Who is Herbert Hoover?



HERBERT HOOVER

Secretary of Commerce; Engineer; b. West Branch, Ia., Aug. 10, 1874; Educ. B.A. (in mining engring.), Leland Stanford, Jr., U., 1895; (LL.D., Brown U., U. of Pa., Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Oberlin, U. of Ala., Liege, Brussels; D.C.L., Oxford); Asst. Ark. Geol. Survey, 1893, U. S. Geol. Survey, Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1895; in W. Australia as chief of mining staff of Bewick, Moreing & Co. and mgr. Hannan's Brown Hill Mine, 1897; chief engr. Chinese Imperial Bur. of Mines, 1899, doing extensive exploration in interior of China. Took part in defense of Tientsin during Boxer disturbances; Chmn. Am. Relief Com. London, 1914-15, Commn. for Relief in Belgium, 1915-18; chmn. food com. Council of Nat. Defense, Apr.-Aug. 1917; apptd. U. S. food administrator by President Wilson, Aug. 10, 1917, resigned June, 1919. Secretary of Commerce, 1921. . . .

***

One reads in the press daily of Hughes and Hoover, or Mellen and Hoover, or Davis and Hoover, or Wallace and Hoover. If it is a question of foreign relations, it is the Secretary of State and Hoover. If it has to do with using our power as a creditor nation to compel the needy foreigners to buy here in spite of the tariff wall we are going to erect against their selling here, it is the Secretary of the Treasury and Hoover. If strikes threaten, it is the Secretary of Labor and Hoover. If the farmers seek more direct access to the markets, it is the Secretary of Agriculture and Hoover.

It is always "and Hoover." What Mr. Hughes does not know about international affairs-and that is considerable-Mr. Hoover does. What Mr. Mellen does not know about foreign finance-and that is less-Mr. Hoover does. What Mr. Davis does not know about labor-and that is everything-Mr. Hoover does. What Mr. Wallace does not know about farm marketing-and that is nothing-Mr. Hoover does.

Herbert Hoover is the most useful supplement of the administration. He possesses a variety of experiences, gained in making money abroad, in administering the Belgian relief, in husbanding the world's food supply after our entrance into the War, in helping write the peace treaty, which no one else equals. He is as handy as a dictionary of dates or a cyclopedia of useful information, invaluable books, which never obtain their just due; for no one ever signs his masterpiece with the name of its coauthor, thus, by "John Smith and the Cyclopedia of Useful Information."

A bad particle to ride into fame behind, that word "and," begetter of much oblivion! Who can say what goes after the "and" which follows the name McKinley, or Hayes, or Cleveland, or even Roosevelt? Who has sufficient "faith in Massachusetts" to remember long the decorous dissyllable connected by "and" with the name Harding? The link, "and," is not strong enough to hold. You recall the "and"; that is all; as in the case of that article of food, origin of many "calories," to use Mr. Hoover's favorite word, in the quick-serve resorts of the humble, where it supplements ably and usefully, but without honorable mention, slender portions of beef, pork, and ham.

To describe briefly, in a phrase, what has happened to Hoover; two years ago, it was "Hoover"; to-day, it is "and Hoover."

Why the connective? Because, to put it bluntly, however great his other gifts are-and they are remarkable-he lacks political intelligence. He reminds one now of a great insect caught in the meshes of a silken web. He struggles this way and that. He flutters his wings, and the web of politics fastens itself to him with a hundred new contacts.

Facing possible elimination from public life, he accepted a dull and unromantic department under President Harding. He was told that he could "make something of it." Modern Greeks bearing gifts always bring you an opportunity which "you, and you alone, can make something of." He is trying to make something of it, something more than Mr. Harding and the party advisers intended when they gave him the Secretaryship of Commerce. He is trying to dramatize some turn of fate and be once more a "big figure." He is tireless. He arrives at his office fabulously early.

Clerks drop in their tracks before he leaves at night. He has time to see everyone who would see him; for he can never tell when "the man with the idea" will knock at his door. Unlike the British naval officer charged with the duty of examining inventions to win the War, who is described by Guedalla as sitting like an inverted Micawber "waiting for something to turn down," he is waiting for something to turn up. He does more than wait; he works twenty hours a day trying to turn something up.

And he will turn something up. The chances are that he will do as much for the infant foreign trade of this country as Alexander Hamilton did for the infant finances of this country. He promises to be the most useful cabinet officer in a generation. But this is less than his ambition. If he were an unknown man, it would be enough; but you measure him by the stature of Hoover of the Belgian Relief. Like the issue of great fathers, he is eclipsed by a preceding fame. As well be the son of William Shakespeare as the political progeny of Hoover, The Food Administrator!

