Among the cruelties of popular political history is that almost everyone below the level of President winds up being forgotten, and one-term Presidents are usually remembered as failures. Nobody demonstrates this better than Hoover. He was elected in 1928 with four hundred and forty-four electoral votes, carrying all but eight states—and it was the first time he had run for political office. Four years later, he got fifty-nine electoral votes and carried just six states. What intervened between his two Presidential runs was the 1929 stock-market crash and the early years of the Great Depression. Hoover was doomed to be remembered as the man who was too rigidly conservative to react adeptly to the Depression, as the hapless foil to the great Franklin Roosevelt, and as the politician who managed to turn a Republican country into a Democratic one. (The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives that began during Hoover’s Presidency lasted for all but four of the next sixty-two years.) Even now, if you were a politician running for office, you would invoke Hoover only to compare your opponent to him.
“Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” (Knopf), by Kenneth Whyte, the former editor of the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s, helpfully lays out a long and copious résumé that doesn’t fit on this stamp of dismissal. An inaugural graduate of Stanford, where he studied mechanical engineering and geology, Hoover became a mining engineer at a time when that was as glamorous and potentially profitable a career as launching a tech startup would be for a Stanford graduate now. His first job was as a two-dollar-a-day “mucker” in a California mine, but not much more than a year later he was supervising large gold-mining operations in Western Australia for a prominent London firm, at a sizable salary. Before he turned thirty, he was married and a father, running a large gold mine in Tientsin, China, and highly prosperous. Hoover seems to have been an almost brutally tough, obsessively hardworking manager; certainly charm was not the secret to his success. “It simply comes to this: men hate me more after they work for me than before,” Whyte quotes Hoover writing to his brother during his Australia period.