Senator George Norris
Senator George Norris; drawing by David Levine

David Burner’s able biography of Herbert Hoover raises anew the ever diverting problem of the fluctuation in historical reputations. For many years Hoover’s standing was as low among historians as it had been among voters during the Depression. He was portrayed as the embodiment of the illusions and complacencies of the New Era, a cold, self-righteous president who misconceived the problems of his age and determinedly sacrificed human beings on the altar of dogma.

In recent years, Hoover has made an astonishing comeback. Far from having been a dour conservative, he was, some scholars now contend, the leading progressive of his day. Far from having been the enemy of the New Deal, he was its true begetter. Far from having a mind frozen in the past, he was prophetic in his anticipations of the American dilemmas of the twentieth century—a man who “understood the necessity of accepting the Future,”1 who is “emerging as a major twentieth-century prophet.”2

The work of rehabilitation has followed two rather incompatible lines. One approach emphasizes the continuities between the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations—a proposition expounded originally by Walter Lippmann. “If there has been anything in the nature of a sharp break with the past,” Lippmann wrote in 1935,

the break occurred not in March, 1933, when Mr. Roosevelt was inaugurated, but in the autumn of 1929 when, with the collapse of the post-war prosperity, President Hoover assumed the responsibility for recovery…. The policy initiated by President Hoover in the autumn of 1929 was something utterly unprecedented in American history…. He intervened at every point in the national economy where he felt that something needed to be done. For that reason, it may be said, I believe, that his historic position as a radical innovator has been greatly underestimated and that Mr. Roosevelt’s pioneering has been greatly exaggerated…. All the main features of the Roosevelt program were anticipated by Mr. Hoover.3

A generation later some historians started to embrace Lippmann’s position, as in Carl Degler’s influential essay of 1963, “The Ordeal of Herbert Hoover.” It was, Degler said, Hoover, not Roosevelt, who deserved credit for “breaking precedent to grapple directly with the Depression.” Hoover’s principles, according to Degler, “were distinctly and publicly progressive.”4

The other approach also claims Hoover as a progressive but accepts the traditional view of a sharp break between Hoover and Roosevelt, and asserts that in general Hoover was right and Roosevelt wrong. This approach has particularly attracted the anti-liberal historians of what used to be called the New Left. The Hoover revival was slow to take hold here too. In his book of 1950, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947, William Appleman Williams had dismissed Hoover as one more miscreant in his rogue’s gallery of American leaders charged with attempts to increase American foreign trade. But by 1960, in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, he discovered great virtue in Hoover as the advocate of cooperation at home and isolationism abroad. By 1976 rehabilitation was turning almost into sanctification. Hoover, Williams wrote in America Confronts a Revolutionary World, understood

that the possessive individualism of the capitalist marketplace would give way to some other principle of organization and action…. His preference was to revive the concept and practice of active citizenship which would lead people to come together in cooperative ventures to build a better America.

In the 1970s the Hoover rehabilitation project entered the collective phase. A conference of Hoover scholars of diverse faiths gathered at Geneseo, New York, and produced in 1974 a valuable volume of essays, edited by Martin L. Fausold and George T. Mazuzan, The Hoover Presidency: A Reappraisal. The 1975 biography by Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive, was warmly endorsed by Appleman Williams, and provided an intelligent and informative summary of the revisionist case. In his new biography David Burner now argues this case with minor variations and at greater length.

Herbert Hoover: A Public Life has many excellences. It is diligently researched and generally well written. (Burner is, however, too good a writer to use, as he habitually does, the future conditional in place of the past tense: thus “Hoover’s second Secretary of Labor, William Doak, would spend much time tracking down and deporting aliens” instead of “spent much time.” He should also forgo the horrid usage “convince…to.”) The tone is incisive and dryly detached, and the text has sensitive and subtle insights into character and politics. The account of Hoover’s career as engineer, promotor, and speculator before the First World War is especially fresh and authoritative.

