Is the Federal Reserve a philosopher king or servant of the treasury?
Imagine a highly successful businessman choosing the presidency of the United States for his first political race. Running as an outsider, he campaigned like no other, defeated the politicians, and won the office. As President-elect, he held court in a suite of rooms at a fancy hotel, vetting prospective cabinet members. He had his own policy ideas, such as sharply curtailing immigration as a threat to American jobs.
Donald Trump? No, Herbert Hoover, as described by Charles Rappleye in his new book, Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency.
History has been simplistic and unkind toward President Hoover. Seemingly all we need to know is that he presided unsuccessfully over the Great Depression. Hoover himself has said he was “the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him.” Rappleye, a Los Angeles journalist who has written histories of several figures from the American Revolutionary period, has done Hoover and us a favor by delving deeper into the complexities of the Hoover presidency. Our 31st President did far more than we knew, though it still wasn’t enough. Franklin Roosevelt, after thwarting Hoover’s reelection in 1932, also did a lot about the Great Depression, making sure we knew all about his efforts, and still didn’t beat it back. Escape from the Depression and unemployment occurred only during the industrialized efforts of World War II.
In a nutshell that is Rappleye’s take on Herbert Hoover: a capable and resourceful leader who undertook reasonable policy approaches to an economic crisis, but a political novice whose personality was unsuited to democratic politics and the modern presidency. He worked too modestly and in secret. His disposition was dour and his speeches failed to connect. Unlike the politically gifted FDR, who comforted millions with his fireside radio chats, or Bill Clinton who could “feel your pain,” Hoover’s speeches were technical lectures about economics, delivered with his chin on his chest, deep into his notes. According to Rappleye, Hoover’s failures emanated from his lack of political and communication skills more than his policies.
In this respect, Rappleye seems to be caught up in a bit of presentism, that is, applying modern standards to figures of history. Compared to his predecessor, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, Hoover was a ball of fire. Radio was only a newly emerging medium in Hoover’s day and Roosevelt began to use it as a tool of the presidency as the country entered “the golden age of radio” in the 1930s and 40s. In a sense, Roosevelt was the first truly modern President, growing the office, issuing executive orders, undertaking personal leadership. Hoover’s was a transitional administration, from the premodern presidency of Coolidge to the thoroughly modern Roosevelt. Rappleye’s conclusion, like other accounts of Hoover, seems simplistic in its own way, suggesting that a different personality might have led to greater success in the face of something as powerful as the Great Depression.
Most valuable in this book is its nuanced understanding of Hoover’s approach to the crisis. He has been painted by history’s broad brush as an uncaring, free-market, laissez faire businessman who did nothing while the country suffered. Instead Rappleye’s more detailed strokes reveal Hoover’s evolving approach, which had distinct phases. He saw the market collapse and banking crisis initially as a psychological problem of public confidence, so his early efforts were to reassure the nation. He also followed his approach of “cooperative” government, calling business leaders to the White House to enjoin them to keep wages up.
As the Depression deepened and persisted, he rejected as “a hoary artifact of laissez-faire economic policy” the view of his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, that it was best to await a market correction. Instead Hoover led the government into ever-increasing action, including, ultimately, federal aid. The President saw the fundamental problem as one of banking and credit on a worldwide scale, so many of his efforts were aimed at keeping the banks liquid and open. This is not unlike the approach of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and President George W. Bush during the onset of the Great Recession of late 2007 to 2009. Hoover’s successor is famous for promising “bold experimentation,” but Rappleye describes Hoover’s many initiatives in similar terms.
The biographer does not directly engage the contemporary debate about whether Hoover was a conservative businessman who did too little about the Great Depression or whether he represented New Deal-lite, laying the groundwork for much of what Roosevelt did when he came in. The latter is the view of economists Murray Rothbard and Steven Horwitz, and Amity Shlaes argues in The Forgotten Man (2007) that both Hoover and Roosevelt meddled too much in the economy, making things worse and prolonging the recovery. But Rappleye does provide evidence that Hoover followed the economic understanding of his day and had support for the measures he undertook.
The economist Wesley Clair Mitchell supported Hoover’s approach, saying that “a more significant experiment in technique of [economic] balance could not be devised.” Likewise the New York Times, after the Republicans’ defeat in the midterm elections of 1930, urged Congress not to adopt “heavy spending programs to answer the Depression” but to stay Hoover’s course. Even John Maynard Keynes himself said at the time that he didn’t think the case for public works spending in America was especially strong.
A question left unanswered by Rappleye and the others is whether any President could have avoided, solved, or even significantly ameliorated the Great Depression. Bernanke, before heading the Federal Reserve, had spent a career studying it, and has referred to discovery of the cause or causes of the Great Depression as “the holy grail of macroeconomics.” In other words, 85 years later, we are still trying to grasp it. Rappleye believes that Hoover might have turned to public works and relief sooner, and questions whether he should have held on to the gold standard when Britain and others abandoned it—but as I said, his bottom line is that Hoover’s failure was not so much one of policy but of communication.
If we are this unclear on the matter today, imagine the difficulty in the 1930s, when the government’s macroeconomic tools were not as strong or well-developed.
Rappleye does, by the way, acknowledge that there were other things going on in the United States between 1929 and 1933. The “great political question all through his term was the constitutional ban on alcohol,” he writes, and few today have given this much attention. The world was struggling, moreover, with “isms” of the Left and Right, communism and fascism. Against these, Hoover stayed the course, upholding liberty, American individualism, and the American system. He resisted pleas for a planned economy as “inimical to personal liberty and insist[ed] that individual initiative remained the mainspring of economic progress,” truths that have been confirmed in the passing decades. Copious details of the difficult transition of the presidency from Hoover to Roosevelt are provided, with Hoover still attempting to make policy until the bitter end, and Roosevelt refusing any cooperative efforts. (By now, of course, the presidential transition has been shortened, with the new President’s inauguration in January instead of March.)
In researching the book, Rappleye relied on materials not previously available or perhaps overlooked. These include the diaries kept by Hoover’s physician, press secretary, personal financial manager, and others. He also had personal letters from Hoover’s wife Lou Henry Hoover to their son Allan to use for the first time, and these are especially important in understanding the President’s personality and disposition. These materials reveal Hoover as a private man, by personality unable to tackle all the demands of public leadership and, by profession (an engineer) unable to make decisions without delay.
Given contemporary events, one hopes that this story is not a foreshadowing of another businessman and political novice’s taking up the presidency. If, as Rappleye argues, it was Hoover’s lack of political experience that ultimately did him in, that is a clear warning to any outsider who occupies the Oval Office. My own conclusion is a little different: The Great Depression was a tsunami in American history and the political skills of the lifeboat commander were unlikely to have saved the day.