George H. Nash
Aphorisms about politics abound. Many readers are no doubt familiar with the statement attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Some also may be familiar with a version of this remark attributed to H.L. Mencken. According to Mencken, “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time—and that’s enough!” Perhaps a few political junkies have heard of another mordant observation that has been ascribed to Mencken: “In politics a man must learn to rise above principle.”
Although it is easy to be cynical about politics, no cloud of expediency surrounds the subject of this essay. In the two-thirds of a century since he left the presidency, few observers have accused Herbert Hoover of “fooling the people” or “rising above principle.” Yet around Hoover, more than thirty-five years after his death and more than 125 after his birth, clouds of a different sort remain to be dispelled—an intellectual fog that even now impairs our clear perception.
Where in the spectrum of American statesmanship does he belong? In the 1950s a hero of libertarians like Rose Wilder Lane and John Chamberlain, he is today castigated by libertarians as the true father of the New Deal interventionist state. A vehement anticommunist, a friend of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, Hoover was nonetheless hailed in the 1970s by some New Left historians as a profound critic of global, interventionist anticommunism. A proud patron of conservative causes and politicians after World War II, an ally of William F. Buckley, Jr., in the founding of the National Review in 1955, Hoover in recent years has been stigmatized in conservative circles as a cheerless apostle of balanced budgets and high taxes. Acclaimed in his day as “the greatest Republican of his generation,” he was likened in the 1980s—even on the Right—to Jimmy Carter.