HERBERT HOOVER: A Public Life by David Burner


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The need for a major biography of Hoover, the Great Engineer and Great Philanthropist ironically overborne by the Great Depression, is only partly met by this extensive and even-handed but unassertive and sometimes murky account of his public life. Lacking a sympathetic grasp of Hoover's character, Burner presents him as the sum of his early circumstances: Hoover grew up poor and near-parentless--hence his lifelong shyness and a need to compensate by exerting control (contrasted, in the last analysis, with FDR's aristocratic ease); his Quaker background inclined him to favor consensus (or, negatively, covert manipulation) over conflict; as an engineer, he sought scientific, rational solutions to social problems (to the neglect, during the Depression, of ""fragile morale""). Equally if not more handicapping is Burner's evident desire, in common with other historians, to clear Hoover's name and re-establish his progressive credentials--without, however, having a firm, independent conviction of Hoover's stature. He is most valuably informative on Hoover's early ""forgotten years"" as a mining supervisor in Australia and China, where he balances defense of Hoover's labor policies (as not unenlightened for their time) with a description of his emergence as the consummate technocrat-entrepreneur-statesman; and on his wartime role as the highhanded but highly effective U.S. food czar and dispenser of European relief. But thereafter, dismissing Hoover's ""progressive American individualism"" as inchoate, he loses momentum and direction; and, through Hoover's tenure as Secretary of Commerce and as President, he fails even to provide a clear, sequential narrative of events. Instead, he weighs Hoover's performance in one after another area, with the general aim of demonstrating him to be more humane (""Hoover was also a prison reformer"") and less reactionary (he was reluctant ""to grant government aid to save the banks"") than his detractors have charged. All well and good--but not as good as a solid review of the anti-Depression measures he took, and didn't take, and why.

Pub Date: Jan. 11th, 1978
Publisher: Knopf