Normally, I write about books over on the ol' Literary Supplement, but what I have to say after finishing An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover is far less about Richard Norton Smith's book, which had some pretty serious flaws, and more about Hoover, the man.
Strengths: Efficiency. Thrift. Churned out a lot of words. Anti-militaristic. Fed people (entire starving nations, in fact). Supported equal pay for women, the end of child labor, etc. Worked hard. Worked tirelessly, into his ninth decade. Self-made man, as they say. Traveled the world. Known to offer up a pithy comment or two. They loved him in Belgium. And Poland. Random acts of generosity. Enthusiastically supported young people, from Scouts organizations to Boys' Clubs to answering thousands of letters people wrote to him, well into his old age.
Example: He agreed with a young woman that "the chances of a female president were improving; after all, 'the men have not done too good a job of government...in the last forty-seven years' and wishing her well 'if you are a candidate for President about thirty years hence."
Another girl, Kathleen, told him she wasn't yet born when he was president and she wanted to be not president, but a doctor. He wrote, "My dear Kathleen, You were saved a lot of trouble by not being born earlier. I am glad you want to be a doctor and not President. We do not have enough doctors, and there seems to be a sufficient number of candidates for President." --from p. 383 of An Uncommon Man
Weaknesses: Probably wasn't meant to be a president, namely because he didn't excel at the compromising political schmoozing of it all. (On second thought, maybe this is a strength.) Listened a little too carefully to some of Joseph McCarthy's fears, although not the rabid paranoia.
Fascination factor: High. He was born in 1874 and died in 1964. The year he was born, Thomas Edison was inventing the duplex telegraph, Jesse James was robbing trains, and Hoover's eventual alma mater, Stanford University, did not yet exist. By the time he died, he had gone from meeting with Charles Lindbergh through advising against dropping the atomic bomb to congratulating John Glenn on orbiting the Earth. He also outlived, among others, his wife Lou, his pal General MacArthur, and Eleanor Roosevelt, not to mention his successor FDR and John F. Kennedy, whose father the ambassador to England had known Hoover for a while.
The man got around. He met everyone from Hitler to Eva Peron, and he was friends with other presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman, with FDR being basically the exception (he spent time with and was consulted by Eisenhower AND Kennedy). Bottom line is that Hoover had a fascinating decades-long pre-presidency career and an accomplished decades-long retirement, but all most people know about him is "the Depression!" And really, he was unfairly blamed for the so-called Great Depression, as if any one person caused it or could solve it single-handedly, and it's interesting to note the complicating factors of his administration, such as: Congress. The economic policies of his predecessor, Calvin Coolidge. The fact that FDR was his own brand of crazy, when he swooped in to "save" the day -- and the fact that FDR used some of Hoover's ideas and already-started-before-FDR-got-there tactics.
Other fun facts gleaned from this bio, in a more-things-change-the-more-they... way:
*In the aftermath of World War I, "Washington sports fans cheered a uniformed sailor for shooting to death a fellow spectator who refused to stand for the national anthem."
*In a 1935 speech, Hoover noted the way some politicians stifled dissent: "They set up a glorious ideal to which we all agree unanimously. Then they drive somewhere else or into a ditch. When we protest they blackguard us for opposing the glorious ideal. And they announce that all protesters are the tools of Satan or Wall Street. When we summon common sense and facts they weep aloud over their martyrdom for the ideal."
*"If America joined the [World] war [II], he said, and was rewarded with victory, 'then we will have won for Stalin the grip of communism in Russia and a greater opportunity for it to extend in the world. We should at least cease to tell our sons that they will be giving their lives to restore democracy and freedom.'" -p.298
*In a 1954 critique of foreign policy, he noted: "We should cease to jabber about leading the world. Sometime the world will turn on us with remarks as to where we have led to."
Furthermore, I hereby declare that we should bring back the name Herbert. Come on, hipsters, get with me on this! I previously mentioned, during my reading of the William H. Taft bio, that I really like President Taft's brother Horace--he was a fun guy!--and that I kind of wanted to bring back the long-forgotten name Horace. Well, now I'm adding Herbert to my list. If I have twin sons, perhaps they'll be named Horace and Herbert. Or maybe I should just get two puppies or kittens for this purpose.
While I learned a lot about Hoover, I should probably check every fact in this book, because author Richard Norton Smith and his editors apparently couldn't be bothered to do so themselves. I've ranted elsewhere about the incorrect statement that the Hoover Dam is on "the California/Nevada border" (hello, can you read a map?) but that isn't the only fact Smith gets wrong herein. So, I do advise you to learn a thing or two about Hoover, but maybe check out some other sources while you're doing it.
And may we all hope to be as accomplished and prolific in ninety allotted years on this Earth!