At the same time, the text displays evidence of haste or carelessness. Quotations are repeated. Charles Michelson is transmuted into Michaelson. Alfred M. Landon receives the wrong middle initial. Burner writes of Hoover and FDR, “Both were capitalists, Roosevelt probably being the wealthier of the two.” Actually they were not capitalists in at all the same sense. Roosevelt was a country squire, a lawyer, a rentier; Hoover was a businessman; and Hoover was almost certainly the wealthier of the two. Burner writes that Hoover “seriously considered” George W. Norris as his running-mate in 1932, a statement for which he offers no evidence and which is wholly unlikely.5


Burner’s attitude toward Hoover is sympathetic without being defensive. On occasion, though, sympathy leads to giving Hoover most of the breaks in the controversial passages of his life; in the matter of Hoover’s signing of the fiercely protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, for example, or of Hoover’s suppression of the Bonus March in 1932, where Burner seems to accept the idea that Communists were a significant element in the Bonus Army. It is instructive to compare Burner’s enthusiastic account of Mrs. Hoover’s White House tea party for Mrs. Oscar de Priest, the wife of a black congressman, with the acidulous description of Hooverian vacillation and anguish provided by the White House usher, Irwin H. Hoover, in Forty-two Years in the White House.

Burner disputes the view that Hoover was reluctant about signing the Norris-LaGuardia Act designed to protect workers by outlawing yellow-dog contracts and restricting labor injunctions. Norris himself later said, “We never received any assistance of any kind from the Department of Justice in the Hoover administration. There was that impenetrable wall of opposition, an opposition not voiced, not out in the open, but under cover, silent and effective.” Hoover, Norris wrote, had no choice but to sign the bill, since the overwhelming vote in its favor in both houses showed that it would have been passed over a presidential veto.6

Burner’s attempts at rehabilitation follow, if at a distance, the Williams-Wilson rather than the Lippmann-Degler line. Albert U. Romasco had earlier destroyed the thesis that Hoover’s Depression effort represented “unprecedented innovation when compared to the tradition of prior recession presidents, who, in effect, waited passively for recovery.” After close examination of the three major twentieth-century economic disruptions before 1929—the banking panic of 1907, the recession of 1914, and the depression of 1920-1921—Romasco showed that Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Harding had established precedents on which Hoover drew in 1929-1932. All had issued statements of exhortation and reassurance. T. R. had provided direct federal aid to the banks, expanded the currency and facilitated the reduction of interest rates; Wilson had intervened to put a floor under stock prices and to relieve pressure against the banking system; Harding had met depression by programs of agricultural credit, tariff protection, and tax reduction (the last, alas, not a precedent for Hoover). “The long-standing contention that no president, prior to Hoover, accepted federal responsibility for assuring the economic well-being of the nation,” Romasco concluded, “needs to be considerably modified, if not abandoned altogether.”7

Burner goes on from this to stress the fundamental differences between the Hoover and Roosevelt approaches. “It is too much to claim,” he writes,

that the Hoover administration anticipated the New Deal and that Roosevelt just filled in the cracks. The New Deal was so broad in scope, such a panoply of measures came out of it, that the average citizen was made to feel the presence of the federal government for the first time. Hoover’s response to the Depression, in contrast, was characterized—and deeply marred—by his tenacious adherence to a philosophy of voluntarism. The experiences of his administration forewarned its successors that an attempt to reduce government spending did not end depressions and that voluntary agencies and businessmen would not sacrifice to end them either. After Hoover, no one could say that the federal government had rushed in before private agencies had been given a chance. The way was clear for a New Deal.

The sharp break with the past did in fact occur in March 1933, and the nature of the break, as Burner recognizes, lay in the change from voluntarism to law as the means of ordering the economy. Elliot A. Rosen elaborates this view in his stimulating and combative Hoover, Roosevelt, and the Brains Trust. “Hoover was no progressive,” Rosen writes, “nor was he the precursor of the interventionist policies of the New Deal. His depression measures were designed to preserve existing institutional relationships, not to alter them…. As he viewed the programs unfolded in the New Deal era in 1936, the former Republican president labelled them manifestations of socialism and fascism, ideologies that had come to infest much of the Western World and which needed to be kept from our shores.”8 Hoover was in dead earnest when he cried at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1932:

This campaign is more than a contest between two men. It is more than a contest between two parties. It is a contest between two philosophies of government…. They are proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of our American system.

Or at least of his American system: the system based on the principle of voluntarism, by which it was left to each individual to choose whether or not he would perform his social duty. Those who claim Hoover as the father of the New Deal must contend first of all with Hoover himself. The Williams-Wilson line, on the other hand, has only to take Hoover at his word. Burner is not so certain as Williams that Hoover’s reliance on voluntary action presented a live option. Still he has no doubt that Hoover was a progressive—“an engineer’s progressivism, stressing efficient organization, sensible ways to progress, and a morality centered on workmanship.” It was, according to Burner, “a robust, balanced progressivism” that had “a good deal in common with that of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt.” The content of this “progressivism” turns out to be a scheme by which “various units of the economy could regulate themselves under some degrees of supervision.” Such progressivism would avoid “not only the power of government over business but the syndicalist power of business in government.”


