Presidential Biographies: Herbert Hoover #31

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first President of the United States. My selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was served up Herbert Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Herbert Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye

Herbert Hoover evokes images of a dam, the Depression, and an ineffective Presidency–if anyone thinks about him at all. Rappleye states at the beginning of his biography of Hoover that he’s looking to draw attention to Hoover’s Presidency. Specifically, he seeks to show that Hoover was more effective than he is often portrayed, while also acknowledging the exacerbation of several situations that his personality sometimes led to. 

Rappleye focuses little on Hoover’s pre-Presidency life, but from other biographies, it is clear that Hoover accomplished quite a bit as, for example, the Director of the United States Food Administration. He ably ran supply chains throughout World War I, and despite being secretary of a fairly minor part of the government, was referenced as a secretary of everything else by those who knew him. He was involved in almost every level of the Wilson administration and decision-making process. After the War, he helped direct relief across Europe, providing food for millions of hungry people across the continent. At no point, so far as I can tell, was he anything but excellent at these jobs, though he certainly ruffled feathers by how involved and even overbearing he could be in offering his opinion forcefully on so many subjects outside his purview. 

Hoover leveraged his popularity from his deft administration under Wilson to become President, though he was helped along by a strategy to win Southern states by appealing to anti-Catholicism and fears of the “urbanite” Al Smith to become President (see Rappleye, 38-39). The strategy paid dividends, and certainly has its parallels in the dog whistles of racism in campaigning today. 

Despite the frequent, popular portrayal of the man, Hoover wasn’t a President who rode the country into the ground, flailing as he watched the Great Depression plunge the world into darkness. Even before his inauguration, he convinced Coolidge to allow him to take some of the reins of the Federal Reserve and other financial movers within the government to try to take action against what he saw as a coming financial crisis. He was proactive in attempting to forestall the Depression, and favored policies that interfered with the market instead of simply letting the financial bubble burst and then collapse. Coolidge’s laissez-faire approach had set the country up for financial disaster, and Hoover swiftly attempted to move to stabilize pricing throughout various markets even as the bubble that had built under Coolidge was bursting.

The main problem with Hoover’s Presidency wasn’t inaction and flailing about without purpose as it is so often portrayed. Instead, it was a kind of self-obsession that refused to share insights with advisors and increasing paranoia that cut Hoover off from potential supporters. Hoover was so insular during his Presidency, in fact, that he didn’t even publicly take credit for some of his great accomplishments, such as feeding the hungry. This latter fact was due to his aversion to government spending, causing embarrassment over his apparent personal torn loyalties to lowering government spending while also trying to care for the hungry (243-245). Hoover also appeared particularly heartless at some points in the Dpression, such as when he refused to provide direct food to farmers, instead providing seed and working to stabilize pricing on grain. Hoover’s motivations for such policy seem, in retrospect, not actually mistaken, but his unwillingness to be open about his decision-making (and his alienation of the Press) led to his popularity plummeting. 

Indeed, it was Hoover who ultimately made the banks solvent through his Herculean efforts creating the NCC and additional policies, even though it is Franklin Delano Roosevelt who typically gets the credit for this (286-288; 459-461). Hoover was effective in righting the ship in many ways from the Depression, but his combative, paranoid personality ultimately lost him credit for much of it. FDR’s extreme aversion to Hoover didn’t help his legacy either, though Hoover did get some rehabilitation of image under Truman. 

Rappleye doesn’t look very closely at Hoover’s foreign policy or Civil Rights record. He does note that Hoover’s lily-white strategy was favored by some African American leaders at the time who thought it a way to keep policies working in their favor even if it involved removing black Americans from positions of power. But this historical compromise hardly speaks well of Hoover’s record regarding Civil Rights, especially given the hearty opposition of many black leaders to this same policy. During his Presidency, Hoover was much more occupied with domestic issues than foreign ones.

Herbert Hoover in the White House is a superb look at a long-overlooked President. Rappleye does not overstate his case, though he does reform Hoover’s legacy in much-need ways. Hoover himself, had he trusted his advisors more and been willing to publicly discuss policy more frequently, could have been more effective. The moves he made were, largely, the right ones, but too often they were too little and too late. They were too late by perhaps a decade, however, so it is difficult to hold that against him. He was a fascinating leader in an incredibly difficult time. 

Calvin Coolidge’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Herbert Hoover (31st President – Original Ranking #17)- Hoover was not as ineffective as he is often portrayed–a blundering idiot unable or unwilling to take decisive action to slow down or stop the ravaging of the economy. He, in fact, did take such decisive action and should be credited with helping right the ship, even if that had only begun under his Presidency. His active intervention in the economy often goes unnoted due to his own reticence to do the exact thing circumstances had forced him to do. Hoover was no champion of Civil Rights, though his policies were favored by some minority leaders in his own time. He held his cards close to his chest, and due to his almost paranoid nature, some of his best moments remained secret during his Presidency. He’s worth investigating further by any interested in the history of the United States. Hoover was a flawed but important President who fought against a tide of darkness greater than many others in United States history. 

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SDG.