The War spoiled life for many men; for Wilson, for Baruch, for Hoover. After its magnificent amplifications of personality, it is hard to descend to every day, and be not a tremendous figure, but a successful secretary of an unromantic department.

He might concentrate with advantage to his future fame. A brief absence from front pages, under the connective "and," would cause the public heart to grow fonder when he did "make something" of his own department.

But two disqualifications stand in his way;-his lack of political intelligence, and his consequent inability to make quick decisions in a political atmosphere. His present diffusion of his energies springs, I think, from indecision; for in politics he can not make up his mind, as he can in business, where the greatest profit lies.

I first heard of this weakness of his when he was Food Administrator in Washington, and when other members of the Wilson War Administration, equal in rank with him and having to cooperate with him, complained frequently of his slowness. He had able subordinates, they said, the leading men in the various food industries, and they had to make up his mind for him. I set this charge down, at the time, to jealousy and prejudice, Mr. Hoover being always an outsider in the Wilson administration; but the long delay and immense difficulty he made over deciding, although all his life a Republican, whether he was or was not a Republican in the campaign of 1920, seemed all the proof of indecision that was needed.

It sounds like heresy about one who has been advertised as he has; but remember that we know little about him except what the best press agents in history have said of him. He achieved his professional success in the Orient, far from observation, and his financial success far from American eyes. His public career in the relief of Belgium and in the administration of food was the object of world-wide good will. And, moreover, indecision in politics is common enough among men who are strong and able in other activities. Mr. Taft was a great judge but wrecked his administration as President by inability to make up his mind. Senator Kellogg was a brilliantly successful lawyer; but in public life he is so hesitant that Minnesota politicians speak of him as "Nervous Nelly," and even Mr. Taft, during the Treaty fight, rebuked him to his face for lack of courage.

Mr. Hoover's face is not that of a decisive character. The brow is ample and dominant; there is vision and keen intelligence; but the rest of the face is not strong, and it wears habitually a wavering self-conscious smile. This smile, as if everybody were looking at him, makes him remind one as he comes out of a Cabinet meeting of a small boy in a classroom carrying a bouquet of flowers up to his teacher. He has, moreover, a strain of pessimism in his nature, which may account for his indecision. You catch him in moods of profound depression. He was in one just before his appointment to the Cabinet, when his European relief work was not going to his liking, and when the politicians, he felt, were forcing him into a position of little scope and opportunity.

In politics, he has enough vanity and self-consciousness to be aware constantly of forces opposed to him, covert, hostile, unscrupulous, personal forces-forces that he does not understand. Give him a mining problem, he can reckon with the forces of nature that have to be overcome. Give him a problem of finance, he knows the enmities of finance. He is in his element. In politics he is not. He is baffled.

An illustrative incident occurred in the spring of 1920, when both parties were talking of him as their candidate for President and he was uncertain whether he was a Republican or not. Mr. Hearst, in his newspapers, published an attack upon him, saying that he was more Briton than American, and to prove it printed a list of British corporations of which he was a director. All his suspicions were aroused over this everyday occurrence of politics. Where had Mr. Hearst obtained the unfortunate information? He saw plots and treachery. Someone in his confidence must have betrayed him for money. A careful investigation was made, and it was discovered that the editor had drawn upon "Who's Who," to which Mr. Hoover himself had furnished the information before he began thinking of the Presidency.

The politicians tricked him so completely in the preconvention campaign of 1920 that he has the best reasons for distrusting himself. He was always, during that campaign, a candidate for the Republican nomination to the Presidency. At the very time when his spokesman, Julius Barnes, was saying for him that he could not choose between the two parties until he had seen their candidates and read their platforms, and when the Democrats were most seriously impressed with his availability, the manager of his paper in Washington said to me, "This talk of Hoover for the Democratic nomination is moonshine. He won't take it."

"Why not," I asked him.

"Because," he replied, "he does not think it is worth having," a quite practical reason which differed wholly from the official explanation that Mr. Hoover was waiting to see which party was progressive so that he might oppose reaction.

His subsequent support of the more conservative candidate and the more conservative party bore out the truth of what his newspaper manager had said. And in reality, Mr. Hoover is as conservative as Mr. Harding himself, being a large capitalist with all the conservatism of the capitalist class. A little while ago, Mr. Roosevelt had made it unfashionable to admit that you were conservative. You wished it to be understood that you were open-minded-"forward looking," as Mr. Wilson, who turned reactionary at the test, called it; that you were broad, sympathetic, free from mean prejudices, progressive, in short. Our very best reactionaries of to-day all used to call themselves progressive. Some still do.