Hoover’s, Burner concedes, was “a ‘corporatist’ ideology, a concept of society as organized into functionally independent economic units—voluntarily decentralized while self-governing and self-regulating.” Hoover’s chosen instrument was the trade association: as Lenin had said “all power to the soviets,” Hoover (almost) said “all power to the trade associations.” In the words of Murray Rothbard, “Throughout his career culminating in the Presidency, Herbert Hoover sought to transform the American economy into one of collaborating, self-regulating monopoly groups, all under the benevolent aegis and central direction of the federal government.”9 Hoover’s “guiding vision,” writes Ellis W. Hawley, “seemed to be a structure of semiformal guilds or estates, each represented in a larger economic community and each having positive social obligations.”10

Hoover’s guild capitalism was in fact a considerable distance from “his hero” Theodore Roosevelt’s view that the democratic response to corporate bigness was an affirmative national government accountable to the people. Hoover’s corporatism, with its withdrawal of private economic society from public control and accountability, was of course business syndicalism with a vengeance. But where would this feudalism of private interest groups leave the “American individualism” about which he wrote a homiletic tract in 1922?

The question was obvious enough, but Hoover never confronted it. Appleman Williams speaks of his “ruthless intellectual analysis.” 11 In fact, Hoover was not a rigorous or consistent thinker. His social thought was an unstable and contradictory jumble of individualist and corporatist ideals. His prose, as Burner puts it, “blurs edges and unites opposites by proclamation.” He wobbled from one side to the other. Repeatedly, writes Ellis Hawley, when his guiding vision “collided with the desire to preserve traditional liberties and incentives, Hoover and his lieutenants drew back, insisting that it was vital to the ‘American system’ that market forces, individual opportunity, and existing political arrangements be retained.” Ideologically Hoover was fully as confused as FDR, and Hoover’s confusion was a far greater bar to intelligent action.

Burner’s material even suggests a tension between the cooperative afflatus and authoritarian drives in Hoover’s own personality—his “self-serving dogmatism,” “his capacity for self-delusion.”12 “Applying principles he had learned in private business,” Burner writes in connection with Belgian relief during the First World War, “Hoover believed in a single administrative structure with ultimate authority in one man, himself.” Woodrow Wilson said of him, “I have the feeling that he would rather see a good cause fail than succeed if he were not the head of it.” “Hoover’s conduct of the Food Administration,” Burner himself says,

would sometimes suggest that his idea of cooperation was to have everybody get together and do just as he said. If he was the ablest administrator since Caesar, Mary Austin wrote, he acted “wholly in the Caesarian manner, with all the reins in his hands.” Even Colonel House, who made a hero of the administrator-reformer, thought Hoover’s desire for “complete control” his “besetting sin.”

A Republican remarked of his presidency that Hoover “never really recognized the House and Senate as desirable factors in our government.” Absolutely convinced of his own superior wisdom and rectitude, Hoover was intolerant of disagreement and resented the need to persuade others.

Burner occasionally (eight times; once every fifty or so pages) invokes Thorstein Veblen as if thereby to give Hoover’s intellectual ramblings a measure of dignity-by-association. I suppose this is because Hoover was an engineer and Veblen believed in government by engineers. But it is historical name-dropping of an arrant sort. A few engineers, like Morris Llewellyn Cooke and Howard Scott, were indeed influenced by Veblen. Hoover, however, was rather less an engineer than a businessman; in his own life, he himself said, there had been a “vast preponderance of the commercial over the technical”; and no one has ever adduced any evidence that he read a page of Veblen. The single mention of Veblen in the three volumes of Hoover’s Memoirs is a reference to Rexford G. Tugwell as one “devoted to ‘planned economy”‘ and “the intellectual heir of Thorstein Veblen.”13 Since Hoover loathed both Tugwell and the idea of a planned economy, this hardly constitutes a hearty endorsement of Veblen. If anything Hoover, like Jimmy Carter in our own time, stands as a refutation of Veblen’s illusions about engineers.

