Landslide -- A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover
Subject: Margaret Hoover
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
This interview* was recorded in March 2008, as part of Landslide - A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover. The documentary is a co-production of The Duncan Entertainment Group and Stamats Communications. Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Ms. Hoover is a Fox News Contributor as well as a television and radio personality who comments on issues ranging from American politics to pop culture. She is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
For the audience who knows nothing about the subject, who was Herbert Hoover? And, if you can, try and describe him physically, his temperament, his personal style.
Okay. Well, first of all, all of this is anecdotally passed on to me because I didn't know my great grandfather. He died in 1964. I was born in 1977. So, my understanding is, he was an extremely and, and the first word I know from the family history passed down, is caring and generous. Which I think goes in stark contrast to his public persona, or the understanding that people have of him.
But my understanding of him from my grandmother and from my dad, who, whom, he was very fond of my father, was that he was an extremely interested, extremely caring, and extremely generous person both with his time and his resources.
He smoked a pipe. He had a witty and wry sense of humor. He loved children. Which, in reflection, I think, is due to the fact that his childhood was so austere. He was raised in Oregon by a very strict uncle whom he met when he was 11, when he was sent to live with him, who had lost a son. And I think that he spent an inordinate amount of time on children in a public policy sense and also his own grandchildren.
In a way recouping and reliving, I think, a childhood he never experienced. Long before Hillary Clinton had a Child's Bill of Rights and Child Healthcare, Herbert Hoover was talking about children, talking about children's rights, talking about healthcare for children and providing for children. And, one of the things that marks a prosperous country is how well we treat and provide for our children. And it was something he was so, so passionate about. And that's the kind of passion that only comes from having had a personal experience that you want to better and make better to future generations, I think.
Personality wise, that's I know my grandmother still has a black and white photo of him in his final years in a white wicker chair with a pipe in his mouth. And he signed it to Colby with much love, Dad. So he adopted her as one of his own. She was his daughter-in-law. So I think there was an enormous amount of love and generosity and caring that the family experiences that doesn't get outside of that, into the public persona of understanding.
Could you describe him in terms of personal philosophy or spiritual beliefs?
Well anything I think that is written, or said, or produced about Herbert Hoover has to be seen through the lens of this tiny little book that he wrote called American Individualism, which was based on a speech that he never gave, but he ended up sort of, it became the core philosophy of his. And American Individualism, his core, spiritually his core philosophy was that God has endowed individuals with a certain amount of ambition and creativity and, you know, ingenuity, and each individual has a unique gift. And that it is sort of your right on the, in this, in this world to sort of tap into that gift that God has given you and express it. That human instinct is to, towards production and towards self-expression, and that is how, I'm not doing this right. Let me collect my thoughts.
Okay, so spirituality I think, you know, he clearly had a sense of a creator and of God, and that there is a creator’s hand involved in our existence and we are not sort of idle here on this earth without the notion a creator. But I don't think, and he referred to it in his writings. He was Quaker, raised as a Quaker, obviously, so, a strong sort of religious upbringing but not, not one that he, that was sort of tantamount to sort of every of his, all of his expressions.
I think it was a very personal relationship, it wasn't one that he wore on the, on his shirtsleeve.
When you've written about your great-grandfather you've talked about him being misunderstood. What do you think people are missing generally when they think of Herbert Hoover?
Everything. Everything. I mean there's just been this entire shadow cast over his whole life. There's, my father always said there are four things that he did in his life that you can break down his life into four major accomplishments and achievements, groups of time that he did things. All of which probably could have been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Peace.
His work saving, Richard Norton Smith claims is up to a billion lives, feeding starving Europe, which is, for my generation, a very hard thing to understand. Europe starving, you know, we can understand Darfur starving. We can understand Ethiopia starving. We have a very hard time grasping Belgians starving. That is just so outside of the scope of my generation's understanding of Europe.
But that a billion people for whom, that wouldn't have lived had his organizational efforts not fed them. Literally in the most basic way, brought them bread and milk. Nobody knows that story. Very few people know that story, in my generation, very few. My friends, except for me on my bully pulpit, they wouldn't know it. So there's that.
There's his legacy as a mining engineer. Great story is, he's on a boat, you know, the guy who circumnavigates the world seven times before the advent of aviation, because of his mining ventures. You know, he really started from the bottom and made it to the top, had mining ventures in all continents, except Antarctica. There's a story that he was on a boat from England to, across the Atlantic to the United States, and a woman is so taken by him, she's sort of an older lady and she says, well, tell me Mr. Hoover, what is it that you do. And he says, why ma'am, I'm an engineer. And she said, oh, I thought you were a gentleman.
And so it's this notion that engineering wasn't an honorable profession, it wasn't a gentlemanly profession. It was one where you got your hands dirty. It wasn't one where refined, upstanding sort of respectable men didn't follow engineering as a profession. And a lot of what he did as an engineer was to bring some heritage and some background and some, to inform people of the heritage of that profession by translating De Re Metallica. He and my, and my aunt, or my, great-grandmother, translated De Re Metallica so they basically collected all the books in Latin published in mining that they could possibly grab from all of their ventures around the world in order to translate, to use them as a key to cross reference all of these Latin words which were technical terms that didn't have direct translations because the technology was unknown.
And they had to cross-reference it in order to use it to work backwards to figure out. And all of this was done to give engineering, and mining engineering, to show that there is heritage and history here - to sort of validate it as a profession. He did extraordinary things for that profession.
