Review: 'Hoover: An Extraordinary Live in Extraordinary Times' captures complexities of 31st president

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Years and years ago, I accepted a freelance marketing assignment for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum. I pitched “Great Beyond the Depression” as a slogan. It would be something of an understatement to say that the idea was not well received by upper management of the museum.

Calling attention to the Great Depression in this manner, it was suggested, would be akin to promoting the JFK library via a reference to sexual high jinks.

But I stand by the slogan (and the museum does too, in spirit if not in fact) — and not just because struggling to combat the Depression is not, in fact, analogous to engaging in extramarital affairs. As Kenneth Whyte’s “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” makes clear, Herbert Hoover was a great — if flawed — man.

For his part, Whyte has penned a great biography. Hoover lived a life of adventure and accomplishment, and Whyte captures that spirit in engaging, readable prose. He captures Hoover’s impetuousness and willingness to evade or ignore rules and agreements in pursuit of his goals. He presents a man devoted to serving others while also remaining deeply concerned with how he was perceived by others and always on the alert for slights.

In many and various circumstances, Hoover was a man who seemed to be able to bend the world to his will.

Take, for example, his creation and management of the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) during the First World War. Millions upon millions of people were saved from starvation by Hoover’s herculean efforts.

“The scope and powers of the CRB were mind-boggling,” Whyte writes. “Its shipping fleet flew its own flag ... Hoover himself ... was granted a form of diplomatic immunity by all belligerents ... Perhaps no other individual in the world moved so easily across enemy lines during the Great War. Hoover had privileged access to generals, diplomats, and ministers. He enjoyed personal contacts with the heads of warring governments ... Great Britain, France, and Belgium would soon be turning over to him $150 million a year, enough to run a small country, and taking nothing for it beyond his receipt. He did all this as a sovereign agent, with minimal input from the State Department. As one British official observed, Hoover was running ‘a piratical state organized for benevolence.’”

Whyte doesn’t gloss over Hoover’s flaws, nor his failed efforts to right the economy during the Depression.

But he makes it clear that Hoover’s presidency is not the only — or best — measure of his service to his country and world.

Book readings

l What: Kenneth Whyte reads from his biography “Hoover”

l When/Where: 2 p.m. today at Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum, 210 Parkside Dr., West Branch, free with paid admission ($3 to $10, free under age 5)

l When/Where: 5 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, free

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