Thursday, July 09, 2009

How little I knew

The feature article* in this month's Harper's argues that Barack Obama is the next Herbert Hoover. Of course I've heard that he's the next Bin Laden, the next Hitler, the next Stalin and the anti-Christ if not Satan himself, so it's hardly surprising someone would throw Herbert Hoover into the mix. Hoover was, as we all know, the cold hearted architect of the Great Depression, a very bad person with no redeeming qualities and a typical big business Republican. Like you, I am sick of all that shit and passed over reading the article.

But this was Harper's and after reading everything else, I came back to it. And little did I know. Herbert Hoover was not at all like I thought he was. He's actually a lot like Obama, except far more interesting.

Orphaned and penniless by the age of nine, Hoover was raised by an exploitative uncle who considered him more chattel than son. He had no illusions about the America he grew up in, writing years later, “As gentle as are the memories of the times, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sadness was greater, and death came sooner.”

Removed from public school at fourteen to work as his uncle’s office boy, Hoover nonetheless learned enough at night school to make the very first class at the newly opened Stanford University, where he studied geology and engineering. He paid his own way by working as a waiter, a typist, and a handyman, and eventually running a laundry service, a baggage service, and a newspaper route. (Unsurprisingly, his favorite book was David Copperfield.) After graduation, he ran mining camps and scouted new strikes around the globe. It was an adventurous life; on one occasion he made a small fortune by following an ancient Chinese map and tiger tracks into a moribund silver mine in Burma. By the time he was forty, Hoover was worth $85 million in today’s dollars, and he retired from business to take up public life. “The ideal of service,” he would later write, was no burden on the striving entrepreneur but a “great spiritual force poured out by our people as never before in the history of the world.”

He had long lived up to his ideals. Caught in the siege of the Western delegations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, only Hoover and his fearless wife, Lou, cared enough to sneak food and water to the Chinese Christians besieged elsewhere in the city. He first came to national attention after the start of World War I, when he led the effort to feed the 7 million people of occupied Belgium and France. He worked for free, donated part of his own fortune to the cause, and risked his life repeatedly crossing the U-boat–infested waters of the North Atlantic. His postwar relief efforts rescued millions more throughout Europe and especially in the Soviet Union; it’s unlikely that any other individual in human history saved so many people from death by starvation and want. Questioned about feeding populations under Bolshevik control, he banged a table and insisted, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” In 1920, many people in both major parties wanted to run him for president, but he opted for the Republican cabinet. As secretary of commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he was a dynamic figure, tirelessly promoting new technologies, work-safety rules, and voluntary industry standards; he supervised relief to Mississippi and Louisiana during the terrible 1927 floods and advocated cooperation between labor and management.

“We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved,” the journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote of Hoover’s inauguration in March 1929, in words that might easily have been used in January 2009. “Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.”

The article goes on to describe the similarities between Obama and Hoover's governing philosophies. It repeatedly makes the point that both of them understood what was happening better than everyone around them. It details how Obama is taking the same approach as Hoover did across a wide range of issues. It details how and why Hoover failed and argues that Obama is making the exact same mistakes. It's a depressing read. Makes way too much sense. Uncomfortable. I fear all too prescient. Worth reading, nevertheless. At least it was for me. Turned out I knew next to nothing about Herbert Hoover.

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