Published in 2017, Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” is the most recent biography of the 31st president. Whyte is a Canadian journalist who has served as editor of Saturday Night magazine, the National Post newspaper and Maclean’s. He is also the author of “The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst” which was published in 2008.
With 614 pages covering his subject’s entire life, Whyte’s well-researched biography is easily the longest of the half-dozen books I’ve read on Herbert Hoover. And while it does not offer the most detailed exploration of his presidency (that honor goes to Charles Rappleye’s 2016 “Herbert Hoover in the White House” which I read earlier this year) it does provide the most thorough comprehensive review of his nine decades.
The most interesting aspects of Hoover’s life – and the most compelling sections of this book – are Hoover’s pre- and post-presidencies. All together, the non-presidential years of Hoover’s life account for about four-fifths of this biography. Almost no reader will fail to be impressed by Whyte’s description of Hoover’s austere start, his capacity to identify and capitalize on business opportunities, or his tireless pursuit of success.
The narrative is rarely flashy or animated, but is consistently attentive to Whyte’s view of Hoover as a better, and more prescient, politician than history recalls. And while the book is almost unfailingly sympathetic toward its subject (and frequently dismissive of his political rivals), Whyte does not ignore Hoover’s wide assortment of obvious (often interpersonal) flaws.
Other key strengths of the book include a keen comparison of Hoover to Woodrow Wilson, good introductions to important political characters (Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge as two examples) and interesting commentary relating to Hoover’s anticipation of a financial crisis early in his presidency.
But while much of Herbert Hoover’s life is intrinsically captivating, the author’s writing style does not match the opportunity. Whyte is not a particularly colorful or vibrant writer and, much like Hoover himself, his narrative can lack vivacity and texture. While it is consistently clear and comprehensible it tends to exhibit a dry, clinical quality.
In addition, the discussion of Hoover’s presidency often feels one-sided. Whyte works diligently to redeem his subject; one manifestation of these efforts is a tendency to unfairly diminish the actions (and intellect) of some of Hoover’s contemporaries. FDR and Harry Truman are the two most notable examples of this rush-to-caricature.
Finally, while this biography expertly dissects the curious contradictions embedded within Hoover’s persona, the author misses an opportunity to more fully explore his subject’s suitability for the presidency and discuss the evolution of his legacy in the five decades since his death.
Overall, Kenneth Whyte’s biography of Herbert Hoover offers a sober, insightful and extremely readable review of one of the 20th century’s least popular presidents. Readers new to Hoover will not find a better thorough introduction to his life; others will appreciate its incremental insights and fresh perspectives. All-in-all, Whyte has written the best biography of Herbert Hoover I’ve yet read.
Overall Rating: 4¼ stars