The Depression exposed the feebleness of Hoover’s social thought. Williams argues that Hoover’s opposition to the New Deal rested on a prescient rejection of “corporate liberalism.” “Hoover,” according to Williams, “knew modern American industrial society better than any other President.” But during the Depression, Williams explains, he was “traumatized by the failure of the people to take charge of their immediate lives and then join together in cooperative action, and by his terrifying insight into what the future would be if the people continued to duck their obligation.”14

No one can doubt that voluntary action would be the ideal way to meet our problems. Cooperation remains effective in small settings, where people work directly with each other. But voluntarism cannot control the great impersonal modern economy, where people no longer feel the obligations created by personal relationships and where the selfish benefit by the restraint of the virtuous. One wonders why a president who knew industrial society so well was surprised by the failure of voluntarism. (Burner writes more realistically, “Few sentimental liberals could have had a more naïve expectation about human conduct.”) One wonders even more whether Williams really believes that people, by taking charge of their immediate lives and joining together in cooperative action, can solve such aggregate and structural problems as depression, unemployment, inflation, racial discrimination, energy; and whether the resort to what Karl Popper has called “piecemeal social engineering” in order to meet such problems has been in fact so “terrifying” in its consequence.

By 1931 Hoover’s hortatory approach was a manifest failure. Voluntarism could not arrest the economic decline. It could not feed the hungry; Burner shows how, despite Hoover’s complacent assurances—“No one is actually starving”—there were numerous cases of death by starvation. (He charitably forebears, however, to quote the unforgettable line from Hoover’s Memoirs, “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”) And voluntarism penalized decent businessmen—those who kept wages up instead of cutting them, who provided reasonable working conditions rather than sweatshops, who hired adults rather than children, who recognized unions instead of breaking them, who traded honestly rather than fraudulently on the stock exchange. Hoover evidently did not understand that law is the means by which a community establishes equitable moral and social standards. “The sole function of government,” he said in 1931, “is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise.”15 His voluntarism amounted to little more than defense of business syndicalism against social control—a defense delivered with an engineer’s dogmatism and packaged in Quaker cant.

This was certainly the way Hoover was perceived by his contemporaries who styled themselves, as Hoover did not, Progressive Republicans. Hoover was in his way a reformer; as Burner rightly observes, he wanted to reorganize the government, strengthen civil service, improve the prisons, help the Indians, and so on. But was Hoover a progressive in the historic sense of one seeking national control of big business and natural resources in the public interest? Surely the testimony of the real progressives of the day is relevant to this question. The two most significant and effective progressives in Hoover’s party were George W. Norris of Nebraska and Robert M. La Follette, Jr., of Wisconsin. Both have recently received noteworthy biographies—by Richard W. Lowitt, completing a three-volume life with George W. Norris: The Triumph of a Progressive, 1933-1944, and Patrick J. Maney’s “Young Bob” La Follette.

Far from seeing Hoover as a friend, partner, or ally, Norris and La Follette detested Hoover, and he them. Norris was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, of rural electrification, of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, of the Twentieth Amendment, of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. No senator ever accomplished more. He was also the hero of many lost battles. No one more steadfastly kept the progressive faith. Like nearly everyone else, Norris had begun by admiring the Hoover he encountered during the First World War. But the Secretary of Commerce disillusioned him. In 1928 he declined to support Hoover and endorsed Al Smith. “I knew where Mr. Hoover stood,” Norris wrote in his autobiography. “…He was most backward and reactionary.”

For his part Hoover considered Norris a “collectivist” and, along with Thomas J. Walsh, who had exposed Hoover’s crooked friend, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, in connection with Teapot Dome, and Elmer Thomas, one of the “three great masters of demagoguery” in the Senate. In his Memoirs the old Quaker repeated with unseemly relish a story he claimed William E. Borah had told him a quarter century before. Borah allegedly said that Norris was “a devoted socialist” and that “left-wing women furnished funds for his elections and for the maintenance of a publicity bureau in Washington which constantly eulogized him.”16 Lowitt characterizes Hoover’s rendition of Borah as “bitter and false.” (Lowitt is very likely right. Hoover’s Memoirs are notoriously inaccurate. “Hoover could have a cavalier way with detail,” Burner writes. “…Hoover’s Memoirs have him born on the wrong day, his mother dying in the wrong year, his leaving Iowa in the wrong year, and his leaving the United States for Australia in the wrong year—the errors are legion.”) In 1930 Senator Simeon Fess, an Ohio conservative, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one of Hoover’s few intimates in the Senate, allowed his assistant to enter another George W. Norris, a politically unknown grocer from Broken Bow, in the Republican primary in an effort to defeat Norris. Norris never doubted that the adventure of Grocer Norris had Hoover’s sympathy.

