Published in 2009, “Herbert Hoover” by William E. Leuchtenburg is a member of The American Presidents Series. Leuchtenburg is professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the author of numerous books on 20th century history. His most recent book “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton” was published in 2015.
Consistent with other books in this series, Leuchtenburg’s biography is concise, forthright and potent. With 161 pages of text, this review of Hoover’s life is extremely efficient, highly insightful and extremely well balanced. But despite the failed reputation of the book’s subject, it is quickly apparent that Hoover’s life (if not his political career) deserves every page which can be afforded.
The book’s earliest pages are filled with praise and admiration for Hoover’s fascinating early life and private-sector accomplishments. This is followed by a robust description and thoughtful critique of Hoover’s service in Washington including his response, as president, to the Great Depression. In the end, Leuchtenburg concludes that even without the burden of the Depression, Hoover’s legacy would be hampered by his rigid and uncharismatic style and his other political deficiencies.
But if the book’s efficiency is one of its compelling attributes, this brevity is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Hoover’s pre-presidency is enormously compelling: he endured an austere upbringing, hopscotched the world as a mining engineer and founded his own global firm. He led an effort during World War I to save much of Belgium from starvation, was appointed head of the U.S. Food Administration by Woodrow Wilson and later became Warren Harding’s Secretary of Commerce.
Unfortunately, the first forty years of his life are covered in fewer than two-dozen pages – and this is a period which could easily be the basis for a dramatic Candice Millard narrative such as “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.” Also missing in this biography are numerous details of his personal life; his wife and two sons hardly seem to exist.
Discussion of the 1928 Republican convention which nominated him for the presidency received just a single sentence. Coverage of his presidential campaign was unmemorable…and I can hardly recall mention of his Democratic challenger. Assembly of his Cabinet – something biographers often take great pleasure in analyzing and dissecting – took just a paragraph. But if his post-presidency was also covered too quickly, Hoover’s presidency itself was provided adequate space and excellent attention.
Overall, William Leuchtenburg’s biography of Herbert Hoover performs more than adequately in its role to comprehensively but not exhaustively cover the life of its subject. Although his coverage of Hoover’s life is not particularly colorful or vibrant, the author applies care and skill to his analysis of Hoover’s private and public careers. And if the greatest service a biography can perform is to educate on a basic level – and to inspire a more detailed subsequent exploration of a subject’s life – then this biography succeeds admirably.
Overall rating: 3½ stars