Landslide -- A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover
Subject: Timothy Walch, Ph. D.
Interviewer: Chip Duncan
This interview* was recorded in December 2007 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. Dr. Walch is Director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
Who was Herbert Hoover? For someone who knows nothing about Herbert Hoover how would you characterize him?
How would I characterize Herbert Hoover? - An enigma wrapped in a dilemma which is trite I know, but in fact everyone who met or knew Herbert Hoover was perplexed by who this person really was. There’s a wonderful cartoon by Ding Darling, which says I think the tag line is, “How will Hoover go down in history?” And it was done about 1929 at the peak of Hoover’s authority and power. And it’s this collection of little images of Hoover as a humanitarian, as an engineer, as a doer, as a thinker, any number of things. And so almost everyone who knew Hoover would draw from him a certain interest or inspiration in one part of his life. But the pieces together make it very difficult to understand who he was. I think it’s also true that that Herbert Hoover kind of built walls that prevented people from getting into his inner self. He was not a contemplative individual but he was also a very private individual. And so this is a man who, of course, is orphaned by the age of eleven, who says that he doesn’t want to become dependent on anyone else at any time the rest of his life. And with the exception of his wife Lou and his children and his brother and perhaps a few other family members, he was a very private individual. And this would affect the course of his life from the time he left West Branch, Iowa in 1885 until he dies in New York in 1964. One of the interesting questions about Herbert Hoover and how he related to others, he would often sit at the dinner table and say nothing, listening to all the conversation. He was an observer rather than a participant in the conversation, but he would absorb everything that was said and then would comment on it only later. So it’s very difficult for anyone even somebody who studies Herbert Hoover to know exactly who this man is. And I think that’s probably to some extent led to the dilemma of his image. Because in many ways Herbert Hoover accomplished enormous things and yet he’s still in this country disparaged as a leader or an historical figure. It’s just a real dilemma.
Can you describe his emotional and or spiritual character?
Herbert Hoover’s emotional character is difficult to determine because again he kept it all within himself. This is a man who was rarely seen in an unguarded moment. I suppose if there was any time that Herbert Hoover would be particularly, sort of be engaged in those things we enjoy in life, it would be when he was fishing or you know involved somehow in nature. He was, he was unguarded. He loved to fish. He loved to to get into the wild. He didn’t care who his fishing guide was as long as he was the best. He didn’t care whether his politics were Democratic or Republican. And so those few times, but I’ve often joked that I mean this was a very formal man. At the Hoover Library we probably have 30,000 pictures that have some image of Herbert Hoover and I think almost all but 5 of them he’s wearing a tie. I sometimes joke with our visitors that if you were to go to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and knock on his door at 3:00 in the morning, he would have shown up in a coat and tie - as if he had slept in his formal clothing. He was just a very formal individual. So in terms of his political or personal philosophy, his religious philosophy it’s very hard to determine. There are those who will say and you’ll hear this from others that he was very much of a Quaker and that his actions reflected the philosophy of his Quaker faith. And to some extent it you judge an individual like Herbert Hoover by his actions, there’s no question you can see he has the compassion that is attributed to many of the world religions. Certainly to Christianity and more specifically to the Quaker, to the Society of Friends. And so in that sense Hoover would have preferred to let his actions speak louder than anything he would say about spirituality. And again emotionally there are very few unguarded letters, no evidence of anger except at a policy decisions, no personal animosity evens towards somebody like Franklin Roosevelt, who Herbert Hoover in many ways felt that Roosevelt had betrayed him after the election but before the inauguration in 1932, 1933. There’s nothing in the papers. Now maybe the papers and documents were expunged. It’s hard to tell. They were in Hoover’s personal library at the Stanford University at the Hoover Institution. Maybe somebody cleared them out, but in going through the papers you don’t find an unguarded thought. You don’t find the a person behind the scenes.
With respect to what you call his formality what do you think that formality, for example wearing a suit and tie while fishing, is saying?
One of the difficult, the question of a person’s formality particularly somebody in the past, and let me relate to this in a personal way because I had a grandfather who in many ways came from a very different background, urban and Catholic, but who lived a life in some ways in terms of his social behavior and habits very similar to Herbert Hoover. He always wore a coat and tie. And so I think in that generation born in the period from say 1870 to 1890 and who grew up in the 20th century, wearing a coat and tie and a fedora and being formal, referring to everybody as Mr. and maybe even referring to your own wife as Mrs. Hoover or whatever, was common and typical. It’s just that in contemporary times, in the 21st century, it’s very difficult for us to to believe that’s the normal pattern of behavior back in those times. So by no means do I think that Herbert Hoover was excessively guarded. But he was not affable and friendly and political in the manner of say Franklin D. Roosevelt who was extraordinary in that capacity. And so there is a clear difference between those two individuals. But I think in many ways Hoover was a very typical reflection of the formality of his generation.
Does it say, “Take me seriously?”
