[Shribman] Hoover: Trying to turn the public opinion tide on the much-maligned president

[Shribman] Hoover: Trying to turn the public opinion tide on the much-maligned president

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[Globe and Mail] One of the ironies of American civic life is that the two 20th-century presidents most severely judged by historians and commentators are perhaps the two best ex-presidents in the country’s history. Jimmy Carter has yet to be the subject of a towering biography. Kenneth Whyte has just provided that monumental volume on Herbert Hoover.

VIDEO: Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute interview with Kenneth Whyte, former editor of Alberta Report Newsmagazine and author of ‘Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times’

Hoover’s story is both triumph and tragedy. Born poor and orphaned young on a forbidding, windswept Iowa plain, Hoover ascended the commanding heights of business, performed selfless and indispensable work feeding the starving masses of Europe, was the longest serving (and, for his time, pioneering) secretary of commerce, was elected president of the United States – but, luckless like Carter, occupied the White House when the Western economy collapsed.

He’s been blamed for that ever since – pilloried by Republicans, Democrats, some historians, some economists – and serves as the unfortunate poster boy for presidential incompetence. In truth – and Whyte piles fact upon fact to create a new truth about the 31st president – Hoover was the victim of an economic chain-reaction that no American chief executive could have forestalled and then reacted stoically but not imaginatively to the crisis. His crime was that the stoicism didn’t fit the nature of the human crisis and that his imagination wasn’t imaginative enough – two deficiencies that his successor and bitter rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rectified with dispatch.

One of the mysteries of Hoover’s native Iowa is the origin of the name of a small Iowa coal town called What Cheer, about an hour southwest of West Branch, where the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum sits today and where Whyte, the onetime editor of Maclean’s and president of Rogers Publishing, did much of his research. Hoover could have used some of the surpassing good cheer Roosevelt brought to the White House.

But good cheer was not part of the Hoover personality portfolio, as Whyte argues repeatedly, and convincingly. Page after page, episode after episode, Whyte shows us a man of impatience, insensitivity and impolitic behaviour, though balanced with great confidence and competence. Whyte rightfully credits his subject with adumbrating the New Deal with some of his measures to fight the Great Depression and, once established as a tireless opponent of the New Deal itself, with establishing the creed of modern American conservatism. These are not the standard popular interpretations, though they are not thoroughly unknown among professional historians and Whyte’s volume will go a long way toward producing a more rounded view of Hoover in the general population, both in the United States and Canada.

Whyte describes his subject as “allergic to introspection” though, he argues, Hoover may have saved as many as 100 million lives – “a record of benevolence unlike anything in human history.” This humanitarian work occurred during the First World War and continued, with interruptions for government service, through the aftermath of the Second World War. As a coda, Hoover headed two monumental efforts to [amazon text=Amazon&asin=0307597962]reorganize the American government as the United States moved from the fringes of world power to the very centre of world affairs.

Over all, the Hoover story – and the Whyte book – is a distinctly American tale: persistence, ambition, grand plans (all covered with a shellac wash of overweening pride and overwhelming arrogance), played out over five continents and marked by three economic crises. The result is an astonishing alchemy of soaring achievement and deep disappointment. Hoover may have rescued the despondent from doom in Belgium but is remembered primarily – and, Whyte argues implicitly, unfairly – as the heartless ideologue who, variously, caused or failed to ameliorate the Great Depression in his own land.

This article continues at [Globe and Mail] Review: Kenneth Whyte’s Hoover is a monumental work

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