The young editor of a metropolitan newspaper, born to great wealth, and imbibing all the narrowness of the second generation, once asked me in those bright days when everybody was thrilling over his "liberality," "Would you call me a radical, or just a progressive?" He was "just a progressive." In a somewhat similar sense, Mr. Hoover was quite unconsciously "just a progressive"-a belated follower of a pleasant fashion, having lived abroad too long when he made his announcement to note the subtle changes that had taken place in our thinking-the rude shock that Russia had given to our "liberality."

But living abroad, it is only fair to add, has created a difference between his conservatism and that, let us say, of Judge Gary. He has grown used to labor unions and even to labor parties, so that they do not frighten him. His is conservatism, none the less, definite conservatism, if more enlightened than the obscurant American variety.

His hesitation and indecision in the spring of 1920 thus did not spring from doubt of the Republican party's progressiveness. He always desired the Republican nomination; but his vanity would suffer by the open seeking of it and the defeat which seemed likely; and his sensitiveness would suffer from the attacks, like that of Mr. Hearst, which an open candidacy would entail; for he is at once vain and thin-skinned.

Springing thus from reluctance to make up his mind, the announcement was received as the evidence of a very large mind. Among the public, Mr. Hoover was taken for a man who cared more for principle than for party or for politics. Among the politicians, he assumed the proportions of a portent, with a genius for politics second only to that of Roosevelt himself, who in a difficult situation could take the one position and say the one thing that might force his nomination.

The Democrats pricked up their ears. Mr. Wilson, sick and discouraged, began to entertain hopes of a candidate who would save the Democracy from ruin. Homer Cummings, National Chairman of Mr. Wilson's party, began to regard Mr. Hoover's possible nomination favorably. The Republican managers became alarmed. They knew from Mr. Hoover's friends that he, as his Washington newspaper manager had said, thought the Democratic nomination not worth having; but they feared lest by the course he was pursuing he might make it worth having, might take it, and might rob them of the election which they felt safely theirs. If they could induce him to declare his Republicanism, the Democrats would drop him, the public would cease to be interested in him as a dramatic personality too big for party trammels, and they themselves could ignore him.

It was decided to have him read out of the Republican party as a warning to him of how he was imperiling his hopes of the only nomination he valued, and at the same time have Republican leaders go to him or his friends and advise him and them that if he would only declare his Republicanism, a popular demand would force his nomination at Chicago.

Senator Penrose was chosen as the Republican whose pontifical damnation would most impress Mr. Hoover. The late W. Murray Crane, whom I have heard described at Mr. Roosevelt's dinner table as "the Uriah Heap of the Republican party," was the emissary who would advise Mr. Hoover to confess the error of his ways and seek the absolution of Penrose. A diary kept at Republican National Headquarters in New York reveals the visits there at the time the plan was made of Mr. Crane and others who took part in the enterprise. Mr. Penrose got up from a sick bed and thundered: under no circumstances would he permit the nomination of Mr. Hoover.

The plot succeeded. In a few days, Mr. Hoover declared that he would not take the Democratic nomination. The Democrats dropped him. The public was bewildered by his finding out that he was a Republican after saying that he could not tell whether he was one or not until he had seen the Republican candidate and the platform.

At the Chicago Convention he received the support of Mr. Crane, Governor Miller, of New York, and, on the last ballot, of William Allen White, who having voted for Harding on the just previous ballot, said he wanted to "leave the bandwagon and ride with the undertaker."

This guilelessness of Mr. Hoover in politics will prevent him from realizing his larger ambitions; but is a source of strength to him in his present position, with American business men who have learned to distrust politicians. At any rate, he is no politician; he thinks as business men think; his interests are their interests; and when he comes to them bearing gifts,-the aid and cooperation of the United States Government in their efforts to win foreign trade,-they do not take him for a Greek.

He possesses great special knowledge which they desire: he knows much about economics and enjoys the advantage of believing that he knows all; he has immense prestige, as a result of all the advertising he received during the War; they come to Washington and sit at his feet like children; he gives them fatherly lectures, even upon the morals of their business, which must be clean, to enter this foreign trade of his, with the Government behind it. They make mental resolutions of reform. To no politician, to no one, even with an instinct for politics, would they listen as they listen to him. He speaks to American business with immense authority. His selection is an example of that unusual instinct for putting the right man in the right place which President Harding has, when he chooses to exercise it.

