Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

The Presidential Libraries

Once again, while being entertained by the presidential conventions, dinner conversation is focused on politics.  I say "entertained" because this year the political arena has been one long humorous (and disturbing) reality show.  It bothers me that we get our current and historical events capsulized in headlines, tweets and short You Tube videos.  Delving deeper into issues takes time, energy and focus.  I worry about widespread ignorance.  And laziness.  I am guilty of this myself.  I rarely read a newspaper anymore.  I get my information from daily online recaps.  The articles are short and often biased.

Looking back, even the history classes I took in high school and college were filled with word associations:  Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Nixon and Watergate.  Truman and the Atomic Bomb.  FDR and the New Deal.  Hoover and the Great Depression.

At the end of our visit to the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, my travel buddy and I were embarrassed by our ignorance and in awe of the brilliance and humanitarian reach of this man, the 31st President of the United States.
It is unfair that people blame all their problems on the man who lives in the Big White House.  Presidents leave office with a far lower popularity score than when they entered.  But poor Herbert Hoover.  Because "Black Tuesday" happened the first year he took office, he didn't have much of a chance to shine.  This is why I love touring these presidential museums.  They help set the record straight.  They educate and help us to understand the broader picture.  No one person can really change things.  Or cause things.  The world is far too complex.

This particular museum focuses more on Hoover's non-presidential years.  Why? Because these were the years the man did shine.

The rooms take us through his childhood, his education at Stanford and his successful career as a mining engineer in Australia and China.  It was during World War I in Europe when he helped many stranded Americans get home and then stayed behind to organize massive relief campaigns that the accolade "The Great Humanitarian" was bestowed on him.  Clearly, the man was a leader.
During the Harding and Coolidge presidencies, he shone as Secretary of Commerce and as the museum pointed out, "Undersecretary of Everything Else."  It was during this tenure as a cabinet member that he became a household name.  He was often more visible than the presidents themselves.  Under his leadership the Department of Commerce became the most dynamic agency in Washington D.C.

It is interesting to note that as early as 1925, he warned President Coolidge that stock market speculation was a "crazy and dangerous" issue.  Wall Street and banks were gambling with people's savings.  He urged the president to promote the purchase of bonds instead of stocks.  But Coolidge ignored his concerns.  It was the Roaring Twenties.  Life had never been better.  And it was good for Herbert Hoover, too.  He won the presidential election in 1928 with a sweeping victory.
But because "Black Tuesday" happened on his watch his name will be forever linked with the Great Depression.  On October 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed and $30 billion vanished into thin air.
It's not that he didn't try to "right" things, but the scope of what was happening wasn't immediately apparent.

Hoover was a Republican, an idealist, a strong believer in free enterprise.  He put his trust in big business.  After all, he was a self-made man and a millionaire by the age of 40.  He summoned industrialists to the White House for a series of conferences.  He urged them not to lay people off; to even increase their wages, not reduce them.  As a public servant, he gave up his salary.  And although having the federal government step in was anathema to his beliefs, he recognized the necessity and ordered construction projects.  But joblessness continued to spread.  And to add fuel to the fire, there was a run on banks.  People were losing their entire life's savings.  Spending came to a complete and utter stop.
Hoover created relief committees and credit associations.  The museum outlines the many programs he instigated but it simply wasn't enough.  The rich were not going to help the poor because the rich were no longer rich. It took Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal projects and massive intervention by the federal government to finally get the economy strong again.  Hoover warned Americans that the New Deal would end peoples' freedoms.  He failed to understand that when a belly is empty, so is energy.  Dreams die.  The basics needed to be provided first.

In 1932, it was Roosevelt who won by a landslide and Hoover entered "the Wilderness years."  As the museum stated, "Few Americans have known greater acclaim or more bitter criticism than Herbert Hoover."

Yet, Hoover's story was far from over.  He continued to throw himself into public service.  He was Chairman of the Boys Club of America.  He helped found the children's welfare organization CARE and UNICEF.

But it was "The Odd Couple" relationship between him and President Truman that I found the most interesting. Here were two men from opposite political parties and ideologies, but they became fast friends.  Both of them took public service very seriously.  Truman called upon Hoover for advice and relied on him to help avert global famine after World War II.  He had done this task brilliantly before and he did it again. 

He and his wife are buried on the grounds of the museum in a beautiful, lush setting.  Their graves are surrounded by a tall grass prairie.  It is a beautiful site and a place for quiet reflection--something that is lacking in the current political arena.

All of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to take a closer look at this man and his idealism.  He truly believed that all men should strive to be the very best they can be.  He did not like the phrase, "The Common Man."  It is, of course, a lofty attribute, and one I applaud, but it is false.  Not all men can be great.  The world is too diverse and too over-populated.  To keep an economy running smoothly and efficiently, we need all levels of expertise.  Queen bees, yes.  But lots and lots of worker bees, too.  And who is going to feed them?  Educate them?  Keep them healthy?  Provide for them in old age?  The government, that's who.  I wish we could rely on Big Business or on the largesse of our fellow man, but we cannot.  

Give us those basic rights first.  Then maybe . . . just maybe, we will ALL have a chance to be the best we can be.

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