The great administrator

Can America’s least loved president be rehabilitated?

They say there are no dull subjects, only dull readers. So, accepting that Herbert Hoover, the subject of Kenneth Whyte’s seven-hundred-page biography, is not a dull subject, where, exactly, does his relevance for readers lie?

There are two ways to go here. Do we follow the logic of “no dull subjects”—every human life is worthy of attention—and immerse ourselves in the life of Herbert Hoover for its own sake? Hoover lived ninety years—from president Ulysses Grant’s administration to Lyndon Johnson’s—and was engaged throughout with the great issues of his times. How can he fail to be interesting? Or, do we conclude that this pear-shaped, tight-necked worthy’s only interest today comes from his role in the Great Depression of the 1930s? Should we simply make his fate into a mirror for how our leaders deal with our own economic perils and pitfalls?

Ken Whyte, no dull writer, has mostly opted for the first...