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Faces From The Past—xv

July 2024
3min read

The old man was one of the last direct ties to a past Americans did not want to lose— a throwback to the days of pioneering, of covered wagons and homesteads, of simple moral values and deeply held religious convictions. He had a sense of history himself, an awareness of the continuity of human affairs; as Chief Executive of the nation he once observed that “No man can be President without looking back upon the effort given to the country by the thirty Presidents who in my case have preceded me. No man of imagination can be President without thinking of what shall be the course of his country under the thirty more Presidents who will follow him. He must think of himself as a link in the long chain of his country’s destiny, past and future.”

Herbert Hoover’s own destiny had begun in West Branch, Iowa, in 1874. Only six years later his father, a blacksmith, died of typhoid fever, and when he was eight his mother succumbed to pneumonia. At the age of ten, Bert, as he was called, left for Oregon to live with relatives. His only material assets, he recalled, were two dimes, the suit of clothes he was wearing, and some extra underwear; but he took with him several intangible possessions: an appreciation for learning, a family tradition of hard work, a “stern grounding of religious faith,” and recollections of a joyous childhood. Those things remained with him always. So, indeed, did the scar left by his parents’ deaths. Seventy-five years later, when a reporter asked his opinion of the greatest change in human existence during his lifetime, he spoke eloquently about the advances in public health and medical science. People no longer died so often in the prime of life, he said, remembering the hillside overlooking West Branch, where his mother and father were buried.

After college he worked for awhile in a mine—ten hours a night, seven nights a week, for two dollars a day. Later, as an engineer, he went out to Australia, to China, to dozens of other countries, travelling incessantly, organizing and promoting mining companies, becoming, finally, a wealthy man. At the outset of World War I he was in London, and because of his organizing talent was asked to take on a succession of humanitarian jobs, among them the administration of Belgian relief. In the starvation days that followed the war, he fed countless millions of people, friends and former enemies alike, in twenty-three countries. By the time he returned to the United States in 1919 he was an internationally known figure. When the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, talked with him for the first time he thought him “a wonder.” Roosevelt added, “I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one.” Nine years later, after he-had served as Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Herbert Hoover got the opportunity to prove that Roosevelt was right. The blacksmith’s son became the thirty-first President.

If ever there was an object lesson in the relationship uf luck and timing to history, surely it was the case of Herbert Hoover. Even John Nance Garner, who as Democratic Speaker of the House often stood in the way of Hoover’s emergency proposals between ipgi and 1933, admitted: “If he had become President in 1921 or 1937 he might have ranked with the great Presidents.” Instead, eight months after his inauguration, through no fault of Hoovers, the stock market crashed and the whirlwind of economic chaos swept across America. It was his misfortune to be struck down by catastrophe, and although he never relaxed his efforts to hold back the tide of disaster until the moment he left the White House, only a decade after his humanitarian triumphs he had become the butt of a thousand bitter jokes, his name a prefix of hate. The man who had fed Europe became a symbol of hunger in his native land. And six years after he left office, when there were still nine million Americans out of work despite all the New Deal had tried, Herbert Hoover continued to get the blame.

As the years passed, the public attitude toward him mel lowed, in much the same manner that his stiff, round collar gave way to a softer one. Fortunately, he lived long enough for his countrymen to discover him as a person, to find the quiet kindliness, the courtliness, the old-fashioned decencies, and the humor he possessed. Long after the time most men retire, he continued to labor in the public interest ("Being a politician,” he said, “is a poor profession. Being a public servant is a noble one"). And until the last months of his life he worked ten hours a day, keeping seven secretaries busy, writing books and maintaining a voluminous correspondence—much of it with children, whom lie considered “our most valuable natural resource.” For three decades he served the Boys’ Clubs of America as an active chairman. Answering the thousands of letters from young people, he observed, was “a great relief from sleepless nights haunted by public anxieties.” His advice to them was simple and direct, as he was: to one he wrote, “Do not neglect being just a boy. It only comes once.” He liked best to talk about the legacy of freedom and the precious opportunities it provides. “My story,” he told a young admirer, “is only a story of the chance in life which America brings to all boys and girls.”

—Richard M. Ketchum

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