Saturday, August 6, 2011


Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (Signature)A week or so ago I finished reading Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. After learning more about Hoover, I found myself thinking that if the birth and death dates were just a little bit different, Barack Obama would have me believing in reincarnation. It would be such a handy explanation. Unfortunately, President Obama was born over 3 years before President Hoover died, so it's just coincidence they have so much in common.

Some of the similarities are obvious, although ideologically Hoover was a lot farther to the left than Obama. Hoover, for example, thought inherited wealth posed a major threat to the well-being of the country and pushed for high inheritance taxes to help break up great fortunes. He was against tax cuts for millionaires and pushed for lower taxes for workers on the low end of the economic scale. He supported unions -- he had the entire press run of a Republican publication destroyed when he learned it was printed in a nonunion shop -- and agreed with the concept of a minimum wage. He had an extremely dim view of banks and bankers, and was constantly battling Wall Street. He was a pacifist and not overly fond of the military -- one of his goals following World War I was arms reduction. He was, in short, an old-fashioned progressive Republican back when the Republicans were still sane.  If that was the aspect of Hoover that Obama was channeling, I think I'd be happy.

Unfortunately, Obama seems to have decided some of Hoover's other attributes are the ones to emulate. Hoover was a great believer in cooperation, especially after the great success he'd had with relief efforts in Belgium during World War I and in Europe overall immediately after the war. He truly believed that if you appealed to people's better natures, they'd come through. Businessmen would do the right thing because it was the right thing and not because they were forced to through regulation. As the Depression worsened and banks began to fail, Hoover resisted government intervention and instead appealed to the business community to think of the greater good of the country. The country was circling the drain, and Hoover was hesitant to take any direct federal action. Shades of Obama trying to be reasonable and craft a bipartisan agreement on the budget, the debt ceiling, and everything else.

The end result, of course, is that by the time Hoover left office he was thoroughly reviled. He'd been elected as a hero but went home to California 4 years later with his reputation in shreds. He'd had good intentions, he wanted to do the right thing, but most of his efforts can be summed up simply as "Too little, too late." Sound familiar?

I did find myself wondering if the similarities in their backgrounds had anything to do with similarities in their political style. Although Hoover did know both his parents, he was orphaned young -- his father died when Hoover was 6, and his mother passed away barely 3 years later, leaving Hoover totally dependent on the goodwill of various relatives. Obama didn't know his father, and his mother was absent for long periods of time in his youth. Like Hoover, Obama was dependent on the goodwill of relatives. If you spend your formative years feeling like you've got to keep everyone around you happy, maybe, just maybe, you're going to grow up to be someone with the negotiating skills of a marshmallow.

Incidentally, one thing that's always puzzled me about the Hoover administration was the debacle with the "bonus army." The US army commander, Douglas MacArthur, had been ordered not to march on the encampment. He did anyway, in direct violation of his orders, and Hoover failed to reprimand him. It left many people with the impression that Hoover had approved the brutal attack that left hundreds of civilians injured. End result, of course, is that over time it's Hoover's name that's become irrevocably linked with the mess, not MacArthur's. The book, unfortunately, didn't devote much page space to it -- I had to turn to Wikipedia for enough background to understand just what the issue was that caused the bonus army to assemble in Washington to begin with. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life provides a lot of detail about Hoover's life right up to the Presidency but then turns remarkably thin. Very strange, considering that one would think that the Presidency was the most important part of Hoover's career and it's Hoover's actions (or inactions) as President that are remembered today.  


  1. In this time of instant news and fast made decisions, Obama must realize he's heading to the history books as a one term president. Of course there may be a few rabbets remaining in his magic hat, but that seems unlikely.

    FDR thought General MacArthur was a dangerous person (to America), especially as a right wing political entity as well as a well-connected prima donna. FDR relied on the axiom, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

    MacAuthur's inaction in the hours following Pearl Harbor should have led to his immediate dismissal. The fact that he was paid a king's salary while in the Philippines also says something of his motives.

    During the Korean War his paternal stereotyping of Asians - leading to misinformation sent to D.C. and to his overall poor mismanagement of the war gave Truman a list of reasons for firing MacArthur.
    ... and it more or less began with his actions against the Bonus Army.

    Two books that may be of interest: "FDR" by Jean Edward Smith and "The Coldest Winter" by David Halberstam.

  2. He was, in short, an old-fashioned progressive Republican back when the Republicans were still sane.

    Nothing is sane anymore, including us.

    Obama must realize he's heading to the history books as a one term president.

    Maybe, but we're going to hate the next presnut even more, mark my words on that.

  3. That is interesting: how both men were raised. There might be a connection with Obama's desire to placate Republicans. We are a combination of nurture, nature and experience that effects how we see and deal with the world.

    I will vote for Obama again because the alternative is unacceptable - I am glad there is a African American family in the White house - it finally speaks well for the country...though I would love to see him step aside for Hillary - she could deal with Republicans.

  4. The presidency? Who's your daddy? Or so it seems. Voters have been chasing style and generalities instead of substance for quite some time.

    Republicans get "tough on crime", point fingers at welfare mothers, besmirch the opposition (a la the swift boats) and thoroughly muddy the picture with subjective issues - abortion, same sex marriage, etc.. In a nutshell, they prey on fears and want things to remain the same.

    Democrats are either vague or too technical. They can be all serious with pie charts explaining the economy or they try to sell the idea of change and better days. A charismatic Democrat is difficult to beat.

    When there's disappointment - and that will always happen - unless the president has a well-oiled machine behind him (Reagan, Bush for example) then he's in trouble.

    Jimmy Carter didn't have a well-oiled machine and neither does Obama. Clinton didn't have a top-model machine behind him but he was charismatic.

    The current Dem Machine is an old sedan with an AM radio and three flat tires. It's something resembling a clown car.

  5. It's something resembling a clown car.

    A very big clown car.

  6. Interesting to read some good things about Hoover. Thank you.


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