Profound Questions: Can We Use a Man Like Herbert Hoover Again?
Originally published November 11, 2009
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Camp Rapidan, Herbert Hoover's Shenandoah Mountains retreat, started as a simple vision: important people in tents. Not the tents you get at REI with finished basements and swim-up bars -- actual tents with few anti-mauling features. Just layers of canvas, allowing what Hoover called the "inspiration of primitive nature," and bears, to awaken a "renewed purpose in life" in the visitors.
They eventually put up cabins, since a mauling of the Prime Minister of England could sour trans-Atlantic affairs, but the Hoovers drank the Flavor Aid on this stuff. They had roughed it through China and Australia in their years as mining experts; Lou Henry had been president of the Girl Scouts; and Herbert had a love of fly fishing you only read about, usually in the memoirs of middle-aged rich white people trying to understand why their dad hated them. (Not Hoover! He was an orphan.)
They were sincere, self-made millionaires who never stopped taking joy in the simple things. Outdoor living rejuvenated them after grueling, dedicated public service. And it might have played just a little better if large portions of the population weren't also living in tents, involuntarily.
Circumstance has kicked many people in the teeth -- you, Conan O'Brien -- but maybe no one harder than Herbert Calvin Hoover. If a pinko had shot him on Oct. 23, 1929, we might get his birthday off work. Instead, people threw rotten vegetables at his campaign car, at a time when you'd be lucky to eat rotten vegetables. He's still the albatross you hang on a Republican who corners you at a cocktail party..
But America, land of "Dancing With the Stars," is built on second chances. Could we use a man like Herbert Hoover again?
The resume is pretty awesome. Education? Stanford -- the first student there. Prior work experience? As a mining engineer, Hoover took crappy facilities and made them into gold mines. (Not literally, as alchemy would have saved his presidency.) By his mid-20s he enjoyed the kind of youthful success that makes your parents ask how busing tables at Applebee's is helping you "find yourself." We've had countless lawyers in our highest office, but only one engineer -- and there's something appealing about a man trained to find practical solutions, as opposed to billable hours.
That brilliant engine was dropped into a frame of mad administrative skillz. In the 1920s he became the greatest Commerce secretary ever (sorry, Phil Klutznick), facilitating water development projects, mapping the future of commercial radio and air travel, preaching best practices to industry and limiting our cutlery sets to 55 pieces (to conserve silver, and keep you from ruining weddings by using a Caesar salad fork on a Waldorf salad, you cad).
The job threw his skill set at tangible challenges he could obliterate: Hoover opined that the Colorado River dam might "assure livelihood to a new population nearly as great at that of the state of Maryland." Watch an episode of "Las Vegas," then an episode of "The Wire." You tell me which population is greater. Advantage Hoover.
"But we have enough motivated self-starters," you're thinking. "One threw coffee in my face this morning." Then consider that Hoover was the most famous humanitarian in America. He dropped a sterling career to run food relief to Europe during the Great War, saving millions of Belgians and guaranteeing the waffle's future. At home he stumped hard for the poor, young and old.
In the quaint days before Hollywood and Madison Avenue destroyed all sense of societal morality, Hoover believed the private sector could be prodded to fight social problems. It didn't pan out in the '30s, but up to then Hoover himself was proof of concept. Not only did he collect millions, he refused to take a dime in salary for public service, including the presidency. You could argue that he was still overpaid. You can't argue that he wasn't a compassionate conservative.
But all applicants must list a greatest weakness, and a man like Hoover has a whopper: communication.
At Commerce, Harding and Coolidge were his product development managers -- the guys who spared clients from dealing directly with the brains. It turns out Hoover needed the buffer.
He didn't see the point in receptions and wasn't much of a speaker. The most polite thing you can say about his compartmentalized memoirs is that he writes like an engineer. If you have a personable story about the attorney general hitting you in the face with a medicine ball (Hooverball, every morning on the White House lawn!), that's the time to use it. Instead, the reader gets charts on housing starts, and the sense that in another time, young Herbert would have had a Mr. Spock poster in his bedroom.
He had no spider-sense for public relations. Take Camp Rapidan: Hoover bought the land and donated it to the government. Good. But he had Marines build the camp as a training exercise, not realizing that it looks sort of bad when government employees build you a vacation home. Bad. A humble fisherman might have some appeal to Joe Six Pack. Good. But Hoover only seriously opened the camp to reporters as re-election loomed. So we have footage of a smiling millionaire enjoying the "constructive, rejuvenating joy" of trout fishing, at a time when hobos were wrestling under railroad trestles for dirt sandwiches. Awful.
In a job where charisma counts, Hoover couldn't switch off the engineer in his head long enough to be a politician. That strike is a huge one, so as America's H.R. department, our decision is simple.
We can use a man like Herbert Hoover, as long as he isn't in charge.
And we already made the hire. Can you think of any self-made millionaires with a technical bent, stunning organizational efficiency, world-class charity and a complete lack of public appeal? Someone with faith in the private sector, seeking practical solutions to social problems?
And Herbert Hoover never did anything as horrible as Vista. Give the guy a break.