Author: Herbert Hoover a memorable scapegoat

By: TOM JOZWIK Special To TimeOut 

Feb. 9, 2017

Historian Glen Jeansonne goes beyond the presidency in “Herbert Hoover: A Life.”

Those who regard Herbert Clark Hoover as little more than a failed U.S. president know very little about Hoover.

In “Herbert Hoover: A Life,” ballyhooed by Penguin Random House publicists as “the only comprehensive biography ever written” about the Iowa native who occupied the White House from 1929-33, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee emeritus history professor Glen Jeansonne labels the life of America’s 31st chief executive “one of undeniable accomplishment and indefatigable industriousness.” Hoover was an extraordinarily successful mining engineer who became, in turn, head of the U.S. Food Administration and - according to Jeansonne’s new book - perhaps the greatest secretary of Commerce America has had.

Hoover “fed all of Europe, starting with Belgium, during and after World War I,” Jeansonne told Conley Media recently. “He saved

80 million from starvation.”

Jeansonne said he finds Hoover’s “versatility and sharpness of mind” evocative of another  accomplished American: Benjamin Franklin.

A 70-year-old Louisiana native and Glendale resident, Jeansonne responded via telephone to a reporter’s questions. An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Q: You say in your book that “Hoover placed principle above his own political expediency” and “persistently condemned policies, not people.” He was, however, a loyal Republican. Would he have supported Donald Trump for president?

A: I think it would have been a very difficult decision for him. In a lot of ways (Hoover) was the opposite of Donald Trump. Hoover’s speeches weren’t bombastic. He never denigrated the opposition. Hoover never criticized the media - and, because of the Depression, he got a lot worse press than Trump did. He was self-deprecating and unselfish.

A lot of Hoover’s personality can be attributed to his Quaker background - honest and quiet, and (Quakers) work hard to learn not to boast, to respect others, they’re all for equality. He won the black vote not only in 1928 but in ‘32. He had a lot of respect for other people.

He once said, when he was going to the polls, that any time a man has served as president under the rubric of a political party he can never vote against that party. So I think he would’ve voted for Trump.

Q: Although you acknowledge that Hoover was a disappointment as president at the onset of the Great Depression (1929-33), do you think any other politician could’ve done better?

A: No, no I don’t. I think it’s unrealistic to believe a president can either cause or end a Depression. The chief factor is, the Depression was worldwide. None of (the foreign leaders) ended the Depression. (Hoover successor Franklin) Roosevelt didn’t end it. It took World War II to end the Depression.

We (historians) tend to blame (incumbents) for anything bad that happens while they’re president and give them credit for everything good. Lincoln and (the Union’s) winning the Civil War is an example; so is FDR, who did virtually nothing to help win (World War II). Any president elected in ‘28 would’ve been defeated in ‘32. Hoover was a scapegoat for partisan reasons. Roosevelt ran against him (castigating Hoover’s administration, regardless of the actual Republican candidate) four times. Will Rogers told the story of a man who bit into an apple, found a worm and exclaimed, ‘Damn Hoover!’

Q: Would you share a little information about Hoover the man, as opposed to Hoover the political figure?

A: Hoover wrote 33 books, a greater legacy than any other president save Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote one more. Hoover wrote a book on fishing and a book about children. He was extremely close to his own (two) sons and had this special connection with children. He would try to answer letters they wrote him. Regarding his saving millions from famine in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Hoover said, “I detest communism, but I detest children starving more.”

Fishing and reading were favorite hobbies for Hoover; he read two hours each day for pleasure. Hoover was a great storyteller and he had a very good sense of humor, which came through in his speeches after his presidency. He had the most organized mind of any (subject) I ever worked on. He was a great philosopher and a great human being.

Q: You contend that his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, is underrated among first ladies. How so?

A: She was one of the most accomplished first ladies - a lot more than Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first woman at Stanford (where her future husband also studied), and the fourth in the United States, to get a degree in geological engineering. The Hoovers traveled the world over and (Lou) was fluent in five foreign languages, including Chinese. She was a gifted writer and made hundreds of speeches, which she wrote herself (a practice also employed by Herbert, who additionally wrote his own legislation).

Like her husband, Lou Hoover was very modest. She didn’t try to dominate conversations (as a hostess). She was very good at going around and drawing out people. And she was a beautiful woman, the only woman in Hoover’s life although he outlived her by 20 years. She was not only a helpmate; she was very brilliant in her own right.

Q: If you could make Herbert Hoover magically appear just long enough to ask him a single question, what would that question be?

A: I think I would ask him if, in old age (Hoover lived to be 90), he ever thought he made a mistake by going into politics.

“Herbert Hoover: A Life” and previous books by Jeansonne can be purchased through the website