HERBERT HOOVER IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Charles Rappleye. Simon and Schuster (www.simonandschuster.com), 2016, 567 pp., $32.50. ISBN 978-1-4516-4867-6. Click here to purchase.
We recognize the U.S. president from what the biographers write: “surly, easily frustrated and sometimes vindictive,” according to one. The president “regarded enemies and often his friends with suspicion, allowed few to get close to him and proved inconsistent in his alliances,” from another.
The president would seethe with anger. He despised his own party and was even hostile to it. And it was the first elected office the man ever held.
The president was starkly Republican and despised any Democratic ideologies. He disdained, mistreated and ignored the press.
Of course, that’s President Herbert Hoover they were talking about.
In this biography of the 31st president, journalist Charles Rappleye writes that, in Hoover’s first year in office, from 1928-1929, Hoover had one ideal: get businesses to cooperate to uphold the very existence of capitalism. Rather than rely on government bailout programs in the Depression, the purview of the Democrats, in Hoover’s mind, it was critical to get businesses to work cooperatively to fight for the welfare of business itself.
According to Rappleye, Hoover was “full of contradictions” and “often obtuse.” He built a bureaucratic empire while he was secretary of commerce under President Calvin Coolidge while counseling against big government. But it was no direct government intervention that would save the day, and the world, from the crushing Great Depression, but an “ethos of community” and cooperation. After all, Hoover was an engineer by profession and would think of physical processes to bring something about.
Hoover, a geologist, yearned (and wholeheartedly believed in) promoting enterprise to save the economy in his perilous years in office. Of course, just like President Trump, when he was elected, there was fantastic optimism, and stocks skyrocketed. To Hoover’s credit, he knew it was a bubble that was going to burst, and probably badly. The public was confident in Hoover’s prior work in bailing out Europe after World War I, and that carried him in popularity, as he was recognized as the “secretary of everything” before taking office. He was aware that wild, speculative loans fueled the pre-1929 crash, with stock-market frenzy at a fever pitch. To his credit, Hoover did try to stop it and warn others of the doom, before the economic crash of October 1929, but nobody would listen.
Hell-bent on balancing the budget, believing only charities needed to intervene in the ensuing Great Depression, which he thought would be short-lived, Hoover stubbornly clung to the idea of using the gold standard for the U.S. banking system. It was a moral stance. But gradually, systemically and in the end, completely, Hoover lost the confidence of his party and the American public.
So, will history repeat itself?
Hoover’s first crash, a correction, occurred on March 25, 1929. That doesn’t look too far removed.
Hoover thought it would be a short-lived crash, like it was in 1907 and 1921, lasting only a year, when the markets quickly fixed themselves.
If it only were that simple.