Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Double-Hoover Legacy

The media keep telling us that, as he nears the end of his second term in office, George W. Bush is beginning to think of the legacy for which he will be remembered. Perhaps he need look no further than twentieth-century history and the contributions of two men named Hoover. In terms of the chronology of Bush Administration achievements, we might do well to regard J. Edgar Hoover as the inventor of the very concept of "homeland security." He certainly provided the model for pursuing homeland security, even without the status of a Cabinet position. He hardly needed one. The way he ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he could give the impression that he had the goods on everyone; and, even if this was an exaggeration of the truth, it probably was not that great of an exaggeration. He gave us our first taste of unbridled power running rough-shod over civil liberties, all in the interest of "the public good;" and I wonder how our administration would have fared in the wake of 9/11 if they had lacked the ability to draw on Edgar as a role model.

Now it appears as if the Bush Administration is being infused with the spirit of the other Hoover. This, as we learned in our history classes, was the Republican candidate who promised "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" and delivered the Great Depression. While it would be unfair to argue that Herbert Hoover caused the Great Depression, one might make a case that his combination of engineering common-sense and Republican ideology impeded his ability to perceive warning signals on Wall Street and virtually helpless when confronted with a need to act in the face of catastrophe. Our current administration is similarly impeded, but probably not due to any influence of engineering common-sense.

There is, however, at least one significant way in which these two Hoovers differ. One can sympathize with Herbert Hoover for being in the wrong place (not just administratively but also in mind-set) at the wrong time; and I always enjoyed the story that, after becoming President himself, Harry Truman took it upon himself to find a position for Hoover where the latter could do things he was good at doing. Edgar Hoover, on the other hand, made his place "the right place at the right time." He turned the duty of maintaining law enforcement into a power base from which he could dominate those who were supposed to have authority over him. His ideology was nothing more complex than "desperate times call for desperate measures;" and those desperate measures had practically nothing to do with the formalities of checks and balances that made our country what it was in the first place. It is hard to sympathize with such a man, particularly at a time when those same checks and balances have once again been put in jeopardy by the culture of fear that has been cultivated around the ideological mission of a "war on terror."

Which Hoover will serve as a barometer for the sympathy with which future generations will view George W. Bush? The tone of my own writings have obviously tilted in favor of the Edgar side of the balance. However, we have no way of predicting the context in which future scholars will examine the historical record of this decade. For all we know that context will provide any number of factors to support the Herbert side.

No comments: