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Hoover lacked spark but not spunk

It's doubtful that the Republicans meeting in Dallas this month will acknowledge the anniversary of Herbert Clark Hoover's birth (Aug. 10, 1874). For Hoover's popular hallmark has been as the Republican President who contributed to the misery of the Great Depression times. ''Hoovervilles,'' the shantytowns of the early 1930s, were scarcely terms of presidential endearment, although during World War I Mr. Hoover's leadership as food administrator gave another meaning to his name:

To My Valentine

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I can Hooverize on dinners,

And on lights and fuel, too,

But I'll never learn to Hooverize

When it comes to loving you.

Few Americans in the nation's history hold as many enviable records as Herbert Hoover. First, his story is as American as apple pie. Born of modest means in West Branch, Iowa, Hoover became a successful mining engineer, traveling around the globe several times in an era when a big trip for many Americans was one to the country store on Saturday. Second, as a Republican, he was a progressive, not a member of the party's right-wing sector that came to the forefront in the 1920s. He would serve as secretary of commerce during that decade, but as a concession to the progressive wing of the party. Third, as commerce secretary, Hoover had no equal. He not only promoted American business interests with tangible results but used a method that drew upon the efficiency expertise of an engineer.

Hoover was one President who learned the secret of living as an ex-President. He lived longer than any other President, blending retirement with government service as head of two major federal commissions related to the reorganization of agencies. Also, he was the author of more than 30 books - many designed for children and one for trout fishermen - and the only chief executive to write a biography of another, ''The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson.'' And his geologist wife, Lou Henry, was a feminist who urged women to follow professional careers.

One significant reason for Hoover's downfall as President was that he wasn't a good politician. He never held elective office before coming to the White House and simply wasn't effective in jawboning politicians or small-talking guests at receptions and dinners.

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He gave only seven speeches during the presidential campaign of 1928. He couldn't even smile with ease. Not that a sober-as-a-judge quality was inappropriate for earlier Presidents, but American society, by the third decade of the 20th century, began to demand emotive qualities heard on the radio or seen on the movie screen. As a Quaker, a religion without ministers, Hoover was not schooled in charisma, originally a theological term reserved for individuals with a divinely conferred, and outwardly visible, gift or power. As Charles Lindbergh said, Hoover ''lacked a certain spark ... that makes men willing to follow a great leader even to death itself.''

From this perspective, Hoover was a watershed President, a sort of negative lesson to every aspiring presidential candidate. His cold, contemplative model of Plato's philosopher-king was unattractive to a democratic society getting used to movie extravaganzas and the rantings of local politicans and world dictators.

As for the matters that weighed so heavily on Hoover's mind, they're still with us, often mired in sentiment rather than clear-cut directives: the outer limits of public welfare, government bureaucracy's threat to traditional freedoms, and the role of the family or what Hoover called ''voluntarism'' in private welfare activities. Indeed, Hoover drew definitive lines in these areas and received criticism for his seeming inhumanity.

Even philosopher-engineers had their heavenly city. Hoover's was described in a 72-page book, ''American Individualism,'' published in 1922. ''What we need,'' he wrote, ''is steady devotion to a better, brighter, broader individualism - an individualism that carries increasing responsibility and service to our fellows. Our need is not for a way out but for a way forward.''

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