What This Country Needs…

The Shattered Dream: Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression

by Gene Smith
William Morrow, 278 pp., $6.95

Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover; drawing by David Levine

Herbert Clark Hoover almost never laughed, or so Gene Smith tells us; but I have one of those visions that historians occasionally allow themselves: if one arose very early (sometime during that missing hour ‘twixt four and five), and moved very quietly along the upper reaches of the McKenzie River east of Springfield, Oregon, there Hoover would be, just barely visible in the mist—in his waders, standing tit-high in that damnably cold water, a string of trout drifting downstream from his suspender button, one hand with a fly rod and the other with the latest New York Times Book Review section, his head and cigar tilted high, roaring at the latest historical account of his failures. His belly laugh would override the rapids because he would already have read a story about voluntary communes in Iowa, Idaho, and Indiana, and another about Julius Lester’s beautiful blast at white radicals for having to learn the same thing over and over and over and….

Back in the real world one would naturally assume that old-mod Charlie Michelson1 killed Olde Herbie dead between 1929 and 1933. As a kind of live-ammunition training exercise for the subsequent massacre of Alfred Landon.

Not quite. Professor Richard Hofstadter raised him from the grave in a memorable chapter of his fine book on The American Political Tradition.

But then Professor Schlesinger devoted an entire volume to a counterattack on Hoover as a tune-up job for levitating Godfather Franklin. And Izzy Stone can hardly let an issue escape him without swinging his scimitar at what he assures us is the ghost of Hoover ensconced in the White House as clandestine adviser to Richard Nixon and Billy Graham.2

But why?

Why so much labor to exorcise a cold and feeble failure? And why so much reliance on analogy to put down Nixon, a man who has generously stockpiled a public arsenal accessible to all critics?

Smith gives us a clue or two but never uses them. So the place to start is with Julius Lester’s wryly devastating comment: “The inability to move beyond a politics of reaction has been detrimental to the growth of a white radical movement.” For to discuss Nixon in terms of Hoover, and to define Hoover in terms of the Michelson (and textbook) myths, is to display the mind (and politics) of the knee-jerk. The way to get at Hoover, as well as Nixon, is to pick up on two more of Lester’s remarks. The first is his accurate observation that white radicals persistently react to specifics instead of seeing the specifics as part of an integrated system that must be dealt with as a system. The second is his call for “a positive revolutionary program.”3

Now at this point we must go very slowly because we are so confused (as Harold Cruse pointed out a year ago) that, given a problem, we…

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