Inspired by Robert Caro’s nonpareil biography of Lyndon Johnson, I have been reading biographies of US presidents as the occasion permits. Shortly after I decided to do that I chanced up Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Reading those three volumes confirmed me in the enterprise, though one volume works suffice. I have since read Willard Randall, George Washington; David McCulloch, John Adams; Walter Borneman, James Polk; and Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower.
I noticed a review of a recent book about Herbert Hoover and since it was current and available I decided it would be the Hoover biography: Gary Dean BEST, The Life of Herbert Hoover, Keeper of the Torch, 1933-1964. It covers his post-presidential years, as part of multi-volume biography, where each volume is by a different writer. Despite the title there is much reference to Hoover as president.
From the 550 pages of this book I conclude that Hoover had enormous energy and vitality and remained intellectually and political active into his 80s. He outlived many of his enemies, and all of his friends. That he was something of an intellectual, rather like T. R. Roosevelt. Hoover read a lot of books and wrote a few. He took care to do research for his many speeches and often packed them with facts and figures.
He also had a set of consistent beliefs about personal liberty that he often articulated and which informed much of this thought, action, and speech. It seems also that for all his public speaking, he was not easy with company, especially the hordes one meets at a convention. He often came, saw, spoke, and left by the side door.
In this period it was common for speeches to be reported nearly verbatim in newspapers, and often printed and distributed. They were also excerpted in newsreels shown in theatres. There was a constant demand for Hoover to speak and he did, except for the first year after leaving the White House, defeated by Franklin Roosevelt at the polls. The demand for Hoover to speak suggests that he struck a cord, as did the favorable press comment, and the audience reaction in theatres. It is too bad newsreels are gone from the silver screen because audience reactions in the darkened theatre was always uninhibited, as I recall.
I have no doubt that Herbert Hoover did much good in his life and that the reputation of his presidency has suffered in the shade cast by FDR. Having said that, in the period described in this book, Hoover appears all too often to be thin-skinned, pompous, and scheming. That he should appear thus in these pages is all the more surprising given that the author verges on hagiography in his adulation of every word, deed, and gesture Hoover made. The author is completely one-eyed. On that more at the end.
Hoover wanted to be president again, and like a lot of people who have wanted that job, he did not want to run for it, he just wanted it handed to him. So he made himself available for the Republican nomination in 1936 and again in 1940, and he opposed and undermined alternative candidates right up until the last minute. He offered mere lip-service support to the Republican nominees who emerged, Alf Landon and Wendell Wilkie, respectively. Yet he constantly felt they should pay obeisance to him, and when they did not, he withdrew further.
He spend thirty years vindicating his administration in those speeches with a mixtures of facts and figures that often made sense to him alone. He regarded every criticism of his administration as a personal slight, a smear. The author uses that word ‘smear‘ repeatedly for every objection or criticism levelled at any of Hoover's many interjections into political life.
Hoover wanted to contribute, as World War II drew nearer, but only on his terms and in his way, and only if begged to do so. To that end he proposed some crazy ideas about food relief, and anyone who suggested his plan was not feasible or would, as it obviously would have, aided the German war effort is said, by the author, to have smeared Hoover.
Harry Truman tried to put Hoover to work and Hoover chaired several commission to streamline the Federal government. Well Truman thought the purpose was to streamline it but Hoover’s declared aim was to wind back Roosevelt’s New Deal, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, twenty years later. Despite Truman’s several efforts to flatter Hoover, it was never enough, and Hoover reveled in Joe McCarthy’s red baiting with nary a thought to conscience or consequence to judge by this book.
Even Eisenhower’s victory in 1952 left Hoover cold. Ike had other things on his mind and did not bow to Hoover, and so Hoover had few good words to say for him. I am afraid for most of the time in the period this book covers Hoover thought it was all about him. Petulant, one might say, for thirty years.
I have made several allusions to the book itself. There is no distance between the author and Hoover. If Hoover says black, then black it is. Assertions of fact are taken solely from Hoover, more than once. The book is packed with lengthy quotations from Hoover’s speeches and letters and these are transmitted without qualm or qualification and taken as read. Perhaps one page in four is such a direct quotation. The author seldom draws a conclusion from these long passages, but rather just lets them hang, often at the end of a paragraph. It becomes very tempting just to skip them since the author is not making any declared point with them.
For good or ill this is my Hoover biography.
Having acquired a taste for presidential libraries last year, I knew there was Hoover library and I just assumed that it was in Palo Alto where he lived most of his life. But one valuable fact I got from this book is that the Hoover Library, which Truman, demonstrating a magnanimity that Hoover never had, helped him achieve, is in West Branch, Iowa on I-80, which is where Hoover was born. It is a four-hour drive from Omaha through Des Moines, and I hope to visit it someday soon. It is near Amana.