Sunday, May 15, 2016

How "The Great Humanitarian" Herbert Hoover Failed as President

A man was quoted in my local newspaper as saying that the idea of having a businessman as president is a good idea, but it had to be the right man. The speaker added that he had lost faith in politicians.

Americans have elected a number of businessmen to the presidential office. Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the President by Charles Rappleye show how the 'wrong' businessman failed to alleviate the ills of the Depression and failure of farms during the dust bowl days.

I requested the book because I wanted to know how a great humanitarian who orchestrated massive relief efforts to Europe, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, came to be remembered as distant, uncaring, and unmoved by American's sufferings.

Rappleye's detailed study on Herbert Hoover shows how his personality, experience, and beliefs impacted and derailed his presidency.

Hoover's intractable belief in the importance of charity at home and non-government involvement in relief were based in his own life experience. He grew up in rural poverty, was orphaned as a child, lived with uncles on an Indian reservation and in a sod hut, and scrambled to get an education. He became an successful engineer. That was life as he knew it, and he expected others could do as he did. He believed 'charity at home' was essential to building American character.

Hoover's success also meant he believed anyone could do the same. "If a man has not made a fortune by 40 he is not work much," Hoover said in his thirties. (My grandfather was born to a single woman, orphaned at age nine, worked hard to get through college, and had a long and varied career. It is done. Gramps also had intelligence, an uncle who rewarded academic achievement, and an excellent high school education.)

Hoover also believed in the power of positive thinking. He wanted to keep up morale. But suffering Americans thought Hoover was out of touch. Behind the scenes, Hoover's wife Lou handled the hundreds of letters and requests for help, aiding those she could, and giving of away his presidential salary to charity.

Farmers were starving, their children did not have clothing so they could attend school. Urban unemployment in some cities soared to 40%. It was feared that "slackers" would misuse government relief. Instead of direct relief the president worked with business and labor leaders and banks, increased Federal spending, limited immigration, increased tariffs, and increased taxes to keep a balanced budget.

Hoover recalls Richard Nixon: both of Quaker parents, both thin skinned and prone to anger, both sending staff to break into political enemies offices, both disdained by the press. Hoover was a pacifist.

'Bonus Army' of unemployed WWI veterans came to Washington D.C. to demand the bonus promised. The homeless men and families were installed in empty buildings and in a camp along the Potomac. When disorder sprouted up, and reports that radicals and communists had infiltrated the camps, Hoover was convinced to give carte blanch to Army Chief of Staff MacArthur. Mac Arthur was to return them to their camps. MacArthur ignored the president's instructions and the veterans were routed out of the city by soldier using tear gas and swords. Hoover failed to repudiate MacArthur for disobedience. Hoover was vilified as cold and heartless.

This book shows how hard Hoover tried to solve the problems of the country, but also how his fatal flaw of personality left him the legacy of being an ineffectual president. He was a shy, private person who avoided eye contact and read his speeches. As the publisher's promo says, Hoover had "a first-class mind and a second-class temperament"-- the "temperament of leadership."

The idea of electing a businessman to the presidency as a response to mistrusting politicians is not a good option. History has shown that businessmen make for failed political leadership. Consider the failed presidencies of businessmen like Warren G. Harding and Jimmy Carter. In fact, according to studies and ratings NO president with a successful business background is among the top rated. The skills of business and the ability to lead in government are not the same.

Presidential success is based on empathy, persuasive eloquence, and compromise. Hoover's failure to appear empathetic and his ineffectiveness as a speaker clearly hurt him. Considering the hundreds of thousands of lives he saved after WWI and WWII organizing relief abroad I know he had empathy. What a complicated man.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Herbert Hoover in the White House
Charles Rappleye
Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 10, 2016
$32.50 hard cover
ISBN: 9781451648676
Herbert Hoover/Curtis silk campaign handkerchief. Collection of Nancy A. Bekofske