George, You Were No Herbert Hoover

Elvis Presley fan Lori Vigil, of Denver, poses in an Elvis costume as she attends festivities commemorating Presley's 75th birthday on Friday, Jan. 8, 2010 in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
This column was written by William E. Leuchtenburg.

At various points throughout his administration, George W. Bush has been likened to Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, to Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley. But during his second term, a consensus has been forming on the president he most brings to mind. As early as the fall of 2006, historian Douglas Brinkley wrote that Bush "has joined [Herbert] Hoover as a case study on how not to be president," and the comparison has only become more commonplace since then. A television ad sponsored by MoveOn.org asserted, "George Bush is going to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to lead an economy that loses jobs," and Senator Charles Schumer of New York declared, "The president's hands-off attitude is reminiscent of Herbert Hoover in 1929 and 1930."

Not until the credit meltdown of the past few weeks raised new doubts about Republican policies, however, did the analogy reach its current pitch of intensity. On ABC's This Week, Cokie Roberts remarked, "Whenever Republicans get into this kind of mess ... the specter of Herbert Hoover comes out to haunt them." During the debate on the bailout, conservative Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, after saying that "this bill offends my principles," announced he was going to vote for it. "This is a Herbert Hoover moment," he explained. "He made some big mistakes in the Great Depression, and we have lived with those consequences for decades. Let's not make that mistake."

But these statements about Hoover provide a grossly distorted view of history. In contrast to George W. Bush, who, as the Yale historian Beverly Gage has said, "stood by and didn't forge a clear direction" as the housing market collapsed around him, President Hoover moved in unprecedented ways to cope with economic calamity. Two days after entering the White House in March 1929, Hoover, who for years had been warning about "the fever of speculation," exhorted Federal Reserve officials to rein in brokers and investment bankers. Following the Black Monday stock market crash that October, he summoned leaders of industry and finance to the White House, where he implored them to maintain wage rates; he urged Congress and state and local governments to accelerate public works spending; he prodded the Federal Reserve Board to expand credit; and he encouraged a newly created Federal Farm Board to bolster crop prices.

Hoover also took pains to assure the nation that "the fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis." In recent days, Bush has echoed these words--as any president seeking to sustain public confidence should. But there is a difference. Hoover spoke less than a year after his landslide victory, near the peak of his prestige. People listened. Bush has been speaking in the waning days of his presidency, and his approval ratings are abysmal. Few heed.

The Depression entered a second phase in the spring of 1931 when the collapse of Austria's foremost bank, Kreditanstalt, sent shock waves through Europe, and, once again, Hoover took command. Alarmed that extremists might seize power in Germany, he hazarded bold initiatives: a moratorium on World War I debts payment and approval of the charter of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an unparalleled intervention into the market by the federal government in peacetime. To supplement the RFC, he advocated legislation to undergird mortgages and to liberalize requirements for the issue of Federal Reserve notes. Today these measures seem modest, but, at the time, Business Week called the law to ease credit "perhaps the most powerful dose of monetary medicine that has ever been applied to the strengthening of the banking system in a similar period."

So conspicuous was the activism of a man reputed to be a do-nothing president that some historians perceive Hoover to be the progenitor of the New Deal. But that view is absurd. Even during the first two phases of the Depression, Hoover exhibited an almost pathological fear of granting federal relief to the impoverished. By the time the Depression had entered its third phase--the banking crisis of his last weeks in office--he had become a prisoner of economic orthodoxy, obsessed with balancing the budget.

Indeed, Hoover does resemble Bush in a number of regrettable ways. He was stubborn and often myopic. He rejected counsel that did not accord with his misconceptions, and he deceived himself that conditions were far better than they were. He agreed to a massive federal program only after a long period of resistance, and he appointed men to administer it who had small sympathy for government intrusion into the private sector. He favored aid to financial institutions, but not to the victims of hard times. He was nonplused about how to stanch the hemorrhaging when the financial illness became an epidemic. Furthermore, he failed to inspirit the nation. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, said, "If you put a rose in Hoover's hand, it would wilt." Even revisionist historians who view Hoover kindly concede that his was a failed presidency.

Still, it's unfortunate that commentators and politicians are employing "Hoover" as an epithet for inaction. His White House tribulations consumed only four of more than 90 years studded with extraordinary achievements--as Great Engineer, as World War I Food Czar, and, above all, as Great Humanitarian. During the Great War, Hoover heroically crossed mine-strewn waters from Britain to the Continent on errands of mercy countless times. While Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s, he sped relief to famine sufferers in Soviet Russia despite his loathing of bolshevism. "In the past year," Maxim Gorki wrote him, "you have saved from death three and one-half million children, five and one-half million adults."

Far from being a right-wing zealot, Hoover won the admiration of progressives for his advanced views. In the Wilson era, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called him "the biggest figure injected into Washington by the war," and John Maynard Keynes, reflecting on the Versailles conference, concluded that Hoover was "the only man who emerged from the ordeal of Paris with an enhanced reputation." As the 1920 election approached, Franklin D. Roosevelt said of him, "He is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There would not be a better one."

For a long time after his defeat at the hands of FDR in 1932, Hoover was a pariah, scourged for his behavior in the Great Depression and for the mindless reactionary harangues he delivered as ex-president, but, as his life neared an end, the country came to look at him more charitably. On his 90th birthday, 16 states proclaimed "Herbert Hoover Day." Hoover, an associate reminded the press soon afterward, had "fed more people and saved more lives than any other man in history."

No matter how far into the future we may peer, it's difficult to imagine that there is ever going to be a George W. Bush Day. More likely, posterity will say, "George, you were no Herbert Hoover."
By William E. Leuchtenburg
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic