Thursday, July 7, 2016

Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye - Book Review

Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye (Simon and Schuster, 2016, 576 pages, $32.50/16.99) details the period (1928 – 1932) during which Herbert Hoover was running for the Presidency or serving in the White House as America journeyed from the prosperity developing in the aftermath of the first world war to the Great Depression, which Hoover fought vainly to overcome, and which ushered in the liberalism that emerged under Franklin D. Roosevelt to dominate the country for a half century. He casts what can only be seen as the disaster of the Hoover presidency as an outgrowth of his personality, forged in childhood poverty and abandonment. As a child of second half of the twentieth century, raised as a New Deal Liberal, I had long dismissed the story of the president who seemingly destroyed our economy which was saved by FDR. I knew, however, that this wasn't the whole story, which had to be more nuanced and complex. My reading of this detailed, extensively sourced, biography helped turn a cardboard cutout into a real, troubled human being, while confirming lots of conventional wisdom that had influenced by own development. Hoover's life and the course of his development, also mirrored in some eerie ways, elements we see today in our current politics.

Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first president of the United States, was born in 1874 in rural Iowa to a Quaker family. His father died when he was young followed several years later by his mother. He was shuffled between relatives for most of his early years, eventually landing in Oregon, where he lived with an uncle. He early learned values of hard work, dealing with privation, along with Quaker practices and values. He grew up in a frugal environment, but not deeply deprived. Rappleye claims that his early trauma and loneliness were key developmental factors in the ways he later conducted himself as president. After graduating from Stanford University, in its first class, Hoover undertook a career as a mining engineer, leading to establishing sufficient financial means to enter government service, first overseeing wartime efforts for relief in Europe and then assuming the role of Secretary of Commerce under two presidents. By the time the 1928 election rolled around, he was popular choice as the Republican candidate, winning handily without campaigning.

During his campaign and after his election, Hoover had demonstrated a marked reluctance to work closely with Congress or to be forthcoming with the press. Soon after his election, a prickly level of resistance began to emerge in his unwillingness to work, even with members of his own party, or to discuss publicly matters of policy with members of the press. Both of these propensities began quickly to erode both his effectiveness and his popularity. When, within months of his inauguration, the economy began to collapse and banks to fail, Hoover reacted slowly to support the banks or, as the depression deepened, to provide financial and food relief to failing farmers and unemployed factory workers.. Often, when presented with evidence of the hardship that first farmers and later urban people suffered, he often de-emphasized or belittled the complaints. In other words, his relations with Congress, with the Press, and with the public became increasingly embattled as his term progressed. He responded by relying upon an increasingly small and homogeneous group of advisers. Hoover responded by working harder, seeking some approach that would work, while relying on an increasingly small coterie of advisers. Once having reached a decision, he would become stubbornly attached to the outcomes.

After Herbert Hoover was resoundingly defeated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he left public office for a period of recuperation from years of stress. Later he returned to the public eye as an opposition critic of Democratic policy. After WW II, President Truman appointed him to a commission tasked with re-organizing the Executive. He was a lifelong anti-communist. He died in 1964, deeply respected despite his failure as president. This deeply researched biography, which concentrates on Hoover's conducting of himself, his legislative program, his hard work, and futile political efforts explores new ground and throws light on an important era in which America responded slowly and with little early effect when facing the biggest economic crisis in our history up to that time. It is a thorough, readable piece of work.

Charles Rappleye

Charles Rappleye is an award-winning investigative journalist and editor. He has written extensively on media, law enforcement, and organized crime. The author of Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution; Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution; and Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, he lives in Los Angeles.

Charles Rappleye has written a thoughtful and intriguing portrait Herbert Hoover, a much maligned, but little known beyond his record regarding seeking vainly to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. The book is comprehensive within the limits defined by the author. The four years Herbert Hoover spent in the White House are exhaustively detailed and carefully balanced, often relying on heretofore unavailable materials. Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye (Simon and Schuster, 2016, 576 pages, $32l50/16.99) is well worth reading as it describes with great care efforts Hoover made and his inability to grasp the reins of government with enough vigor to have a positive effect. I read Hoover in the White House as an electronic galley provided me by the publisher through Edelweiss Above the Tree Line on my Kindle app.