How is Hoover?

by Herbert Croly | June 27, 1928

The nomination by the Republican party of Herbert Hoover for President, like the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, is a signal of the influence of novel factors in American politics. Mr. Hoover is an engineer who is also a business man. The methods which he represents as a business man are determined by training and experience as an engineer; and the purposes which inform his activities as an engineer are determined by his outlook as a business man. As a combination of engineer and business man he is a startling apparition in American politics. Although several men with engineering training have received the nomination for President by one party or the other, they were picked, not because they were engineers, but because they were generals. Never before in the history of the United States has any man been nominated for the presidency who was an engineer but not a general, or who was a business man. Yet his success is not an accident. If he had not the qualities which are natural to an engineer-business man, it is doubtful whether he would ever have triumphed over his more political competitors. That is why his nomination advertises the intrusion of new motives and actors into the stale American political drama.

In the past, a preoccupation with business or the training and experience of an engineer would, except in very rare instances, practically disqualify a man for high and particularly for the highest political position. American business or engineering has aimed at a mastery of process or affairs with human beings as incidental to them, while politics has consisted in maneuvering and cajoling human beings, but taking process for granted. American political leaders have usually been sanguine, self-assertive, unsystematic, persuasive, loquacious and sympathetic men who specialized in personal relationships and who were experts in circulating the verbal and emotional currency of political intercourse. They might or might not have a talent for reaching decisions and the management of affairs, but their political activity concerned itself with words rather than with physical processes, and with life in its dramatic and human rather than its technical aspects. A business man like Mark Hanna, who became during the last generation a considerable power in American politics, happened to possess a negotiable political personality whose virtues he enhanced late in life, but very few business men are capable of this kind of flexibility. Those American political leaders who have qualified for the presidency have usually been lawyers with a long and varied experience of political traffic, who specialized in expressing themselves in customary political terms to their their fellow countrymen and in looking and playing the part of statesman. During the period of progressive agitation they were transformed into exhorters and preachers like Bryan, Roosevelt, La Follette and Wilson, but they depended for success no less on words, and they were still essentially actors in a conversational political drama. They had created in their own minds an image of what the American people were and wanted. Their political lives consisted in cutting verbal and other capers in celebration of this image.

Mr. Hoover is devoid of these conventional political qualities and habits of mind. He is not loquacious in public; he is not affable; he is not sympathetic; he is not adaptable; he is not playing the part of a popular moral leader or conventional statesman. He has never been elected to any office in the gift of the American people; and he has never, in order to get elected, bowed and scraped and smiled and flattered his fellow countrymen. The old-style politicians are instinctively opposed to him. He does not conduct himself in the accommodating way which they like. He is a poor public speaker and a pedestrian and undistinguished writer. While he likes to talk and talks well and with a complete grasp of his subject, his conversation is adapted to only small audiences. He arouses lively enthusiasm and personal loyalty among individual intimates and particular groups, but he cannot communicate anything vital from himself to a crowd. It would be difficult to imagine a less political and popularly ingratiating personality than that of this round, sedentary, factually-minded man who seems incapable of pretending to be anything that he does not know himself to be. Politics is not a stage for him, and he is incapable of playing a part even in the service of his imagination. To his mind it is a workshop in which there are certain results to be achieved by those who are capable of understanding and utilizing the actual and usually the measurable conditions of achievement. He is a statesman in his own way, but he is a statesman who is preoccupied with understanding and governing economic and technical processes rather than all kinds of foolish, irrelevant, suggestible and insubordinate people.

His nomination calls, consequently, for a good deal of explanation. It is a triumph not of agitation and campaigning, but of political engineering. He has not captured for himself a place in the imagination of the American people. His personality did not contribute to his success except in its proper and powerful effect on his intimates. His program and outlook must have been negligible, for he refused to reveal them. He was opposed by a powerful conspiracy of state Republican bosses, by the great majority of Republican politicians who foresaw the unwelcome prospect in him of another independent and masterful President, and by large financial and business interests which do not consider him, from their point of view, sufficiently amenable. Finally, the whole agricultural interest in its political manifestation regarded him with suspicion and dislike. How, then, was his nomination brought about? What were the positive influences in his favor which were sufficient to overcome such a formidable array of enemies and obstacles?

Numerous and formidable as his opponents were, they were poorly equipped to play their common game effectively. There was no alternative candidate upon whom the unplacated politicians, the suspicious big business men and the aggrieved agrarians could agree. This was partly the fault of Mr. Coolidge. The President's whole performance since he announced last August his choice not to run is psychologically puzzling and is open to several interpretations. Its effect in the beginning was to harm Mr. Hoover, but, as time went on and he repeated the expression of his choice, it began to work in Hoover's favor. For while he continued to produce some uncertainty among Mr. Hoover's friends, he produced more among his enemies. He helped to prevent them from uniting on anyone else by keeping the possibility open that he might consent to be drafted. But Mr. Coolidge's influence was not in this respect decisive. He could have prevented Mr. Hoover's nomination, but wouldn't. Hoover's enemies would have prevented it, but couldn't. Mr. Hoover in some way nominated himself. As soon as Mr. Hughes counted himself out, his enemies were unable to produce a candidate with any real momentum to his pretensions. If Mr. Coolidge had intended by his behavior to expose the bankruptcy of old-style Republican political leadership, he could not have adopted a course which was better calculated to accomplish his object. The only candidates which Mr. Hoover's many enemies could produce to contest his nomination were sectional leaders and petty state bosses who happened to be Senators. Not one of them measured up to the job. Not one of them could produce the necessary qualifications for national leadership. The Republican party has for a long time been too disorganized to develop a genuinely national leader. Harding was, of course, a pitiable failure, and Coolidge has been a garrulous apology for the absence of leadership whom the Republican party would have liked to renominate in order to disguise its poverty in dynamic ideas and personalities.

