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on January 9, 2009
In the ongoing series of concise biographies of U.S. Presidents, renowned historian William E. Leuchtenburg delivers a brilliant exploration of an individual whose name remains a political lightning-rod.

Leuchtenburg goes beyond the headlines and rough sketches of biographical information to show the complexity of Herbert Hoover, while bringing into better focus such controversial issues as his stated orders to the U.S. Army on handling the "Bonus Army," the plans to reform the nation's regulatory system and the shaping of economic policy before and during the Great Depression.

So publicly vilified after his 1932 landslide defeat to FDR, Hoover was truly a politician in the wilderness - even soundly rejected within Republican Party circles - but began a road out of the cold through President Harry Truman, who, in 1946, asked the former president to tour Germany to determine the food status in the occupied nation. It yielded a number of recommendations and the facilitation of a school meals program in the American and British occupation zones. Hoover's expertise in this field drew international accolades in the last world war; his tireless shuttle diplomacy proved successful in getting food distributed to civilian victims in Belgium and elsewhere who were caught in the crossfire of the fighting.

By the time of his death at age 90 in 1964, Hoover's image had begun to be rehabilitated, but many myths still remain in the public domain that continue to cloud over the real story. Leuchtenburg provides a fair and balanced assessment on the incredible life and remarkable times of the 31st President.
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on March 30, 2009
This brief biography is part of the American President's series and in my opinion, Herbert Hoover is a good subject for the series. Whereas Presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln and Roosevelt (both) are not particularly well suited for treatment in a 200 page book, I would probably not be interested in investing the time required to peruse a 500+ page book on the life of Herbert Hoover.

Nevertheless, the life history of Herbert Hoover is certainly interesting and instructional. A very successful businessman, administrator and bureaucrat, Hoover is widely blamed for the Great Depression and for failing to take the necessary actions to address the mounting crisis. Of course, this is certainly a simplistic argument, as Franklin Roosevelt, despite taking radical action, made only modest headway in economic recovery through the first eight years of his reign. Only the outbreak of World War II did the trick. Had Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1931 instead of 1941, perhaps Herbert Hoover would have been elevated to the pantheon of U. S. Presidents. As it is however, Hoover joins Buchanan among the ranks of failed Presidents whose successors (Lincoln in the case of Buchanan) are deemed to have cleaned up the messes they left behind.

Great Presidents are molded and elevated by the challenges they are forced to meet. Certainly, confronted by the Great Depression, Hoover had an historical opportunity, though perhaps an impossible task. Nevertheless, the autocratic skills that served him so well in his relief efforts in Belgium, the Soviet Union and the Mississippi Valley after the Great Flood of 1927 were ill suited to address the mounting economic ills of the Great Depression.

From a personal standpoint, Leuchtenburg paints Hoover to be a pretty miserable human being. A rapacious businessman, Hoover performed most effectively in the role of an absolute dictator; perhaps the best model for some of his pre-war business ventures and WWI relief and humanitarian roles, but not the ideal personality for a politician in our "checks and balances" republic. Not surprisingly, his management style did not mesh well with Congressional leaders or members of his own Cabinet. At a time when such cooperation was vital, Hoover was ill suited for the task. A wooden and colorless personality made it difficult to connect to the American public, especially when delivering the kind of message no one wanted to hear (pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!).

A worthwhile, brief primer on a much maligned (perhaps deservedly) American figure.
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on March 3, 2010
On the topic of Herbert Hoover, it's really hard to get straight information. Those who hate Roosevelt and the New Deal tend to think he was a golden martyr and paragon of good sense. Those who love Roosevelt and the New Deal tend to view him as a flint-hearted, stingy, evil man.

Now, this is not an outright "hit piece" -- many positive aspects of Hoover's career are included -- but nonetheless, I'm afraid William Leuchtenburg falls solidly into the latter camp.

Before I go on, I need to let you know where I'm coming from, because this is such an important question with Hoover stuff. My interest in the man centers on his work in famine relief, particularly the Commission for Relief in Belgium. This was all work he did before anyone knew what his politics were. Frankly, I don't care about the New Deal or the politics thereof, except to be really annoyed with the fact that as a result of his involvement in it, Hoover is known more as a political symbol than as a historical figure. And while certainly no angel, Hoover was quite a historical figure. No one in the history of the world has ever saved as many lives -- not even close. The way I see it, that really ought to count for something, whatever the guy's politics.

That said, here's my take on this book:

Touches of unprofessional editorial commentary and de-contexted quotes come up from the very beginning of the book. On Page 4, Hoover's uncle John Minthorn is described as "avaricious." This may be true, but no other source I have read has described him so, and Leuchtenburg provides no source notes beyond a general bibliography. On the next page, Hoover -- who was 13 at the time -- is described as a "full-time hustler," which is a startlingly editorial statement and, unless he's got a credible source I've never seen, an unsupported extrapolation.

By Page 7, he is on to outright misinformation: "On returning to campus in the fall, Hoover, who had been largely clueless about his career, switched his major to geology." (Emphasis mine.) Hoover was at Stanford, instead of some Quaker divinity school back east, specifically _because_ he was not clueless about his career.

I could go on. In the margins of my copy of the book, I did. Just a few highlights ... on 17, we have "he sang the praises of 'insiders' like himself while denigrating small-fry investors not in the know as 'idiots.'" If you've read this particular source text, you know what's wrong with this statement. It's simply not an accurate description of the communication, which was a criticism of mine hucksters. The next page says he "flew into rages" when he didn't get his way. No other source that I have seen describes Hoover having tantrums.

I also always find it annoying when scholars describe Hoover as emotionally detached, as Leuchtenburg does through a quote from one of Hoover's Washington, D.C. enemies saying "he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers." Studying the man's early life makes it pretty clear he was socially inept and unexpressive. Extrapolating that to an assumption of lack of feeling is, again, profoundly editorial and logically unsupportable.

I was also flabbergasted to find Winston Churchill's famously calling Hoover an S.O.B. ascribed to "his (Hoover's) lack of sympathy" (page 27). The historical record is quite clear -- Churchill wanted the Belgian relief stopped in order to increase pressure on Germany to either feed them or suppress the resulting riots when they starved. From a military-strategy standpoint, this is not an unreasonable position, but it's hard to fathom how it can get spun into something that should command "sympathy."

My interest in Hoover ends when he became secretary of commerce, so I did not continue reading the book past Chapter 6, in which his presidency is described. I can't speak for the second half of this book. I will leave that for someone who knows about that part of Hoover's life.

Again, there are parts of this book that do present Hoover sympathetically. But they feel an awful lot like the kind of concessions that are made by someone arguing an opposite point, in order to bolster his/her appearance of fairness.

In conclusion: Hoover scholars who want to get a feel for how aficionados of the policies of FDR view his predecessor will find this a useful bit of gestalt, and a quick read. As a source of credible information, though, I would definitely steer clear of this work. Most of it is accurate, but much of it is transplanted into deceptively different contexts and a few things are flat-out wrong. If you're really interested in Hoover's early life, spend a bit of time with George Nash's books. Nash in person is actually a serious right-winger, but he wears his politics on his sleeve and I've never seen his personal views get in the way of his scholarship.

By the way, if you want to get a better idea of where I'm coming from, more info on my project is at [...]
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on March 6, 2011
More than most other presidents, Herbert Hoover's term as the nation's thirty-first president must be viewed in the context of his life and his many accomplishments that preceded his 1928 election. Author William Leuchtenburg has added a sobering (can there be any other?) account of Hoover's life, from his staid Quaker upbringing through his many years of public service. In fact, this short biography is one of the best in the American Presidents series.

As icy as Benjamin Harrison, as complicated as his fellow Quaker, Richard Nixon, and even more unlucky than Jimmy Carter, Hoover's presidency is routinely described as "failed" and Leuchtenburg goes into all aspects of why this was the case. But he reminds the reader that, among other things, Hoover's mistrust of federal government financial intervention during the early years of the depression, along with his belief in local government authority with neighbors helping one another lead to ultimate financial ruin. That it did, and the stage was set for FDR's New Deal.

One of the more telling quotes in the book was made by columnist Heywood Broun who, harkening back to Hoover's Belgian relief effort during the First World War, facetiously suggested that the unemployed in America should have marched on the White House with banners saying "We are Belgians".

Even when President Truman made use of Herbert Hoover after the Second World War he couldn't help but comment that the former president's idea of the world hadn't advanced since McKinley. For all of Herbert Hoover's expansive mind and often principled approach he was caught up in a wave of unprecedented national misery that would have challenged any White House occupant, but it did him in, nonetheless. This is a terrific book and I highly recommend it.
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The American Presidents Series, edited by Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz, offers an excellent way to learn about American history, the presidents, and the qualities of successful or unsuccessful leadership. Each of the short volumes is written by scholar with particular interest in the subject. Although the volumes are short and readable, they are not mere summaries but rather offer their own insight into the president and era they discuss.

William Leuchtenburg's study of Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) is one of the best in the series. Hoover served a single term as the 31st president (1929 - 1933). He will forever be remembered as the president who presided over the Great Depression. Leuchtenburg offers a nicely-written, even-handed and insightful evaluation of a complex, difficult individual and of his many strengths and weaknesses. Leuchtenburg is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been awarded both the Bancroft and the Parkman Prizes and is a scholar of the New Deal era. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940

Born to harsh circumstances in rural Iowa, Hoover was orphaned in 1884 at the age of ten. His youth was spent in a series of difficult, ill-paying jobs which suggested that the young man had little future ahead of him. Poorly educated but ambitious and intelligent, Hoover enrolled in and graduated from Stanford. While in his 20s, he drove himself and became a wealthy, successful mining engineer and financier who worked in Australia, China, and England, among other places. As a man, Hoover was dour and introverted. He became accustomed to having his own way with things.

At about the time he reached the age of 30, Hoover began to realize that there was more to life than making money. He became an author and something of a scholar, publishing a book called "Principles of Mining" in 1909 and "De Re Metallica" a translation from the Latin done in collaboration with his wife Lou, in 1912. Hoover became interested in public service.

Hoover became known as the "Great Humanitarian" for his efforts in delivering food to the starving multitudes of Europe during and after WW I. Leuchtenburg's book explores this part of Hoover's life and career in detail and gives him the praise for which he is due. During this time Hoover became committed to "voluntarism" in public affairs even though Hoover's relief efforts were overwhelmingly financed by the government and could not have succeeded without Federal action.

With the election of Harding to the presidency in 1920, Hoover became Secretary of Commerce. He served energetically and creatively in this capacity through the presidencies of Harding and Coolidge. His most widely-known activity in this role occurred in 1927 when he became responsible for the relief efforts for the victims of the Mississippi River flood, the first significant Federal relief effort for a natural disaster.

For all his accomplishments, Hoover will always be remembered for the Depression. Leuchtenburg takes a carefully critical view of Hoover's efforts. He finds that Hoover's withdrawn, cold, and uninspiring public figure, his difficulties in collaborating with others, and his apparent tendency to ignore the human element were not well-suited to combating the Depression. Most of Hoover's efforts centered around voluntarism and private action which proved insufficient and ill-suited to the crisis. Some of Hoover's efforts, such as supporting a high tariff and increased taxes, while undoubtedly well-meaning, were precisely the wrong courses of actions to take in resolving the crisis. Other actions were insufficient and were not followed-through. Hoover's aloofness during the Depression was also a source of major difficulty for his presidency. Thus, while admitting that Hoover had no role in causing the Depression and that his administration had certain bright spots, Leuchtenburg concludes that Hoover's presidency was a failure. A final chapter of the book discusses Hoover's long life following the presidency, and the attempts he made by his own lights to remain committed to a life of public service.

For all Hoover's faults, I came away from Leuchtenburg's book with a great deal of admiration for the man, his intelligence, his humanitarian achievements, and his early progressive tendencies. Hoover appears to me more sympathetic as a person than some of my fellow reviewers here on Amazon will allow. Leuchtenburg also makes a powerful case for the inadequacies of Hoover's presidency. He suggests how these inadequacies had their source in Hoover's own earlier accomplishments and in his narrowness of vision. The book concludes with an extensive biography for those readers wishing to explore Hoover's life in more detail. Leuchtenburg has written a thoughtful account of the life and accomplishments of Herbert Hoover.

Robin Friedman
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on July 6, 2015
This book is the second in the Presidential series that I have read. The first book about the Presidency of Jimmy Carter was most enjoyable. This book maintains that momentum. Herbert Hoover will forever be deemed a failed President due to his association with the Great Depression. Although this may very well be accurate, Hoover had an astonishing record of nearly unbroken accomplishments before he became President. The author points out that the modern Presidency requires more than hard work and managerial expertise, both qualities Hoover had in abundance. Leadership, vision, the ability to work with Congress and excellent communication skills are essential components of success. Although the author is has written several books about Hoover's successor, FDR, he provides context, perspective and balance that allows the reader to have a new appreciation for this fascinating person
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This biography of Herbert Hoover represents yet one more entry in "The American Presidents" series of books, originally under the editorial direction of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., before his death (since, Sean Wilentz has come on board as editor). Hoover, of course, suffered greatly in the estimation if history by presiding over the Great Depression. The interesting twist in this book is the contention that Hoover may well have failed anyway, as a result of his rigidity, lack of empathy, and his engineering bent of mind.

