A biography of Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) meant “to spring [him] from the Depression and present him in another context, that of his full life.”
Hoover was president for four unhappy years but was an extraordinary figure for more than 70. In this fat, intensely researched, mostly admiring biography, National Post founding editor Whyte (The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst, 2009) makes a convincing case for his rehabilitation and succeeds in providing “a faithful portrait of the man in his times.” After graduating from Stanford, he won rapid promotion and wealth managing mines in Australia and China with brilliant if ruthless efficiency and then resigned to prosper as an independent consultant. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1914, it was obvious that the Belgians, conquered by Germany, were starving. In one of the greatest individual humanitarian acts in history, Hoover created an immense, successful food relief effort that required prodigious diplomatic, financial, and organizational skills. It also made him world famous. Appointed secretary of commerce, he was the most dynamic government figure of the 1920s and easily won the presidency in 1928. Everyone knows what happened then. Whyte dismisses the traditional view that Hoover failed to address the Depression. He expanded public works and backed programs such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, later taken up by the New Deal. Sadly, he opposed direct government relief, insisting that states and philanthropies could handle it. A lack of charisma and dour personality gave him an undeserved reputation for heartlessness. He took defeat in 1932 bitterly and hated the New Deal. Whyte concludes that Hoover’s vision of a “bottom-up America rooted in individual freedom, public service, and strong self-sufficient communities, encouraged by a limited federal government, seemed by his death a relic of another era,” yet it has come back into fashion.
A thoughtful resurrection of a brilliant man who, aside from the Founding Fathers, did more good before taking office than any other president in American history.