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. 



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.” 

With the outbreak of World War I, he founded and directed the Commission for Belgian Relief, which brought “desperately needed food supplies to more than nine million Belgian and French citizens trapped between the German army of occupation and the British naval blockade.” This operation morphed into “a gigantic humanitarian enterprise without precedent in world history. By 1917 he was an international hero, the embodiment of a new force in global politics: American benevolence.” In the war’s aftermath, Hoover would administer health and food aid to Europe, and famine relief to Russia, that saved further millions. Returning home, he became secretary of commerce under both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and was then elected president by a landslide in 1928. The 1929 crash led to his political scapegoating and vilification—and his electoral defeat in 1932.

For most men, this would have marked the end of public life; for the remarkable Hoover, it was just the beginning, the political equivalent of a latter-day Lazarus bringing himself back from the dead. Leafing through the pages of The Crusade Years, one appreciates just how hard—and how effectively—Hoover labored to achieve his goals. Described as a “lost memoir” in its subtitle, this book is a tribute to both Hoover and George Nash, the distinguished scholar and biographer who painstakingly assembled, edited, and annotated it. Nash’s introduction, actually a succinct biography of Hoover as well as an overview of the memoir itself, lends significant added value, and will reacquaint readers with the life and achievements of an important, but neglected, American leader.

Begun in the 1940s, and meant to serve as finial piece to his earlier autobiographical writing, The Crusade Years evolved into one of those open-ended literary projects that never quite make it to completion. Indeed, there are moments reading some of the more fragmentary passages when one is reminded of Edward Casaubon, the learned drudge in Middlemarch who dedicated his life to a never-completed masterpiece that turned out to be a loose collection of scraps, tatters, and ephemera. Unlike Casaubon, however, Hoover brought a unifying theme to his work, lending it a contemporary power and timeliness.

American Individualism, the title of an earlier Hoover book and the leit-motif here, is a ringing declaration of the concept of American exceptionalism and an important part of the unifying theme—one that Hoover never lost sight of and that is being rediscovered and re-articulated today. Hoover correctly recognized that the overarching struggle in American politics during his lifetime, and beyond it, would be the conflict between individualism and collectivism. “Creeping socialism”—a term Hoover helped to popularize in the 1940s and ’50s—may have been dismissed as alarmist by liberals, but it is exactly what led to today’s bloated, expanding welfare state, with its accompanying debt, taxes, and social deterioration.

But this is more than an extended polemic against the megastate. The Crusade Years contains personal accounts of marriage, family life, and the joys of camping, fishing, and fellowship that are both moving and amusing. There are also some sharp insights into historical figures. Truman, who respected Hoover and chose him to head a commission on reform of the the executive branch but also vilified him on the campaign trail, is defined as “a dual personality. On one hand he was a man of amiability and goodwill, without malice or vindictiveness, with great loyalty to his friends and often with great political and moral courage. He apparently had little ideological conviction but when acting on his own instincts was more right than left.” But “his other personality was a Pendergast inheritance—Votes at any price .  .  . with the boys participating in the good fruits of office.”

His evaluation of Thomas Dewey, after a long private conversation in 1944, was confirmed not once but twice, when Dewey was defeated as the Republican presidential nominee that year, and again in 1948:

I came out of the long discussion with confirmation of my high esteem for Dewey’s intellectual capacities, his energy, and his political ability, but in some way I have a reservation as to his character. .  .  . He is seemingly convinced of his own intellectual superiority and abilities.

Unlike Dewey, Hoover never thought he had all the answers: Besides defending timeless liberties, he was always on the lookout for better ways of doing things, from serving suffering humanity to snaring the biggest fish in the trout stream. It kept him going and kept him young for 90 productive years, and it is best summed up by a vignette Nash includes here. A few weeks before his death, Hoover was visited by a young lady he had befriended. Although he was frail and confined to a wheelchair,

his mind and formidable will were unbowed. As he and his guest drank tea together, he suddenly asked her: “Tell me, child, what do you really want in life?” After pausing for a moment, the young woman replied that she liked her life just as it was and wanted it to go on without change: “I have a nice husband, I have a nice apartment, so the answer is I want a status quo.” Hoover looked at his young visitor with horror: “How can you say a thing like that,” he exclaimed, “because I want more. I want to write a better book, I want to have more friends—I just want more—and I think you should never sit back and say, ‘I want the status quo.’ ”

Had Hoover lived a few years longer, The Crusade Years might have evolved into that “better book.” As it now stands, it serves as an impressive codicil to the legacy of a great American—an absorbing, and occasionally inspiring, read.

Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, lives in Washington.