If you google the “ten worst American presidents” you’ll see that Herbert Hoover makes everyone’s list. His single term ran from 1929 to 1933. Those years saw the onset of the Great Depression, beginning with the stock market crash only six months after his inauguration. From there it got worse, taking the country and his administration down with it.
People at the time, and historians ever since, found Hoover unequal to the challenge. Contemporaries held him personally accountable for their misery, calling their squatter camps “Hoovervilles” and the government donations of surplus turnips “Hoover apples.”
Historians describe him mostly as the predecessor and vivid contrast to posterity’s darling, FDR. So I was curious to get more of the story, and have been reading last year’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: the Ordeal of the Presidency. It’s a good read.
Before his term in the White House, Hoover had been known as the Great Humanitarian, the administrative genius who saved Europe from starvation after World War I. Some of the personal attacks on his presidency seem driven by disappointment, that he wouldn’t just deliver on the skills everyone knew he had.
Leading World War I relief efforts among refugee children in Poland in the early 1920s.
So why didn’t he?
Rappleye lays the blame on a couple of things, including the one I’d heard before, Hoover’s stubborn belief in private sector charity as preferable to government action and – against all the available evidence – enough to rescue the whole country. His was the last administration to so wholly reject a role for government in the national economy.
But it’s the second source of paralysis that I find instructive, even for those trying to make things happen in a much smaller context, like an office or a college campus.
For much of this argument and the title of one of his chapters, Rappleye draws on a Walter Lippmann essay from the June 1930 issue of Harper’s Monthly, called “The Peculiar Weakness of Mr. Hoover.” Lippmann wrote:
“This weakness appears at the point where in order to win he would have to intervene in the hurly-burly of conflicting wills which are the living tissue of popular government.”
An engineer and technocrat, Hoover had won only a single elected office, the presidency. He wasn’t a mingler.
The rest of Rappleye’s book bears this out. Repeatedly we see that Hoover was unwilling to share his thinking with colleagues in Congress or the press, especially as his ideas were forming. So people who might have sympathized, countered, or simply helped were shut out.
Instead, he tried solving problems on his own, with the sheer brute force of his ferocious work ethic.
The second shortcoming fed the first: with no one to serve as sounding board, his faith in limitless private charity went unchallenged.
Over the past ten or so years, I’ve reported to people in positions of varying visibility and responsibility. It’s interesting how closely the analysis from Lippmann and Rappleye lines up with my own experience. All of my bosses have taken their jobs seriously, working hard and over-preparing. These are, after all, people who were so good at school they never left.
But the good ones manage somehow to keep an open mind – and an open office door – even after they’ve studied up. They embrace the unreasoning, very human hurly-burly of democracy. There really isn’t a time when they seem finished learning. By contrast, my least effective bosses have seemed besieged by their own fear of error. For them, dialogue doesn’t nourish so much as threaten. They may sound as certain as anyone, but they’re stingier with eye contact.
Hoover in the last year of his presidency, at the Nine-Point Prosperity Conference.
So then what’s the answer? Welcome people in, leverage the strength of the group, and understand that human interaction is what keeps the engines from seizing up.
The day really never comes when you outgrow needing others.
Image credits: Cornell College, Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. WorldNet Daily, Wikimedia