Hoover grew up in modest circumstances and lost both of his parents early on. The author details his transfer to an Uncle, described as akin to a character right out of Dickens. His childhood was hard. He caught a break and ended up attending Stanford as an engineering student, an environment in which he did well, even though he was socially awkward and introverted.

As his life unfolded, he became a major player internationally, amassed a small fortune, and found people coming to dislike working with him. His rigidity, certainty in his decisions, and near authoritarian bent were turn offs for many. During World War I, he performed heroically in getting humanitarian aid to victims of the war. His personal iciness and top down style continued. He extolled the virtues of voluntarism in aiding war victims (although the reality is that most of the money was from governments--indicating his overconfidence in voluntarism as a means of dealing with crises, an almost instinctive idea to him that did not help his Depression policies succeed).

Then, he served with the government for a number of years, finally succeeding Calvin Coolidge as President in 1929. There was some promise in his decisions early on, but as the Depression hit, problems increased. His overdependence on voluntarism, his rigidity in working with others, his fear of inappropriate government intervention did not work. At times, he seemed almost paralyzed. His departure from the presidency as FDR replaced him is a poignant to read about.

After his departure, he had some major service left in him. But he was bitter for decades about being underappreciated as president.

Another nice entry in the series. This is different from most other works in one respect; the author is much more overtly critical of Hoover as a person and as a leader than are most other authors. All in all, a good, brisk introduction to Herbert Hoover.
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on April 12, 2016
As president he was terrible at feeding the hungry, but if the president ever needed a genius to feed the hungry, he was the man.

Herbert Hoover was brilliant, megalomaniacal and a ruthless awkward bully. He was one of the worst presidents in history. He was a famed general bore who is facinating to read about after the fact.

This review is about the subject and entertainment rating for the book. I cannot compare the author to others.
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on January 10, 2014
This narrative has no footnotes, yet the writer's comprehensive knowledge of this extraordinary man is convincing beyond the need for sourcing. Professor Leuchtenburg has a rare skill of describing the array of activities, from WWI humanitarian missions to complex economic legislation for a knowledgeable audience with enough information to refresh understanding. We are first presented with his early years, orphaned young and then sent out to relatives without much affection for the rather odd child. For those who want a more current reference, it is not unlike Richard Nixon and LBJ, also born into humble backgrounds who were always aware of a condescension of political adversaries, which ironically were both the same man, Harvard educated J.F.K.

There the commonality of the two Presidents diverges. LBJ was known as the Master of the Senate, with the interpersonal skills to interact with other Senators with unprecedented effectiveness. (See Robert Caro's biographies) It turns out that Hoover was instrumental in initiating a whole slew of progressive innovative plans, that were later pushed through by his nemesis FDR. Hoover had an amazing intellect, but as this author describes, often quoting Hoover's supporters, his personally was so withdrawn, such an extreme lack of empathy, or ability to express emotion--either in a public setting or to an individual, that it comes close to being a text book expression of Asperger's syndrome.

If this were a work of fiction the exploits of the young Hoover, less than two decades out of Stanford school of mines who singlehandedly, manages to save unknown thousands of victims of starvation during WWI, would have defied credulity. His expansion of the Department of Commerce that he headed under Harding-Coolidge included devising the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Agricultural Marketing Act, to end the feast of famine existence of this occupation. His nomination and election in 1938 was a given, as the U.S. was prospering and it looked like clear sailing for as far as the eye could see.

Then came the market crash, less than nine months after his innauguration. His weakness in dealing with Congress soon became evident even before this. He had at first been against the protectionist Smoot Harley act, a simplistic attempt to protect American manufacturers, ignoring the reality that other countries would retaliate, which is widely seen as precipitating the rise in nationalism and general poverty that was the seed bed for WWII. He just didn't have the ability to fight congress, or the skills to use the bully pulpit or the new Radio that could have reached directly to the voters.

There are few books that are this well written and yet so informative.
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on July 11, 2015
This volume represents a return to the quality, fairness and complete biography of each of our Presidents that for the most part represents the series of The American Presidents Series edited by Arthur Schlesinger. This return and excellent addition to the series is in contrast to the poorly written and unfair biography of Herbert Hoover's predecessor, Calvin Coolidge. William Leuchtenburg has given us a well written, insightful and excellent representative accounting of Hoover's life. It touches on all the major events in the life of our 31st President in a fair and balanced manner. I came away with a more complete understanding of the man and an appreciation for what he accomplished and what he did not as well as the reasons behind both. I highly recommend this volume to anyone wishing to learn about the life of President Herbert Hoover. You will come away with a new appreciation for what he was able to accomplish in a long and most productive life.
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