Harvey Mudd, the School of Engineering now has the collection of books that he collected. So his humanitarian work, his engineering work, and his work as a public servant. I mean in the, Secretary of Commerce for eight years, I went to, here in Iowa I went to dinner with a dairy farmer the other night. And he's worked at a dairy farm, he's the third guy who's worked on this dairy farm in 80 years it's been around, and he had no idea why you sell milk in quarts, and liters and the various specifications. Why you have a dozen eggs or a-half dozen eggs. This is the standardization that Hoover brought to commerce when he was Secretary of Commerce.
You know, the Secretary of Commerce and the undersecretary of everything else. He was this entrepreneurial, engineering, engine, tons of energy, and just threw himself into civil service, to, not to hamper government, but to make it more efficient so it could serve people better.
And then there's his Presidency. Which might have been very different were it not for a set of economic circumstances that I know you all have spent a lot of time, researching. And then the, then his post years as a statesman where he wrote several books at, he was a, he was an observer of political philosophy, hands-on, going around the world as he did, from the Boxer Rebellion, which was the first political, historic experience that he and Lou witnessed hands-on, through the waves of socialism as they swept through Europe, pre-World War I, post-World War I, post World War II, he was, his life was a hands-on, experiential...
He was an observer to political philosophy in action and wrote, wrote a prolific amount on it. And all, all of these things were things that, in and of themselves, might be noteworthy; and that he did all of them, makes it even more noteworthy. And very few people know any one of those four components.
Please expand on the concept of American Individualism. I think of all of the people that we're interviewing and speaking with, you might be the best one to characterize it. So, if you can define it and if you can integrate it into literally the origins of it, philosophically, spirituality, and within his upbringing, his personality, his whole business career. How did this whole idea come to be?
Let's see, how do we start? Individualism, well it, so, American Individualism is his political philosophy. It is, you know, he got back to the United States after 1919, after having experienced World War I in Europe, having been the only diplomat who could go on both sides of the lines, having walked out of Versailles because he saw that the restrictions on the Germans would be so harsh that it would cause another war, and realized that, what was going on in Europe, and what was going on in other parts of the world, was something that could spread to the United States.
But there was something special in the U.S. that had to be protected so that it wouldn't. And he tried to characterize that something special. And he called it American Individualism. And it was going to be a commencement address, and it was his attempt to start to characterize what it is, that's, where in this country that makes this place special. And he characterized it on philosophic, economic, and spiritual grounds.
And what he says is individualism is this building block for progress. All progress in human civilization has been made because of the progress that a single individual has made. And the, and the progress that an individual has made is then let's say it this way.
Every individual is, you know, blessed with ambition, character, genius, intellect, whatever amount of gift that they're sort of imbued with. And it is human instinct to, to try to, self-expression. Like humans are, humans just can't help themselves but to express themselves. And through the self-expression they apply their genius, and their character, and their innate abilities, and, in doing so, they come up with solutions for the marketplace and contributions towards their communities.
And it is these individual acts that create progress upon which the next individual’s progress, or even the next individual’s ideas are built. And so you have, over the course of time, the progression of human civilization that is built like building blocks, actions upon actions of individuals.
So he saw strains of individualism in Europe. But he thought there was something very unique about the individualism in the United States. And it was that, in the United States, and you have to forgive the engineer and the geologists metaphors, the social firmament was more fluid. That somebody like him, an orphan from a small frontier town in Iowa, could rise up through the social firmament, and was not going to be relegated to only ascending so high because of his caste or his social class, his background. That you didn't have in Europe.
And that is what, he says, is the claptrap of the French Revolution. Is that, that you, you have this fluidity in the United States, which you don't have in Europe. Likewise, the sons of Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson were not guaranteed dukedoms. In other words, it's up to every generation to prove themselves. And that was, makes, that's what makes American individualism distinct from its European predecessor.
So that's, that's the heart of American individualism, that every individual has this ability to express themselves fully and, you know, unteathered or hindered by their, their forbearers. And, he was, his success in his life was the ultimate example of American Individualism.
He left Stanford, the first class of Stanford, with $40 in his pocket, and his first job was shoveling ore in a mine in California for I believe, 40 cents a week, maybe a dollar a week. You know, you'll find the exact stat. And he did that for maybe six months before he got a gig using a typewriter for an engineer in an office in San Francisco. I mean literally worked his way up.
And one of his, the piece is right here. And one of the things he says and why this works, is in the current administration, of which he served, I think it was 8 of the 12 members of the cabinet... Six started in manual labor. So there's this, the fluidity of, and his life was the ultimate example of that theory.
How do you think the whole concept would carry forward today? Why is American Individualism relevant today or how is it challenged today by economic disparity and that sort of thing?
Well this, there's this other part of American Individualism which isn't, you know, one can get off on the wrong track and think individuals only care for themselves. No, a very significant part of individualism is caring for your community and being responsible for your community. And that it is sort, to be individualists and the successful individualists responsibility, the onus is on them, to support those around them.
And his life is also the ultimate example of somebody taking care of and feeling responsible for the people around them. You know, evidenced by, during the depression, he, you know, single-handedly financially supported some 300 people from his own pocket who didn't have the means to make it through. So today, I think American Individualism is alive and well, but I think it's been constantly under threat, really, since its inception by these notions of collectivism. And that was sort of the term he used then and he, you know, ardently fought the New Dealers, because the New Dealers were coming from this angle of, well the answer is in collectivism.
Or the answer is in the government. The answer is in sort of, it's this, is the solution in the government or is the solution in the individual, and how do you, and since 1932, there has been this balance, and I think it continues to define the political landscape today. Do governments have the solution, or individuals have solutions? And so, I think American Individualism is alive and well. And it's also, not only is it alive and well, I think it continues to, whether people know it or not, be one of the standing philosophies, predominate philosophies in our daily political discourse.