Mr. Hoover's qualities enabled him to take advantage of the sterility of the older American politics. His positive strength derived in part from the enthusiasm which he inspires in a few people of ability and energy, but chiefly from the confidence which the large body of small business men throughout the country have come to feel in him. The trade papers were all enthusiastically for him, and so were the chambers of commerce. The effectiveness of their support proved the existence of a new power in American politics. They recognized in him the practical, non-political point of view of a business man, combined with the methods of a technician and with the experience of managing large human as well as large business enterprises. Eight years ago it was his work as relief and food administrator which recruited supporters for him as a presidential candidate. Today it is chiefly his work as Secretary of Commerce which accounts for his success. He has placed himself as a candidate at the head of the most aggressive and influential class in the United States, and if elected as President, he will increase their political consciousness and reveal by his successes and failures how far a business man and engineer who may also be a statesman can dispose with the old art of politics.

Thus Mr. Hoover's nomination is really symptomatic of the triumph of business over traditional American politics. The predatory business which the progressives fought based its political calculations upon an alliance with the Old Guard, but the more successful business which Mr. Hoover represents repudiates the alliance. It is prompted by motives and determined by methods which the Old Guard—the Curtises, the Watsons, the Hilleses, the Willises—do not share and cannot understand. They cannot conceive of politics or government as a workshop. It means for them a comedy of intrigue and pretence, of which the solemn clown is the hero and the successful barker the appropriate intermediary with the public. Mr. Hoover, on the other hand, has introduced into politics engineering method, and he has achieved thereby at least one brilliant and well earned success. In nominating himself he has not tried to play the popular favorite. He has merely maneuvered shrewdly to take advantage of the poverty of his enemies and of an increasing craving on the part of American business for a more trustworthy vehicle of political expression.

But if Mr. Hoover, in nominating himself, has dispensed with the cheaper manifestations of American political art, he has also, in his capacity as engineer, business man and statesman, neglected a good deal that was good in the older tradition. Politics, even though it has much to gain from a technical mastery of physical process, must remain to a very considerable extent the art of integrating or conciliating essential economic interests, and of conciliating perverse, foolish, aggrieved and socially under-nourished human beings. The Republican administration and convention have combined their consent to Mr. Hoover’s nomination with a rough repudiation of the demands of the organized political agrarianism of the country. No doubt there was abundant justification for refusing to the commodity farmers the privileges which they demanded, but it leaves them, nonetheless, with a righteous grievance. less, with a righteous grievance. They can allege with justice that industry fattens upon a rich diet of privileges while agriculture grows lean upon the husks of immaculate economic theory. The engineer's and business man's government which Mr. Hoover embodies will have to overcome a lively sense of injustice on the part of one of the largest economic classes in the community, which may obtain one of several dangerous political expressions. Moreover, this farmer’s sense of wrong will fit in neatly with the revenge which the older politics will try to take on Mr. Hoover for its defeat at his hands. This older politics consisted fundamentally of the somewhat base arts which the political agents of the successful classes had to use in order to neutralize the sense of inferiority and social unimportance from which the great majority of the unsuccessful suffered. It exploited the overflowing hearts of the millions whose pockets and whose heads were relatively empty. Mr. Hoover can be nominated as a competent and incorruptible engineer-business man who knows how to do things and who disdains the sentimentalism of the old politics, but can be elected in this incarnation? His opponent will be the most seductive political personality in the United States of today, who by inheritance and experience is peculiarly skillful in pulling the heart-strings of the easily moved populous class of the under-dog.

In another respect, also, Mr. Hoover has hitherto ignored something which was good but degenerate in the older politics. He has ignored any appeal to moving ideas. From the point of view of the older politics, ideas and convictions dwindle usually into empty shams and shibboleths, but these intellectual pretences were at bottom the shoddy tribute which the strivers for political power were obliged to pay to an alleged public opinion. Mr. Hoover's campaign did not attribute any importance to the influence which activity of intelligence may exert on political behavior. One of its major assumptions was that public opinion was apathetic and that it was the kind of sleeping dog which should be left to lie. He merely took Coolidgism for granted and paraded it now and then as a perfect creed for government by the engineer-business man. As a matter of fact, this addiction to Coolidgism was a necessary but none the less a sorry pretence. He will be obliged to stick to it during the campaign, but it is not a genuine expression of his personal philosophy, and it is not a sufficient creed for the kind of government which he would like to furnish to the American people. Mr. Hoover is a theoretical individualist, a conservative and a believer in government subordinated to business, but he is not a stand-patter. His own personality is restless, alert, progressive and dynamic, and he is interested primarily in giving reality, if not to bigger and better ideas, at least to different and better methods of doing the business of the world. As President he will not be like Mr. Coolidge, a sedative; he will be a ferment. His chance of election would be increased if he could capitalize politically the leaven that is in him. But during the campaign he will remain handcuffed to Coolidgism, from which he cannot emancipate himself until and unless he is elected.

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