The Magazine

The Greatest Ex

Herbert Hoover and his post-presidential triumph.

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By ARAM BAKSHIAN JR.
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I was raised in a Hoover household. By the time I came along in 1944, Herbert Hoover had already begun to reclaim the respect of many Americans, despite the vilification he had suffered at the hands of the New Deal propaganda machine. As the Great Depression waned and America went to war, and we then engaged in the reconstruction of Cold War Europe, people began to remember Herbert Hoover’s instrumental part in saving millions from starvation during and after World War I—and saw him reprise that humanitarian role directing food aid to a devastated continent. 

AP

AP

In the years that followed, he would become America’s premier elder statesman, regularly speaking out on the issues of the day, energetically supporting charities and heading commissions, and penning a seemingly endless stream of books covering everything from foreign policy to trout fishing.

As a copyboy at the old National Observer, I was more aware of Hoover’s iconic status than most people. Whenever he was hospitalized or reported ill, part of my job was to pull out the stock obituary for a writer to update. As a result, in October 1964, when Hoover finally breathed his last at the ripe old age of 90, I felt that I had already experienced his death several times over. Having read his extended obituary again and again, I also had acquired a serious appreciation for the breadth and depth of a truly admirable American life.

Besides being one of the great humanitarians of his age, an able but much maligned president, and an elder statesman of unmatched energy, vision, and integrity, Herbert Hoover was an inventor. He created—and remains the unsurpassed practitioner of—what might be called the imperial ex-presidency. Through sheer determination, and thanks in no small part to a robust old age, Hoover’s ex-presidency, lasting from 1933 until his death 31 years later, was the most productive in our history, often imitated but never equaled by subsequent presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy had no post-presidential years. Harry Truman quickly reverted to his core persona, that of a small-town, small-time political gadfly. Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed a quiet, well-earned retirement on his Gettysburg farm. Lyndon Johnson’s post-presidential years were brief and bitter. Richard Nixon worked hard (and successfully) to preserve his standing as a global statesman, but achieved only partial political rehabilitation. Gerald Ford was liked and respected as a conscientious but accidental president, a worthy, low-key, retired caretaker. Jimmy Carter has written a string of books and helped build a number of houses for poor people; but his standing as an elder statesman is shaky at best. Ronald Reagan, our oldest president, wrote a respectable memoir and conducted himself with avuncular warmth, humor, and dignity—even as Alzheimer’s began to take its toll. The Bushes, father and son, have approached their post-presidential years with a decorous modesty. And as for Bill Clinton, his post-presidency seems to consist of an open-ended, all-expenses-paid international junket-cum-speaking tour, with occasional timeouts to steal the limelight from other Democrats during election years. 

None of them has come close to doing what Herbert Hoover did as a former president. And that’s not bad, as George H. Nash explains in his insightful introduction to this posthumous Hoover memoir, for someone whose

life had begun in humble circumstances in 1874 in a little Iowa farming community as the son of the village blacksmith and a mother who had become a recorded minister in the Society of Friends. Orphaned before he was ten, Hoover managed to enter Stanford University when it opened its doors in 1891. Four years later he graduated as a member of the “pioneer” class, with a degree in geology and a determination to become a mining engineer.

From then on, until the Depression, it was a long triumphal march. By age 24, Hoover was superintendent of a gold mine in the Australian outback. By 27, he was managing a massive coal-mining operation in China, nearly losing his life in the Boxer Rebellion. By 1914, at the age of 40, he had reached the top of his profession, having “traveled around the world five times .  .  . [with] business interests on every continent except Antarctica.”