Even in today's Presidential campaign, you know, ultimately you have, Republicans seem to still be the party of the individualist, and Democrats seem to still be the party of a bigger government. In many ways, hearkening back to the Great Society and the New Dealers mold versus the, sort of Reagan was the one who really brought forth individualism again in a new way, though he didn't call it that. These were Herbert Hoover's ideas and philosophies that, you know, predated Herbert Hoover, but Herbert Hoover is the first person who really talked about them and put them in writing then in that time.
Do you think it has to be an either or, individualism or collectivism?
By definition, so I think I see what you're getting at, which is, you know, sure, you're not going to, not have a government, you're, of course, there's, there's a function for government. But, Herbert Hoover would say that, I think Herbert Hoover would say, that those individual impulses which create, that contribute to progress, when you have a government that is telling an individual what to do, it is automatically squelching that individual, slaying that, slaying within an individual that gives it its energy and its sort of divine spark.
And, so that by definition they can't coexist, that the best government is one that channels that spark and fosters that spark and directs that spark in constructive ways. So, no, is it individualism versus collectivism? Well, potentially, but it's not that, it's not that you can't find a solution, there is a solution. But I don't think that Herbert Hoover would say the solution is empower a group of people to tell others what to do. He would say, find a way to structure a government so that you can empower individuals constructively towards their betterment.
Recently there was a film produced about Barry Goldwater. I haven't seen it yet. But when you look at Goldwater today, it's hard to imagine that he would be a Republican today, he would be a Libertarian today.
Yes. And Herbert Hoover was more in the strain of Goldwater than the Republicans today. He would have a hard time with the Republican Party today, I think, he, because he's not a compassionate conservative. Compassionate conservatism is like watered down liberalism, you know. He was much more in the strain of Goldwater, or Goldwater was much more in the strain of Herbert Hoover. He is an ardent individualist. He thinks the government should stay out of it. Ah, you know, this bit about, I mean, the pro-choice versus pro-life argument is just so, I mean I think my grandmother and my father's reactions are perfect: Put the government out of it.
And I, they're parroting sort of this philosophy that they sort of all hearken to.
You know, I, Libertarian today is something very different. But it tend, it has, it has much more pronounced strains of Libertarianism than it does resemble the Republican Party today. And that's largely, you know, without commenting too much on my old boss, that's largely a, assault of his. I mean the party at any given time is molded by whoever its sort of leader is. And, you know, there's fluidity in that. It changes based on, it's a very different party than it was under Reagan, very different party.
You know and the social stuff, the social, don't get me started, I'm on a soapbox about the social conservative stuff, 'cause, that doesn't have much to do with Herbert Hoover and he would think it's all ridiculous anyway. So.
Let's talk about the 1928 campaign. What were the big issues of the campaign and why was Hoover, at this time, perceived as so qualified and qualified enough to win in the way he did?
Well, not many people, I think at this time, were aware of his efforts in Europe. Though it was his efforts in Europe that propelled him to the cabinet position for Harding and Coolidge, as Secretary of Commerce. But it was really the 1927 Mississippi River Flood and the way he handled it as master of emergencies that propelled him to the national spotlight. He was the guy who set up tent cities for tens of thousands of people, who was able to engineer getting food and water and rescuing millions of people who were displaced. I mean this was the Katrina of 1927. This was the Katrina of the 20th Century.
Nothing like this had ever happened and, look at the difference between how these two situations were handled. An individual, took charge, went to the scene, set up tent cities, got food, got relief, organized it as sort of a guy-on-the-ground orchestrating everything, versus what happed in Katrina. You had a bloated government trying to respond that was totally incompetent. I mean, Herbert Hoover would be mortified.
Not about parties. It's the philosophy. The philosophy of a bloated autocratic, something on top trying to. This isn't a partisan issue. This is a philosophical one. This is, do you empower individuals or do you empower government? Individuals make it happen, government doesn't.
So he wins in a landslide, you think, in part because of, in large part because of the response to the flood?
My understanding is it is in large part because the response of, to the Mississippi River Flood. And, you know, he was the guy who was Secretary of Commerce, under Secretary of everything else. I think he had gained such a reputation for being on the cutting edge of all these new changes in technology, the television. He was the first guy to appear on television when it was broadcast from New York City to Washington D.C. in 1927, the first television broadcast. He was Secretary of Commerce.
Now the trivia is always which President was the first President on TV and they always say FDR. Well, FDR was the first President as President to be on TV. But Herbert Hoover, when he was Secretary of Commerce was the first person who then becomes President to be on TV.
Eight months into his Presidency, the bottom drops out of the stock market. What precipitated that decline?
You know, people will debate as long as there are economists they'll debate the origins of the Great Depression. To me the interesting thing about it when I looked at it and tried to understand it from the perspective of folks living through the Great Depression, was that most Americans in 1929 did not own stock. No more than two percent of Americans owned any part of the stock market. Perhaps three percent if you include grandma leaving some inheritance to the kids.
It was a real niche thing. Now, almost 40% of Americans own stock. It's a huge part of our economy, but in 1929 it was a niche thing. So when the market collapsed, it collapsed over a series; there wasn't just one Black Tuesday or Black Friday, it collapsed gradually in the fall of 1929. So that by November of 1929, the market was down 40% overall, but it had gone up at least that during the 1920s.
On this face of it, this should not have caused the economy to collapse. What happened was that it had a spiraling effect; all these banks in all these little towns, and all these banks in all these big cities had bought into the market. So even though only two percent of Americans owned stock, the greater economy had bought into it. They'd taken people's savings and purchased into it, so when that disappeared and this market collapsed, there was nothing there.
