His story puts those of Horatio Alger to shame. The poor orphan from Iowa worked his way through Stanford, made a fortune as a mining engineer, and saved Europe from famine. He succeeded at everything he touched — until he reached the presidency. How galling, then, for Herbert Hoover to watch the shallow patrician who succeeded him become the office’s Paganini, a virtuoso who, whatever the defects of his policies, handled the office with a sureness of touch few have equaled.
Charles Rappleye’s absorbing book is an account of both Hoover’s fall and Roosevelt’s rise. If it yields a moral, it is that conventional notions of what makes for success in life have only a slender application to the modern presidency. Hoover in his pre-presidential career did everything right. He was a hard and meticulous worker, a serious, thoughtful man who made a close study of the various policy prescriptions of his day. He had a broad experience of life and knew the world of capital, business, markets, and banks as well as any public man of the time. Having spent much of his career abroad, negotiating mining concessions in foreign capitals, he was at home in the world of diplomacy and international relations.
Franklin Roosevelt, when the book opens, is much the slighter character; in a Victorian novel he would be the spoiled aristocrat. The little prince of Hyde Park, the cosseted only child of a doting mother, breezed through Groton and Harvard, where he exhibited a graceful vapidity that earned him the nickname “Feather Duster.” He ascended the political ladder with little more than a handsome face and a famous name to his credit, and as he approached 50 was largely innocent of conspicuous accomplishment. (The more harrowing aspects of his struggle with polio were not then so well known; Roosevelt could not draw attention to this feat of character without raising questions about the extent of his incapacity and his fitness for office.)
By any objective test, Hoover was the superior fellow. But the modern presidency has its own standards. Gibbon could congratulate a thoughtful statesman for reaping “the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration.” But high intellectual attainments, careful preparation, and mastery of the technical aspects of policy are more likely to hinder than help a modern president. Roosevelt was cavalier to the point of recklessness where policy was concerned, but this lightheartedness served only to underscore the depth of his faith in his star. The ordained and anointed one need not sweat the details. “Where Hoover took pride in writing his own speeches,” Rappleye writes,
Roosevelt did not bother even to attempt authorship. The one time he did pen his own lines during the campaign, his wife and advisers found the product tedious and Roosevelt blithely discarded his draft. Instead he relied on a variety of speechwriters who disagreed among themselves over basic policy. Untroubled by the hobgoblin of consistency, Roosevelt read the lines as they came. Thus he might call for balanced budgets on one night, and major new spending programs a week later.
The key word is “blithely.” Roosevelt’s blitheness was the outward manifestation of that most important attribute of a successful modern president, a deep, almost fanatical, self-confidence. So extravagant a faith in oneself is exceedingly rare, but it lifts those who possess it above the worries and despairs that bedevil lesser mortals, the anguish that saps the will. It makes for strength, and people respond to it.
Hoover had not enough of this self-idolatry to carry him through the presidency. He worried. He was nervous. He brooded. He second-guessed himself, and suffered, Walter Lippmann wrote, from “a strange weakness which renders him indecisive at the point where the battle can be won or lost.” He grew isolated and bitter, and made elementary mistakes. When the Bonus Army came to Washington he at first resisted calls to disperse the veterans by force of arms. Then he changed his mind and sent in General MacArthur. Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, a staff officer at the time, instantly perceived the blunder, as did Roosevelt, who expressed his “frank amazement” at Hoover’s decision to set “Doug MacArthur on those poor harmless vets.”
Hoover’s defense of Prohibition was another folly. By 1932, the temperance wave had crested; the country wanted a drink. “Hoover recognized the situation,” Rappleye writes. “The country was swinging hard and fast, from dry to wet. Prohibition, a controversial law that banned a practice Hoover personally enjoyed, was doomed, as were the prospects of any politician who clung to it.” Hoover brooded, and somehow talked himself into standing with the dwindling dries, leaving Roosevelt to go into the general election campaigning on a platform of beer and economic recovery. He carried 42 states; Hoover carried six.
“We are all worms,” Churchill said, “but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.” The Kennedys used the word “it” to describe the elusive glow-worm qualities of leadership, and were probably right in believing them to be innate — either you had “it” or you didn’t. Max Weber pretended to illuminate the mystery with the pseudo-technical term “charisma,” but whatever the outward attributes of this sort of star power, they are nothing unless animated by the leader’s unreasonable faith in himself. We are here in a very primitive place, the realm of the witch doctor and the medicine man; only a kind of magical thinking can sustain the inordinate self-confidence that is the source of a great leader’s appeal. Were he to view his claims to supremacy in the cold light of reason, experience, and probability, he could not help but think them a little pathological, certainly not quite sane; he would find himself in the position of Antony when the god abandons him.
By the end of Rappleye’s book, Bert Hoover is Antony: His mojo is gone. Many even of his supporters have given up on him. Why could he not overcome his shyness and reserve and speak candidly to the nation? Hoover’s preferred method of communication was the pedantic policy sermon, delivered, writes Rappleye, in “a flat, metallic monotone”; he had no ability, Kansas newspaperman William Allen White wrote, to “stir people emotionally.” Accustomed to figures on the hustings who profess to feel our pain, we might be inclined to forgive Hoover for disdaining the role of presidential empath. “This is not a showman’s job,” he said. But he was being disingenuous. He defended his reticence as a way of upholding presidential dignity — he would not demean the office. In fact he lacked the high confidence in himself that allowed Roosevelt and Reagan to perform easily and naturally on the public stage.
Hoover was a good man and in some respects a brilliant one, but the verdict of Democratic operative Charley Michelson is probably right: “A man sat in the president’s chair who didn’t fit.” It would perhaps be some consolation to his shade if his economic policies were regarded in hindsight as technically correct, however poorly marketed. The current orthodoxy, which descends from Milton Friedman, holds that the best way to respond to a crash is to increase the money supply. “I agree with Milton Friedman,” F. A. Hayek said in a discussion of the Depression, “that once the Crash had occurred, the Federal Reserve System pursued a silly deflationary policy. I am not only against inflation but I am also against deflation. So, once again, a badly programmed monetary policy prolonged the Depression.”
Hoover, Rappleye writes, “recognized the ravages of deflation” and “managed to craft, with Carter Glass, new reserve requirements for the Federal Reserve that would make room for monetary easing.” But the policy soon pushed “the limits of the gold standard,” which Hoover refused to sacrifice, and the problem went unsolved. Of course, Franklin didn’t get the policy right either — and he got away with it. But that is another story.
– Mr. Beran, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.