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The author's art of compromise

Herbert Hoover: A Public Life - David Burner

One of the challenges in writing a biography of Herbert Hoover is coming to terms with the sheer length and scope of his life and career. Over the course of his many years Hoover was a mining engineer, an author, a humanitarian, a wartime administrator, a cabinet secretary, and a president of the United States, all during one of the momentous periods in American and world history. Recounting it all poses a formidable challenge for any author; George Nash, who was commissioned by the Hoover Library to write a multivolume biography, took three volumes just to chronicle the first forty-four years of Hoover’s life, leaving it to three other historians to write another three volumes addressing the rest of it.


By this standard David Burner’s achievement in summarizing Hoover’s life within the covers of a single book is a commendable one. Doing so requires him to trade detail for accessibility, yet it also allows him to more easily delineate themes running through the course of Hoover’s life. Burner sees Hoover as a far more activist and progressive figure than is often remembered, one who pursued a number of significant reforms as both Secretary of Commerce and as president. When faced with the successive economic crises of the Great Depression, he moved quickly and aggressively to provide solutions, many of which served as the foundation for the later New Deal. But his response to Depression was ultimately hampered by his commitment to a philosophy of voluntary cooperation that proved inadequate to the magnitude of the crisis, by his poor relations with Congress, and by his technocratic public persona.


That Burner succeeds in making Hoover a sympathetic figure is a testament to the quality of his analysis. Considerable space is devoted to explaining his views, and Hoover’s consistency to them is one of the themes that emerges. Yet ultimately this is a choice that involves some sacrifice, which is reflected in chapters on Hoover’s tenure as Secretary of Commerce and (especially) his post-presidential career that feel rushed and lacking in sufficient detail. Such compromises are forgivable, though, given the result: a book which is still the best single volume on Herbert Hoover’s life and career, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand better his impact on American history.