Do you think in the work he was doing with the flood, the work he was doing in Europe after World War I, both of those are individual and then large group responses to disaster. But the depression is a disaster of its own. In what way was he equipped to deal with one and maybe less equipped to handle the other?
I think in some ways he was inhibited by government. I mean when he was saving people in Europe he was acting as an individual on his own, in his own right. He could set up an operation, set up an organization, go to Europe and feed people. I mean he, the reason he got started on, as he calls it, the slippery road to public life, was because he happened to be in London when 20,000 Americans were stranded in Europe and the war broke out. He was this lone individual uninhibited by, you know, any sort of government structure or, he was an individual and he said, these guys have gotta get home.
So he organized boats to, to get people passage back to America. I think in a way, you know, as Secretary of Commerce he had free reign to go to the scene and do things his way. And it's not that he was an individual doing it, God no, I mean he organized thousands and hundreds of thousands of people to work with him. So it's not, you know, it is a group response in both cases. But one is guided by an individual and I think as President he was hampered by Congress. I mean there are so many, and the letters my great-grandmother writes to my grandfather and his brother, you know, if only Congress would work with your Daddy to help pass these, this legislation that will bring aid to XYZ person.
I mean he's encumbered by these structures. He is unable to act in his free will because of, you know, the restrictions and the limitations of the office.
The flood, you think, was a major factor in the landslide? What else?
I think his general reputation of having been the fixer of all these things, being on the cutting edge of all these new technologies that were developing. He grew the Commerce Department so much and, you know, some would say, oh, but that was growing government. He, he didn't, he saw that there were things that could be done in government that would make American life more effect and make government be able to assist Americans in doing all the variety of things we did.
As, in commerce, I mean he, by standardizing bricks, by standardizing that you get six, a half dozen eggs and a dozen eggs, and a, you know, a quart of milk and that a brick is gonna be this long, and this high, and, you know, all these things made government be able to be or made industry be able to be more efficient. And I, he was, radio, he was on the cutting edge of the development of radio. And I think, he was just right there.
And also, I think it was, this is another thing, in contrast to Coolidge, there's always a certain amount of, in history, what are you choosing-- who are you choosing for you next President and there's always this contrast to who you're leaving behind. And, you know, one of the reasons everybody talks about Reagan's optimism was because Carter was so stale. Or Carter was very, without meaning to be, just his personality, wasn't an inherently-- didn't come--
And Reagan, in contrast to that, really stood out. Well I think Hoover in contrast to Coolidge, Coolidge, who was known as silent Cal, who, I mean if you think Hoover wasn't expressive in public, take Calvin Coolidge. And Hoover had so much to show for his time in public service. And, you know, Coolidge, maybe in contrast I think that Hoover was a real doer and a go-getter, and a, and it fit with the times. I mean the roaring '20's were a time of, you know, heightened technology and development and he rode that, he rode that.
Did he have powers of persuasion in '28 that somehow he didn't have in '32?
No, you know, a lot of it too, he acknowledges, in his writings, that there is this mass affinity and affection for him that he kind of can't explain. And he says, you know, I'm so popular by the crowds, but something will happen, and then I'll be so unpopular, and I won't really be able to explain it either way. I, and it was a bit prophetic, actually.
I think that he didn't have powers of persuasion. I mean one of the things that Lou Henry writes about in this letter to her son, this, several people had approached him to be President for several years when he was Secretary of Commerce, and he rebuffed every one of them because, God knows, he can't speak publicly. You know, so it's sort of this joke. Like, me, speak publicly.
But, you know, ultimately I think he went with it because, well, you know, he could win. But he went with it because he believed he could do something. And this letter, it's a bit tangential, but this letter that Lou Henry writes to her sons is in the 1932 campaign.
It's in the 1932 campaign and, you know, Amity [Shlaes] talks about the forgotten man because Roosevelt, you know, the title of her book, as you know, is The Forgotten Man, and Roosevelt has worked into his lingo the forgotten man. Which isn't the original usage of the forgotten man, but it is how Roosevelt refers to the bottom man, which is the guy on the bottom of the totem pole, the guy that everybody's forgotten, the little guy.
And there is so much talk in '30's campaign about the little guy that Lou Henry Hoover gets infuriated. Because Herbert Hoover is allying himself with the big businesses and Herbert Hoover is allying himself with the industry, and the banks and the big powerful guys, and he's forgotten the little guy. And she is infuriated. And she writes to her sons a 3,300 word letter, 7 pages, you know, 14 by 11, eight and a half by 14, on everything your father has done, as you well know, throughout his entire life has been for the little guy.
Because that's where he came from, because he was a little guy and she doesn't say that, but that's there, that's just sort of given. Every job he's ever had, he's cared more about the miners, and the workers, and the people in the plants than, you know, than anybody else on the board of directors has. He is the one that at his own, to his own personal detriment, has cared about this person that's a, Frank Roosevelt's calling the little guy, Frank Roosevelt doesn't even know what the little guy is. Herbert Hoover knows who the little guy is, because he, he came from, from that, he came from the salt of the earth.
And there's this really palpable frustration that she, that she is sort of blowing off steam as she writes her sons saying, you well know that your father has not forgotten the little guy. Don't believe what you hear.
So why isn't he doing that with the general public? The voter?
There is, it's true, he wasn't. It's true he wasn't, and there are a lot of explanations, all of them have to do with a quirk of his personality. Which is, he wasn't a self-promotional guy, and that he believed that self-promotion was a character flaw.
And I think that's the crux of it. I mean self-promotion was, you know, he even said at one point, there's a story about sometime during the depression, he's walking by and he sees some school kids playing, and he stops by and chats with them, and they're like, Mr. President. And they have a fabulous chat, and his staff is so taken by how engaged he is with these kids that they suggest he walk back by there the next day so that they can take some photographs and give it to the press. And he just shudders at their idea.