The post was disappointing to Mr. Hoover; but it was the one in which he will be most useful. Not a lawyer, he would hardly have done for Secretary of State, in spite of his exceptional knowledge of foreign conditions. Not a banker, he lacked the technical equipment for Secretary of the Treasury. Not a politician, he should have, and he has a place in which there are the least possible politics. Mr. Harding denatured him politically by giving him the one business department in the Cabinet. Even Hiram Johnson may come no longer to hate him.

For his present task, besides his special knowledge, his remarkable industry, his tireless application to details, he has one great gift, his extraordinary talent for publicity. There is no one in Washington, not even Mr. Hughes, who knows so well as he does how to advertise what he is doing.

As business recovers and foreign trade develops, the magazine pages will blossom with articles about what American enterprise is achieving in foreign lands, about the cooperation between American business and the American government, and, once more, about Mr. Hoover. Finding markets for American wares all over the earth will be made a romance only second in interest to the feeding of Belgium.

It was not an accident that he was better advertised than any general, admiral, or statesman of the War. It was not all due to the good will of the public, to the work which he did in Belgium and in this country, nor to the extraordinary press agents whose services he was able to command because of that good will. Back of it all was his own instinct for publicity, his sense of what interests the people, his assiduous cultivation of editors and reporters. He has magazine and newspaper contacts only exceeded by those of Roosevelt in his time, and a sense of the power of publicity only exceeded by Roosevelt's.

When he was threatening to win the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in spite of the fact that he was not a Democrat, a supporter of McAdoo complained bitterly to me, "Confound him! He has a genius for self-advertising. He is not half the man McAdoo is. He hasn't McAdoo's courage, optimism, force, or general statesmanship; but he has this infernal talent for getting himself in the papers. There is not much to him but press agenting; but how can you beat that?"

But though his own name has come to count for more than the causes he represents, so that the best way to obtain aid is to ask for it with "Hoover" in big letters and with the suffering children of Central Europe in small letters, still he remains only a name to the American people. They know that he always wears a blue suit of clothes cut on an invariable model, which he adopted years ago. They know that he worked his way through college as a waiter. They know that he grew rich as a mining engineer in the East. That is all. They think of him as a symbol of efficiency, as one who may save their money, as one who may find markets for them and develop their trade, as one who may help the world upon its feet again after the War, as a superman, if you will; but not as a man, not as a human being.

All his advertising has made him appeal to the American imagination, but not to the American heart. He is a sort of efficiency engineer, installing his charts and his systems into public life,-and who loves an efficiency engineer? There are no stories about him which give him a place in the popular breast. It is impossible to interest yourself in Hoover as Hoover; in Hoover as the man who did this, or the man who did that, or the man who will do this or that, yes,-but not in Hoover, the person.

The reason is that he has little personality. On close contact, he is disappointing, without charm, given to silence, as if he had nothing for ordinary human relations which had no profitable bearing on the task in hand. His conversation is applied efficiency engineering; there is no lost motion, though it is lost motion which is the delight of life. At dinner, he inclines to bury his face in his plate until the talk reaches some subject important to him, when he explodes a few facts, and is once more silent.

Had he a personality with his instinct for publicity, he would be another Roosevelt. But he is a bare expert.

I doubt if he really thinks of human beings as human beings; on the contrary, some engineering graph represents humanity in his mind. It is characteristic of him that he always speaks of the relief of starving populations not in terms of human suffering, but in terms of chemistry. The people, of whatever country he may be feeding, have so many calories now, last month they had so many calories; if they had ten calories more, they could maintain existence. Many times have I heard this formula. It is a weakness in a democracy to think of people in terms of graphs, and their welfare in terms of calories; that is, if you hope to be President of that democracy-not if you are content to be its excellent Secretary of Commerce.

When he came to Washington as a Food Administrator, he brought with him an old associate, a professor from California. A few days later the professor's wife arrived and went to live at the same house where Mr. Hoover and her husband resided. Mr. Hoover knew her well. She and her husband had long been his friends. He met her in the hall, shook hands with her, welcomed her and then lapsed into silence. After some moments, he said, "Well,-" and hesitated.

"Mr. Hoover," she said, "I know you are a busy man. You don't have to stand here trying to think of something to say to me. I know you well enough not to be offended if you don't talk to me at all while I am here."

He laughed and took her at her word. He had the habit of too great relevancy to be human. If he could have said more than "Well" to that woman, he might have been President.





Return to Mirrors of Washington