Richard Norton Smith
As an old man who had tasted popular acclaim and virulent hatred, supreme authority and the political wilderness, Hoover liked to wax philosophical. When visitors to his “comfortable monastery” in New York’s Waldorf Towers asked how he managed to survive the ostracism that lasted a dozen years after he turned the presidency over to Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, Hoover’s eyes twinkled. “I outlived the bastards,” he explained. He spoke prematurely. Even today Hoover remains the Flying Dutchman of American politics—disdained by the supply side Right as a green-eyeshade conservative—stereotyped on the Left as a rigid ideologue who spouted orthodoxies while Rome burned, Daddy Warbucks with a Havana cigar clenched between his teeth.
As George Nash has so brilliantly noted, Herbert Hoover was a political orphan. It was a dilemma of which Hoover himself was well aware. After March 1933 cast him as black bishop to Roosevelt’s white knight, Hoover protested the injustice of it all. “Please do not use me as a whipping boy for the New Era,” he told Dorothy Thompson. “I was neither the inventor nor the promoter nor the supporter of the destructive currents of that period. I was the ‘receiver’ of it when it went into collapse.” At other times Hoover seemed to imply that he was a nineteenth-century liberal, one whose love of liberty stamped him in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. Yet Mill was more libertarian than liberal, at least as we understand the term today. “The only freedom which deserves the name,” he once declared, “is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
This was not the sum total of Hoover’s lifelong attempt to square the philosophical circle. The thirty-first president was more positive in his ideology, more generous in his instincts, more driven in his sense of moral obligation. To be sure, his ninety years were crowded with controversy and