Why, you are not gonna make Teddy Roosevelt out of me. He says. He is not going to be self-aggrandizing, self-promoting meanwhile he could be doing something constructive and productive during that time. He could be actually saving the American people. You know, you're allowed to sit back and put your feet back and talk to kids every now and then. Otherwise you had to be working for the American people.
I mean that, that's another thing that I think very few people understand is, how hard he was working, and how hard he was sort of dedicating himself to, to fix the problems of the depression.
You mentioned Carter before, but the same could be said for Carter in the 1980 campaign. Interestingly in a very broad sense both Carter and Hoover have had massive negatives placed on their presidencies. And Carter, in that '80 campaign, never came out of the White House because of what was going on in Iran. I mean he was doing the same things, working, working, working, and had no particular inspirational appeal as a leader, compared to Reagan.
It, that's true, the public personas maybe weren't as successful as their predecessors. But I think when you take away the, the veneer of the, that public persona, and you look at actually what they were doing, and what was going on in the mind of Herbert Hoover and what he, what he was constantly doing was being innovative and coming up with solutions for this Depression.
I mean he spent way more than, and so I think when you actually compare the content of what Carter was doing versus what Hoover was doing, that's where you see the, that the, that the parallel maybe doesn't, maybe starts to fall apart. But, certainly I can understand the parallel as far as the, sort of the public persona of not being as successful as their predecessor.
But, you know, as you all know by now Hoover spent way more than any President prior to him on public work projects during the Depression, to jumpstart the economy. I mean and it was considered really far reaching to, you know, the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the-- I mean these were like huge infrastructure projects that the government was funding to give jobs. But, but it was, you know, these public work projects to provide jobs, to get things going that would have a lasting effect on the economy, because they would not only provide jobs temporarily, but then they would provide energy or a clear passage, that had never been done before by a President. So, you know, there, I think there are tremendous differences between their four years in office, the Hoover years and the Carter years.
Do you think the two projects you mention, in particular the dam and the bridge, do you think those are projects that would have been, in some part, motivated by his engineering background?
Oh for sure. No, of course.
I mean there's one, on the one hand his public works projects, on the other hand, it's really grand engineering projects.
Yeah. Absolutely. And he, you know, I actually didn't know until yesterday about his involvement with the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn't know that was one of his projects, but the dam for sure. I mean that was, you know, by the sheer force of the weight of concrete, we are going to block this river. You know, and it, this is gonna be, you know, the grandest sort of feat in engineering to date in human history.
Why is he able as a leader to sell that kind of concept but not sell the same thing after 1929, after the crash? I mean is there, is he in someway unprepared for the kind of overwhelming nature of the crash, or is he, does the public just lose its way?
What could be more overwhelming than 8,000,000 people about to die and feeding them. I mean that was what happed in Belgium in 1914. I, this notion that he wasn't prepared is, there's so much fallacy tied up in it, because of what he had accomplished before and what he had gee, achieved before so successfully shows that clearly it wasn't his inability to handle it, his, single-handedly, he was somehow unprepared for this kind of calamity, because he had successfully handled much worse calamities prior. I think what he was not good at, and what is so not, sort of, appreciated or understood about the Office of the Presidency is, is this, in order to be successful in that office, you have to have what my father calls is the gift of gab. You have to have a finesse with people. You know, you can't be just a doer. You can't just be like an engineer who, you know, cut and dry, it sells spreadsheets or, you know, blueprints. I mean you've got to have some of this finesse. You have to get on with Congress. You have to have people over for dinner. You have to soothe their egos.
There's, you know, you have to promote yourself and then use that sort of self-promotion as leverage to get your objective done. All of these things, I think, Hoover probably wasn't good at because I think he had such an austere childhood. I mean it, it's very likely that he just didn't grow up with that set of faculties. And so he had a blind spot. And it was enormously frustrating for him. And I think that's what came to head in those four years in Washington.
I mean there is this sort of idealism that, you know, you hear in Obama's rhetoric and you heard in Bill Clinton's rhetoric in 1992, about, we're gonna go to Washington and we're gonna change it. And the Clinton's found out, in a really uncomfortable way, when they got to Washington that they couldn't. And then they hired David Gergen, a Republican Washington guy to come in and work in the White House to help them sort of finesse Washington, because there is a really entrenched culture there. And, like it or not, you gotta work within it if you're going to get your policies through, if you're gonna be successful. And Hoover, that went to the core of his, he found it objectionable just deeply, deeply objectionable. It offended him, because his intentions were so pure and so true. And he couldn't believe that people would hurt the American people for their own political gain. When he was there purely to try to help the circumstances of the American people. So I think that was his blind spot and I think that was his downfall.
How do you see FDR?
Genius of a communicator. My God, if I could have thought of fireside chats and I could go back in time and say, how about using radio, you know radio, you like radio. How about sitting down next to a fireplace and having a chat. Just talk to the American people. I know it's only 30 minutes. You couldn't really do anymore during that 30 minutes, I'm sure you could be productive during that 30 minutes, but just take 30 minutes and talk to the American people. I know you think it's not productive, but it might actually be productive in some...
And, for the longest time, I thought that was Hoover's downfall that he couldn't communicate. I now think that's part of his downfall that wasn't all of it. It, that was the part of this other, sort of, you know, the emotional instincts about how to work with people and motivate people. And to communicate with them is another adjunct of that.
I think communication is, it is, it was a, somehow there was an inability-- somehow, the guy who could feed Europe, who could execute a plan, who could come up with a plan and execute it and motivate, and get hundreds of thousands of volunteers, not receiving a single penny, to deliver white bread and hot cocoa to starving children in Poland. The same guy who organized that couldn't get bills passed through Congress. Clearly there's a different set of skills needed to deliver food to starving children in Poland and to get a Congressman from, you know, rural North Carolina to vote for a bill.
And the set of skills that required navigating Washington were the set of skills that Hoover didn't have, or was less, less successful at. And so there's, I think there's an, there's probably an EQ component to this about, about motivating people and understanding people and their motivations and that's a tricky one, and that's a hard one. That was, that was obviously not his skill set.
But I think, you know, communication is, with the masses, is a vestige of that. It's a part of that. But it's not the crux of it. I mean I think it's, they're related.
But, in that sense, following the logic of that it's almost as if it would have been better if he realized he shouldn't have been President. The guy that comes to mind from the last 25 years who, probably could have been and may have realized the same thing is Peter Uberoff. Who at, if you go back 20, like early '80's, everybody thought Uberoff, Uberoff, Uberoff. He was like one of those guys, and maybe he realized it, I don't know. Or, would you say in that sense that Hoover's almost coaxed into office and then wasn't really as qualified for that kind of success as he might have been for other success?
Well, you know, I think there's a reason why people have been elected to multiple offices before they're elected to the Presidency. There is a certain amount of politicking. You know, that part of politics that is the smoozing, the rubbing elbows, the wining and dining, the asking for donations, that kind of thing, he had never done before. He was, in many ways, pushed into office, like swept into office, and didn't have those, that particular skill set.
I mean, one of the things my father says when I say, but Dad, he never held elected office before he was elected President. Yeah, and that hurt him. You know, that's never happened in American history before. You know, and there's probably a good reason. Because the part of campaigning, the, I mean there is a very, a translatable part of being able to get yourself elected that is that, those same skill sets that you use to get yourself elected are also employed while you're in office to finesse an agenda through.
And he didn't, he, you know, he was a very effective Secretary of Commerce, and he never had to get elected before. And he was, in many ways, I agree, swept into office. You know, there's, you know, in this letter, people came to visit him in Washington all the time. In fact, FDR asked him to consider being his running mate in 1920. Hoover didn't know if he was a Republican or a Democrat at the time FDR was thinking about running.
It wasn't right for him and ultimately he was finally persuaded to do it because he felt like he could do some good. But he didn't, I don't think he had that, that thing.
During his Presidency what would you characterize as his major achievements? What do you think he should be known for as a President?
Interestingly I know less about his Presidency than probably the other parts of his life, so that's the caveat, that's sort of, I'll give you that. What I know about his Presidency is, he came in trying to do, trying to institute several reforms because he was a reformer and when the stock market crashed, which, incidentally, wasn't the number one story for 1929 in the New York Times. Ah, you know, it wasn't even, it wasn't known, in hindsight we look at the crash as the beginning of the fall but at this time it wasn't the most catastrophic or biggest sort of historical event of that year.
I think it was the mass of public projects the Tennessee Valley Authority started under him that was his idea. We start these public projects to put people to work that will also have a lasting effect on the area. The Hoover Dam, I think it, it's the massive reforms and the massive public projects, and the public/private partnerships too, in getting Wall Street guys to come down and meet with Washington guys and the sort of, the dialog. Can't we all work and try to find solutions that characterized much of his Presidency.
Can you speak very directly to the kind of impact that both Hoover's Presidency and his loss in the 1932 election, how did that impact the family and how does it continue to impact the family generations later?
That's actually a genius point, because probably a lot of the passion we see me have is a direct result of the depth of the personal impact it had on him and that's transgenerational. There's a story about my father, when he was in the sandbox, getting a black eye because his grandfather caused the Great Depression. And I had a history teacher in 8th grade who, bless her heart, was Robert Redford's daughter-in-law, and taught me that my great-grandfather caused the Great Depression, without knowing he was my great-grandfather. That night I went home sobbing, Dad, this is what they told me in school. And Dad got out his red marker and highlighted the book, and, you know, in hindsight, it probably didn't say he caused the Great Depression, but it probably said he did nothing to abate it.
And there has been an experience, not as much in my generation, but certainly in my father's and his father's, of carrying a cross, because you're a Hoover. Of being related to the most vilified public figure in political life in the 20th Century. The harsh, I mean the loss was, was severe. The frustration was profound, because, at the crux of the loss was this really philosophical difference that Hoover believed he had the right answer. Could he have, if he could have just continued to have the opportunity to turn things around, things might have gotten better. And, as we know now, thanks to research, primarily done by Amity [Shlaes], you know, New Deal economics didn't work. And they knew it.
But they kept it going, because it was popular, which to a Hoover is a horrific notion. This is about helping people and getting the country through the Depression, not making people feel better while they bleed. And I feel that passion very much because it was very, very palpable to my father growing up and his father and, and it defined their experiences.
And, you know, my generation is the first generation of Hoover's that doesn't have to carry that cross, if they don't want to. You know, my brother, my cousins are freed from sort of the Hoover curse. You know there is, we're far enough away that nobody thinks that you could be related to the President. And, even if he was, you were related to President, who was he anyway and what did he do? And, you're probably just related to the vacuum cleaner or the transvestite FBI guy or it's diluted, it's really diluted.Ah, but, but there is, for sure, a very palpable sense of injustice.
So, did history get it wrong?
Did history get it wrong or does America, one of the characteristics might be American Individualism, another might be that we carry a grudge, or we see things in black and white when, actually, they're gray? How would you phrase it?
I think it takes time for history to work itself out. You know, the winners write history. The losers don't. You know, the winners always write history. Herbert Hoover lost. At least in the short run. But it's like, you know, one of the consolations that David Eisenhower told me, David Eisenhower, who was my professor, during college and whom I started serious study of Hoover under, gave me the consolation that you know, there is a group of Phoenicians whose culture was entirely lost because it was destroyed and somehow buried in the sands in Egypt and discovered, not long ago, because sand happens to be the one thing that can preserve all sorts of documents, and 2,000 years later we're now learning about the extensiveness of the civilization and culture that they had developed. In other words, all things work themselves out in time. And the time is ripe for people to start understanding the real history of Herbert Hoover and his legacy, and his life, and his contribution.
But it's taken 'til now. I mean it's taken until, you know, the fall of the Berlin Wall for people to understand that maybe Communism was a great idea but didn't work out so well in practice. And you know, maybe this Hoover guy was right about, maybe these things that make American life work, might also be the same things Herbert Hoover talked about in 1919 in American Individualism.
I don't think it's shades of gray. I mean I think history's not worked itself out yet. The history is in one color right now. They don't have shades of gray right now. I mean that's the purpose of what we're doing here is to try to get to a shade of gray, because of course it's not black and white, there are shades of gray. But right now, the written history on Herbert Hoover is not gray. I mean that's the point is to enlighten to cast some light on the shadow of Hoover's legacy.
What do you think his legacy should be?
Feeding billions of people. Literally. Richard Norton Smith says it was a billion people. I have to see the numbers. You've got 20,000,000 in Russia, for the Bolshevik Revolution, one of whom has thanked me. You know, when an 80-year-old man says, I walked five miles to and five miles from the location where they gave me my Hoover roll, and I took three back for my family every day, and they were white rolls, and we'd never seen white rolls, because they've always had to dilute the flour by adding sawdust. But we had white rolls and hot cocoa. And they thank you, and you're just related to somebody who came before you who saved his life, and who he credits his entire life to, that's something you don't forget.
So it, there is an unbelievable humanitarian legacy, but also unbelievable legacy of cherishing that thing that makes this country tick. They've got something totally unique in the world here that has got to be preserved and protected, and cherished and people need to understand it. And we want to. We want to share that understanding. And children, you know, he wanted children to be his legacy, the Boys Clubs, the Girl Scouts. You know this notion that in a developed country, we're going to protect our children.
And that also in this place where we have this thing that says special. We're gonna continue to generate ideas that contribute to human progress, that let human beings sleep safer at night, live more productive lives, and we're going to continue to be this generator of human liberty, and to spread these ideas. I mean these are all the things that he dedicated his life to.
His legacy should be his humanitarian work, his contributions to engineering, and his, he is a perfect model of a civil servant who was not in it for himself. He was in it for other people. He'd already made money. He'd already had fame. He didn't need it. The guy walked out of Versailles. I mean how many people would have killed to be in Versailles to help negotiate a peace treaty for the Germans-- you know, I mean this is not somebody who was in it for himself.
This is somebody who was in it to serve people. I, and that is, it is very idealistic, but it ought to be the ideal. I think.
Do you think he died content, happy, sad, anguished?
My sense is that he died still having more to do. Like he died in motion. Like, damn, this almost got him. Like, he coulda kept going. You know, there was, there's a story that one night they were sure that this might be the end and they called the Kennedy White House just to let them know. And the next morning he was up, working away, reading the newspaper, doing things. So, as long as he was well enough to be going, he was using it productively.
My sense is, the gears were always going and had he continued to live they would have kept going. And he probably died in motion.
What piece of history, and maybe more than one, has been passed down through the family that may not be well known or public knowledge that you think is worth telling?
I mean there's so much that the public doesn't know that we want the public to know, and so much of it we've talked about. This notion, one thing that people, you know, I'm not sure that people know that, this notion, there is enormous, this is a small one. But Presidents got gifts all the time. You know, you'd go somewhere, they give you all these gifts and, you know, it was precedent, was that Presidents kept gifts that were given to them from foreign leaders.
And Hoover felt like, this isn't being given to me. This is being given to me because the American people put me here, but I didn't earn this. So all of these gifts he gave back to the American people. And this is now what is in libraries, Presidential Libraries and museums. But I think it was his initial instinct that was, I can't keep this stuff, the stuff that's given to me as President I, I can't keep this, because it's not for me, it's for the American people.
And now it's a law, you know. Presidents can't, you have gift offices, because Presidents don't accept gifts, you know, they go to their libraries. But there is, you know, there's just this sort of very strict ethical code that is part of Herbert Hoover's makeup.
Who were his close friends that stuck with him, that he cherished and why?
My understanding is that he and Truman had a very real friendship that was so deep and so profound and so meaningful to Herbert Hoover. And George Mardikian, also, an Armenian immigrant who started an Armenian Restaurant in San Francisco and became part of the production at the Bohemian Grove and his Camp Caveman. I think he had many. I think Truman is his most well known. So as far as his friends, I don't know who his closest friends were but, because he was such a private person and personality, I think too, his friends were also quiet, reserved not very high profile people. They were sort of behind the scenes movers and shakers. But many of them surrounded the Bohemian Grove. And the Bohemian Grove, it is my understanding that that was his refuge. His Camp Caveman, at the Bohemian Grove, was where he could go to be amongst friends. And he was comfortable, and he was most himself, and most in his element at the Grove.
There's an encampment that the Grove has every summer, it's in the Redwood Forest, and they have lakeside chats, and Herbert Hoover, in his post-Presidency, always gave lakeside chats until about 1963 when, as he says, the shadows of his years were creeping up on him and he'd just like to enjoy it this year rather than give a talk. And, so instead they honored him. And, all the people that were there had a lakeside ceremony honoring him.
And the following year, in 1964, because it's in the middle of the summer in July, and he didn't die until October, he was too ill to make it, but they tape recorded the lakeside chats for him and sent it to him, which he enjoyed listening to in the Waldorf. And the papers are in the library from his personal correspondences to the people who were there. But he writes thank you letters, individually to the people who honored him in 1963 at the Grove, saying it was the most meaningful experience of his life. Whatever it was in that ceremony that honored him there.
And that's for a guy who's not so effusive emotionally those are pretty profound words - the most meaningful experience of my life, the most touching moment of my life. Not the birth of his children, not the, I mean it was what happed here in 1963 at the lakeside chat in the Bohemian Grove and their honoring him and I think those were his friends and that was him in his element and part of his legacy.
Can you talk about how they honored him?
I don't know. It's, you know, what happens at the Grove stays at the Grove. It's a private club. It is very secretive and not in a sort of conspiratorial way, just that's, these are the rules. And so you don't really know what happens, you know, there. And it's an all men’s club, so I will never know what happens there and that's the tradition.
Who would you, for the audience today, you know President Bush well, many of whom will remember Jimmy Carter quite well, certainly know Reagan and Clinton, Bush senior, who's Presidency would you compare with Herbert Hoover's in terms of approval ratings?
Well there's so many different facets, right? There's so many different facets. I mean, nobody was, nobody came to the office with the amount of experience serving people and, and being constructive and productive, and doing things for people. I mean he'd already saved 50,000,000 people by the time he became President. Who's done that? I mean no one. No one. I mean in so many ways he's incomparable to any President.
Also all other Presidents had been politicians before, and Herbert Hoover had never been a politician. Which, as we spoke about earlier, was probably part of his downfall. He was a really industrious, he was an engineer, we've never had an engineer be President before, they're all lawyers, with the exception of an actor. So, God, you know, as far as finding a parallel in the sort of the makeup of the person or the things they did before, there really isn't anyone quite like him.
So is there anything you'd really like to address?
You know the, I mean the one part about Hoover and individualism that is explicit in individualism is your responsibility to other people. And, you know, Herbert Hoover was the first President that didn't accept his salary. He accepted his salary then he gave it to charity. He gave it to the community chest. You know, this, that he was truly a public servant, he was not there to profit for it. He gave it to charity.
And that all of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who organized throughout his life, were just that, volunteers to feed people, they were volunteering their efforts. And I think one of these things that we can learn from Herbert Hoover and we can apply today is, he said, you know, if you ask Main Street for anything, they will bring it and more, all you have to do is ask the American people, and they will give it. And we saw this after 9/11, you know, we saw hordes of money flow in for the victims of the families of 9/11. You, you just, all you have to do is tell Americans what you need and they will give it.
Americans are very generous people and they are happy to give, and happy to contribute. And volunteerism is something that is so integral to our existence and serving our fellow human beings and that is something that was so, so critical to Herbert Hoover's own experience. And that people don't know when they review his story. And, you know, the other thing, with respect to that, the situation in Darfur would not be happening if Herbert Hoover were here, because Herbert Hoover would be there organizing people to feed the victims and house the displaced. He would, this would just be unthinkable that hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced and starved because of dictatorial governments and tribal wars.
And the kind of things that have happened in Ethiopia and Somalia and all over Africa in the last 25, 30 years, would be unthinkable to Herbert Hoover. And, what many people don't know is that UNICEF, and Care, and Doctors Without Borders, and all of these non-profit organizations would not have come to being were it not for Herbert Hoover. He is the founder of the modern NGO. Because of, prior to Herbert Hoover, prior to World War I, countries took care of themselves, and if they couldn't their people starved.
But for one individual, who decided that Belgium shouldn't starve, just because Belgium couldn't feed its people, just because 80% of their food that came in from outside was blocked from the German blockade and the English blockade on the English Channel, those people shouldn't starve. It just takes one person wanting to do something about it, organizing people and doing it.
And UNICEF is the organization that is, you know, four, six decades later, you know, look, you can institutionalize this. One guy feeding people can become an institutionalized mechanism for getting food to people in starving corners of the world. And, most people don't know that this notion of non-governmental organizations sprung from Herbert Hoover's individual actions.
Why is Herbert Hoover relevant today?
Well, in the political arena, as our, Herbert Hoover is relevant today because his emphasis on the ingenuity and the genius of individual people and their contribution to the marketplace, to government, to society, that the spark that makes this country great is within every individual that is part of the country. And that is at the heart of our political discourse today, that individuals makeup this thing that we're part of.
American Individualism is sort of the underlying debate, I find, in the political discourse and the political debate of 2008. And in every political and policy debate there is this notion that people have the solutions. And how do we create solutions that focus on bettering the plight of individual people? And all of Herbert Hoover's philosophies, none of them are outdated. If anything, they are only now coming of age, because he was so ahead of his time in his political philosophy.
I mean he is, he characterized that thing that makes this country tick so well and so early on, that it's almost like at this time people didn't get it. But, it is even more relevant now, as we've had the experience, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, as we've had the experience of the New Deal and the welfare state and the Great Society rising and falling. And so we try to reevaluate you have, you know, new Democrats and new formulations of political parties. The ideals that Herbert Hoover believed in, and stood by, and wrote about, and that guided his life, are still very much on the surface of political discourse today. It's just that many people don't know it.
Many people don't realize or attribute Herbert Hoover's as the modern source of a lot of these ideas. So it's not how is Herbert Hoover relevant today, it's, you know, there's so many debates where he's in all of it. He is-- it's too big of a question.