De-bunking the Hoover Myth — From the Left

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In a review of William E. Leuchtenburg‘s new biography of Herbert Hoover , Roger Lowenstein of Portfolio unwittingly punctures the myth that Hoover was an apostle of the free market and “limited” government.

The figure who emerges from Leuchtenburg’s brief but boldly sketched biography (published as part of the American Presidents Series begun by the late Kennedy hagiographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) is a career autocrat with a strong authoritarian streak and a “Progressive’s” bigoted contempt for market forces.

As most students of the period recall, Hoover’s first experience in the criminal racket called “public service” came as Woodrow Wilson’s “food czar” in World War I, in which role he dictated flour rations to bakers and hectored the public about economizing at the dinner table. After the war, he gained an unearned reputation as “the Great Humanitarian” for supervising the distribution of government-provided food aid to various European countries.During his term as Commerce Secretary in the 1920s, Hoover took what was a small and vulnerable department and built it into a formidable appendage of the Leviathan state. “Governing by fiat, he imposed his will on virtually every nook and cranny of American industry,” writes Lowenstein, summarizing Leuchtenberg’s portrayal. “Without clear legal authority, he commanded firms to reduce their varieties of products from bedsprings to milk bottles.”

Rigid centralization was the hallmark of Hoover’s approach to administration, explains Lowenstein, who describes him as “inflexible and autocratic.” As president, he treated Congress with regal contempt. And, far from eschewing an “activist” approach to the Depression, Hoover “intervened in the economy more than any prior chief executive had, though it was mainly to provide loans to banks and corporations.”

That is to say, Hoover initially followed the same approach to his Depression that both Bush the Dimmer and Obama the Blessed have taken to the present one: Make a list of powerful, failing institutions and feed them money in any amount they request.

1:49 pm on March 13, 2009