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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rethinking Herbert Hoover

New Biography of a President and a Humanitarian

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Perceptions of U.S. presidents can often stray into the realm of myth where truth and fact become indistinguishable. History is, after all, largely a matter of perspective, and when it comes to viewing presidents as human beings, it becomes difficult to separate the men from their circumstances.

Such has been the case for Herbert Hoover, a president who is most often associated with the Great Depression and political passivity. Going beyond the myth, Glen Jeansonne's meticulous research and vigorous, passionate prose, creates an insightful evaluation of a misunderstood and sometimes forgotten president in The Life of Herbert Hoover: Fighting Quaker, 1928-1933 (Palgrave Macmillan).


The UW-Milwaukee history professor is no stranger to the realm of biographical writing. His biography about Gerald L.K. Smith was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, but his newest book may be his best yet. As the first scholarly biography on Hoover since 1979, Jeansonne does more than simply study the presidency; he provides an intimate portrayal of Hoover's compassionate character, as if reminiscing about an old friend. 
While not necessarily a reinterpretation of Hoover, Jeansonne states that his book serves to "fill in the blanks" of the 31st president's career.

But the UWM professor does more than simply fill in the blanks; he provides a detailed look into Hoover's life leading up to and during his presidency.  Jeansonne does a wonderful job of illustrating how an orphaned Quaker, born on the edge of the frontier, rose to prominence through humility and humanitarian work.  He presents a comprehensive look at Hoover's life outside of the Oval Office: from his social life to his love for fishing and reading.  Jeansonne maintains, "he may have been the most cultured, well-read Chief Executive in American history."

Jeansonne's greatest success may be in showcasing Hoover's humility and devotion to his Quaker roots. His pre-presidential years were defined by world crisis, and these crises seemed to shape him. Jeansonne sheds light on Hoover's humanitarian career throughout World War I, where he gained esteem because of his international experience and stunning humanitarian record. This did not go unnoticed; in 1920, President Harding appointed Hoover to his cabinet as the Secretary of Commerce. Jeansonne builds a case for Hoover's influential role as Commerce Secretary, arguing that he successfully improved relations between business and government, aided farmers and worker's unions, and emphasized the importance of foreign trade. Jeansonne paints a picture of Hoover's financial expertise, experience confronting emergencies, and ability to remain calm in times of tribulation, all of which contributed to his eventual election as president.


Jeansonne offers the reader a fresh look at Hoover's presidency, eloquently shedding light on how he met a demanding job during difficult times. 
While attempting to solve the Great Depression required much of Hoover's attention, he never abandoned his humble, principled, approach to public service. Jeansonne contests that many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs were actually Hoover's brainchildren. Jeansonne's presentation highlights that there is much to learn from a president who dealt with many of the same problems that America faces today.

Fighting Quaker is much more than an evaluation of a president; instead, it empathetically paints a picture of a humanitarian public servant met with an untimely economic disaster, rather than an impersonal, do-nothing president mishandling adversity.  With warmth, candor, and an impressive depth of research, Jeansonne crafts a portrait of a great American.

Glen Jeansonne reads from his biography 7 p.m., May 11 at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave.