hyperactive Hoover perversely presented an image of indifference to a society that—thanks to the spread of radio—had just for the first time been introduced to the appearance of direct personal contact with its president.
Kenneth Whyte addresses both these paradoxes with scholarship, insight, and verve—even as he chafes against them. Whyte summons us to see Hoover as a human personality, more than just a walking embodiment of Great Depression studies. Hoover’s personality was the product of origins and early career that Whyte attentively details. Hoover lived for 30 productive years after losing office in 1932, and Whyte does just to those years too. Hoover would be called back into public service by President Truman to rationalize and reshape the U.S. government. The creation of the Department of Defense out of quarreling armed services owes much to Hoover, as does the Office of Management and Budget, a president’s most powerful tool for setting priorities. Hoover’s non-disaster work at the Commerce Department would constitute an honorable career in its own right. From the collection of unemployment statistics to the standardization of sizes for industrial parts, from the encouragement of aviation to the creation of property rights in radio frequencies—even had Hoover quit politics in 1928, he would still have shaped the modern American economy more than any cabinet secretary since Alexander Hamilton.
But the Great Depression is always there, at the center of the story. It’s critical to Hoover’s place in history—and his legacy to American politics.
Beneath the opening credits of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, actors Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton sing a song that includes the lyric, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” In a big country, almost anything is statistically possible. But as a matter of probability, it’s exceedingly unlikely that a working-class New Yorker born in 1924, Archie Bunker’s biography, would have had anything good to say about Hoover. The political drama of the 1970s was the movement of people like Archie away from their inherited loyalty to Franklin Roosevelt’s party into Richard Nixon’s, Ronald Reagan’s—and now Donald Trump’s.