Norris was further angered by Hoover’s pompous veto of the Muscle Shoals bill as “the negation of the ideals upon which our civilization has been based”;17 the Muscle Shoals bill, of course, laid the basis for the TVA. Nor could Norris abide Hoover’s highfalutin reasons for denying direct federal assistance to the unemployed. Hoover finally consented to seed and animal food loans but drew the line at people. “Blessed be those who starve while the asses and mules are fed,” said Norris. In February 1931 Norris listed eleven reasons why the Republicans should not renominate Hoover. In May 1932 he announced that he would support Roosevelt, if the Democrats nominated him, and that in no circumstance would he support Hoover.

La Follette, thirty-four years younger than Norris, represented the younger generation of Progressive Republicans. In 1928 he backed Norris for the Republican nomination. The convention that chose Hoover, La Follette said, “was controlled by the great bankers and industrialists of the East,” and he declined to endorse the Republican ticket. Once in the White House, Maney writes, Hoover “scrupulously avoided any contact with the Wisconsin senator.” Hoover’s response to unemployment outraged La Follette. “His calloused indifference got under my skin,” La Follette wrote his mother.

…I suppose people will think I have an obsession on Hoover but it does seem as though someone should keep after him and no one else in Washington appears to feel as keenly as I do about the shameful manner in which he has neglected his responsibilities in this economic crisis.

In 1932 La Follette, like Norris, endorsed Roosevelt.

Norris and La Follette, in short, opposed Hoover well before the Depression, refused to back him for president in 1928, found their worst forebodings confirmed by his presidency, and worked for his defeat in 1932. Hoover sought his congressional allies not among the Progressive Republicans but among the party’s standpatters and right-wingers. All this suggests how mindless the contention is that Hoover himself was, except in some esoteric sense, a progressive.

The lives of Norris and La Follette changed dramatically once Hoover left the presidency. “From a political outcast,” Lowitt writes of Norris, “he quickly became a welcome visitor and intimate at the White House.” “From the beginning,” writes Maney, “Roosevelt went out of his way to cultivate La Follette’s support and friendship.” Together the two progressives contributed to the transformation of the American polity, not toward the business syndicalism of which Hoover dreamed, but toward a system of democratic control based on law.

Lowitt’s biography of Norris is, as the author confesses, “an old-fashioned effort to write a comprehensive biography of a major political figure within the context of his times.” The three long volumes, exhaustively researched and ably organized, are no less than Norris deserves. Occasionally Lowitt succumbs to scholarly localitis, as when he calls the TVA act “the most important measure of the entire New Deal period.” But mostly he keeps Norris in perspective; and, though the writing is stolid, a moving portrait eventually emerges from the intelligent accumulation of detail—a portrait of an unassuming man of absolute integrity, unlimited courage and exemplary openness of mind, with his black sack suit, white shirt, low stiff collar, black shoe-string bow tie, and ever-present cigar. Roosevelt called him, in language that sounds sentimental but was rather precise, “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals.”

Norris was a genuinely wise man, in ways not always appreciated at the time. Where Herbert Hoover as late as 1952 boasted of having been “somewhat responsible” for the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI and went on about “the efficiency and courage of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover,”18 Norris had conducted a long campaign against Hoover and the FBI a dozen years before. “The methods being pursued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are wrong,” he told the Senate in 1940, “and, if continued, mean the destruction of human liberty in the United States.” Norris supported the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941 but, concerned about undue presidential power, tried to amend it to make sure that nothing in the act could be construed as authorizing “the President, without the consent of Congress, to send the armed forces of the United States to fight on foreign soil.” If American liberals had read his eloquent chapter on inflation in his autobiography, they would not have allowed conservatives to capture what ought to be a liberal issue. “There are some things I do not like in regimentation,” Norris said,

but I like price-control measures and rationing much better than the ruin of inflation…. If inflation gets under way in the postwar years, it will be the beginning of disunity and dissension…. There is no greater enemy to the economic and political independence of a free people.

Norris, even though beaten in his last senatorial contest, had a more fulfilled life than his younger colleague. Coming to the Senate from Wisconsin in 1925 in the shadow of his dramatic and masterful father, Young Bob La Follette did not make much of a mark until the Depression—a crisis to which, as Maney points out, “the elder La Follette’s career offered no clues…so Young Bob was on his own.” He did very well on his own. Courteous and self-effacing, he was none the less persevering and tough. He proved himself a conscientious and highly intelligent legislator and in the end achieved more in the Senate than his father had done.

