“Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency” by Charles Rappleye was published in 2016, just a few months after I read four books on Hoover during my initial journey through the best biographies of every president. Rappleye was an investigative reporter and the author of five books including “Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution.” He died in 2018 at the age of 62.
Navigating a childhood which instilled the twin values of hard work and self-reliance, Herbert Hoover led an extraordinarily purposeful and almost entirely successful life. Charles Rappleye’s 469-page book, however, covers the four years of Hoover’s life for which he was most ill-suited – his presidency.
Less a biography built upon new revelations and more a re-telling of Hoover’s White House years through a fresh lens, this book offers readers a critical and balanced view of what, by most accounts, was an unsuccessful tenure. Rappleye is a skilled writer with a talent for both observation and analysis and although Hoover’s march through the White House can best be described as a depressing slog, the narrative is remarkably clear…and often surprisingly interesting.
The book’s best feature may be the liberal infusion of one-liners which pervade the text. These punchy observations add valuable clarity to a storyline intrinsically burdened by a series of complex crises spawned by the Great Depression.
Rappleye is also able to take dull or tedious topics (such as the inner-workings of the Federal Reserve and the nuances of foreign exchange rates) and make them unusually approachable. And he does so without sacrificing the intellectual integrity of the discussion.
Some of the book’s more interesting moments include a thorough review of president-elect Hoover’s discomfort with the booming stock market, the discussion of his efforts to deflate the equity “bubble” and his refusal to abandon the Gold Standard in the face of significant pressure.
But while Rappleye manages to take complicated topics and make them refreshingly clear, he is not always as adept at making them interesting. As a result, readers not enchanted by abstruse topics inherent in any discussion of the Hoover presidency will find portions of the narrative tedious or uninteresting.
In addition, Hoover’s personality makes him a particularly difficult subject to fully fathom; he was highly intelligent, famously circumspect and incredibly opaque. And because much of his failure as president stemmed from personality traits ingrained early in his life (and outside this book’s focus), the reader is never fully able to observe the broad cause-and-effect.
To his credit, Rappleye does refer to moments in his subject’s pre-presidency in an effort to explain many of his presidential actions and tendencies, but Hoover undoubtedly remains more a mystery than would be the case if this book included a more comprehensive exploration of his entire life.
Finally, Hoover’s personal life is all but missing. His wife appears intermittently and his children are referred to sporadically. But the private side to this man is largely out of view – as I’m sure he would have preferred.
Overall, however, Charles Rappleye’s “Herbert Hoover in the White House” is a commendable book covering a talented businessman who was ill-equipped for the presidency. Given its relatively narrow scope, readers hoping to understand the most fascinating aspects of Hoover’s life – and fully understand his presidential failings – will need to look elsewhere. But anyone seeking an articulate, insightful and nuanced rendering of his presidency will find this book extremely enlightening.
Overall rating: 4 stars