Under Roosevelt La Follette was a critic of the New Deal from the left, a fact that did not interrupt the friendship between the senator and the president. Maney is impressed by the condemnation of the New Deal, popularized by Paul Conkin and others, for having failed to make a “fundamental challenge to the basic structure of capitalism.” But his own evidence shows how politically hopeless such a challenge would have been; for even La Follette, the critic from the left, did not, by Maney’s account, urge comprehensive economic planning, nationalization of the banks, or anything else very fundamental. La Follette persuasively argued the importance of restoring mass purchasing power but then kept urging higher taxes, a policy that would only reduce purchasing power. His most memorable work was as chairman of the Senate Civil Liberties Committee, where he methodically exposed the brutal means favored by American employers to nullify labor’s right to organize.

Though La Follette backed Roosevelt for a third time in 1940, foreign policy finally drove them apart. Here the split in the progressive tradition between Norris and La Follette is striking and significant. Unfortunately neither Lowitt nor Maney explores this divergence; indeed, each tends to ignore the other’s hero and thereby misses what must have been the revealing interplay between them. (An unpublished dissertation on the Progressive Republican by Ronald Feinman does go into this matter.) Norris and the elder La Follette had stood together in opposition to American entry into the First World War. But twenty years later the older man turned out to be far more responsive than his old comrade’s son to the new world of fascism and Japanese imperialism.

By the end of 1937 Norris started moving toward strong, though not uncritical, support of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. La Follette remained a rigid isolationist. The clues from his father’s career were overwhelming—especially no doubt the memories of 1917 when Fighting Bob La Follette was hung in effigy and spat on in streetcars, and old family friends like John R. Commons and Charles Van Hise demanded his expulsion from the Senate. Recalling in 1940 the “historic battle” of 1917, Young Bob said, “Its full, tragic meaning burned me for life.”

A miasma of frustration hung over La Follette’s last years. The war shunted him to the sidelines. He had never enjoyed politics; his health was chronically bad; and he grew prematurely old. In 1946 he led the fight for the La Follette-Monroney Legislative Reorganization Act in the hope of restoring to Congress some of the power that had drained to the executive; but like all exercises in government reorganization (a favorite Hoover nostrum), it made little difference. That year Joe McCarthy beat him in the Republican primary. (Maney has uncovered the surprising fact that La Follette voted for McCarthy in the general election.) Life thereafter as a Washington business consultant did not alleviate his frustrations. In 1953, at the age of fifty-eight, he put a bullet in his brain.

Maney’s biography is concise and intelligent. He has used the La Follette family papers to good effect and gives a candid account of the prickly relations between Bob La Follette and Phil, his flashier and more ambitious younger brother. The book is less successful in placing La Follette in the progressive context. “In contrast to most of his progressive colleagues,” Maney writes, “…he was tending toward a new style of progressivism—one more sensitive to the problems of the urban-industrial sections of the country and less constricted by the cultural values of agrarian America.” This theme, however, remains undeveloped. Maney mentions the early influence of Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York; but his analysis would have gained body had he explored La Follette’s relations with Adolf Berle and Fiorello La Guardia.

Plainly, if Herbert Hoover is to go down in the textbooks as a Progressive Republican, some other term will have to be found for Progressive Republicans like Norris and La Follette, La Guardia, Gifford Pinchot, Harold Ickes, and Henry Wallace. But one doubts whether the Hoover boom will last. It is a matter of symbolism, not of substance. Revisionist historians, opposed on principle to piecemeal reform and therefore contemptuous of the New Deal, preferring honest capitalists to hypocritical liberals, fearful of interventions abroad, find Hoover a convenient stick with which to beat Roosevelt, the New Deal, and internationalism.

But no one who plows through the pontifical banalities of the two volumes of Hoover’s State Papers can possibly believe in his progressive reincarnation. It is just that a public man, if he lives long enough, will be forgiven nearly everything. Emotions fade. Blunders recede in memory. A halo of venerable benignity descends. We already see this process prematurely at work for Richard Nixon. (Hoover wrote Nixon in 1961, “You will discover that elder statesmen are little regarded…until they are over eighty years of age—and thus harmless.”19 ) If Hitler and Stalin were still alive, they might be receiving pilgrims and scholars like the old Kaiser at Doorn. Hoover lived on for more than thirty years after he left the White House. As Emerson nearly said, every bore becomes a hero at last.

This Issue

March 8, 1979