I think in most cases there was a belief that as President of the United States Herbert Hoover felt, or even as a public figure, that you were a reflection of the values in which you were raised. You were a reflection of all that you had achieved and that to be anything less than formal degraded what you had achieved and the office in which you were serving. He believed that to become President of the United States, to be a public servant, was a high calling. And almost in the manner of a minister or a Supreme Court justice he owed it to the people to whom he was serving to look the part. And so to goof around even to the point, for example, Calvin Coolidge was often seen wearing funny hats or an Indian headdress or whatever. Hoover never wore any of the hats or those sorts of unusual gifts that that were given to him. He was a very efficient, almost a scientific manager and so in that sense his presentation was in the manner of a person who was there to invoke fact, to present ideas to be discussed. Not to draw attention to himself. And that any kind of cult of personality should be frowned upon, so in that sense he was a very sort of reserved individual.
What would you consider Hoover’s core values especially as they relate to money and poverty and his desire to overcome poverty? The American Individualism idea?
Herbert Hoover’s core values are very simple. Almost the prototypical notion that an American individual is born with an equality of opportunity and that if he achieves as much as he can once he’s achieved all that he needs, but only as much as he needs, he has a moral obligation to share of anything more with others who still have needs. And in many ways he was a cock-eyed optimist, because in an unvarnished idealist who believed that others shared that American principle. So that, this is an individual who would in effect live off the resources he made by the age of forty. Who would accept no salary for his service as President or Secretary of Commerce. And then shared of his wealth by giving it anonymously to the Community Chest which is today the United Way. And obviously believed that this was the role that money served. It was there to do good things. It was not there to be lavished on one’s self. And so this was a man who really didn’t care all that much about, you know, what he was eating or how well he traveled or personal possessions. Except those gifts that were given to him by children or by families in need. When Herbert Hoover served as Chairman of The Commission for Relief in Belgium, he was given this enormous collection of embroidered flour sacks as a way of acknowledging the work that he did in Europe feeding people. When he built his home at Stanford University in 1917 or after the war, in fact. He had a special room set aside called the Belgium alcove. It’s written into the drawings for the house. And he displayed as many of those items. So he didn’t care that he had won great prizes from the King of Belgium or others. But gifts from children and gifts from families were important. Because it showed that he cared enough to be compassionate and to show his concern for their needs.
Do you see any conflict between the Hoover that was considered charitable and humanitarian internationally and the way he was received, perceived at home?
I think there’s a great, one of the interesting questions is, here’s a man who saved Europe and the American people in 1933 said, this is the man who saved Europe but then turned his back on starving Americans. The irony here is not that he ever turned his back on anyone, because he did not. But how did he approach letting people know what he did? When he served in Europe he served behind the scenes. The story was feeding people. It wasn’t Herbert Hoover and what he was doing but how America was helping those in need. Hoover got much of the credit but he got it indirectly for having served those people. Once he becomes President of the United States all of the focus is on him and he is uncomfortable with that cult of personality that comes with the presidency. But it was also true that his friends and associates as they had in effect promoted him for President, had as he said, made me into some kind of superman. And so the expectations of the American people in 1929 and ‘30 and ’31 were that this man who had saved Europe, or so they had been told, he had saved Europe. He was the Master of Emergencies should, of course, be able to solve their economic woes during the Great Depression. So rising expectation on the part of the American people and an economic collapse far greater than anything that any one individual could address, in effect, ruins or at least diminished the reputation of Herbert Hoover not only as a Master of Emergencies, but as a national and international leader. And so in that sense Hoover was hoisted on the petard of his own success in Europe and as Secretary of Commerce. He ultimately couldn’t resolve the American people’s problems in that regard.
In your mind were there circumstances so unique that no one could have overcome them?
I think there’s an interesting premise and it’s one that you’ll hear from others, that is, what if Franklin Roosevelt had been elected president in 1929 facing the same problems that Hoover faced? Would the situation or would the economic course of our history changed? Probably not. Now certainly Roosevelt’s strategy for addressing the Depression would have been different. But the results may well have been the same. And so in 1932 the American people may still have changed leaders and they may have elected a businessman like Herbert Hoover. I think it’s quite clear that the economic collapse in looking back on it, the economic collapse around the world starting in 1929 but lasting really until the beginning of World War II was so devastating that no single government or no economic policy was going to be able to address that sufficiently to overcome it quickly. I mean the American people became impatient. So many of them had lost their homes. So many of them were out of work. They were in desperate need. Hoover was spending money on public works projects at a rate unprecedented in American history. He spent more money in his one term on public works than all presidents before him combined. And yet got no credit for it. He established organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Farm Board and the the Reconstruction Finance Corporation all to address America’s needs. But even to this day there are people alive who blame Herbert Hoover for their great grandfather or grandfather’s loss of a job or the loss of a home. So that there’s almost nothing, Hoover was virtually powerless to have done anything at that time. But with expectations so high that this is the Master of Emergencies, that people’s and then people’s fortunes were dashed in the aftermath of it. They turned hostile toward Hoover. I’ll tell you a funny story because it was told to me about Herbert Hoover. A friend of mine, a historian who actually served at the Kennedy Library for many years said, he was twelve-years old before he knew Herbert Hoover’s first name. His father was a Democrat and always would go around the house referring to son-of-a-bitch Hoover. And so my friend thought that Herbert Hoover’s first name was Son-of-a-Bitch because that’s all they ever referred to him as. So in truth the hostility toward Hoover even continues to this day and there are contemporary critics who still try to lambaste say President Bush or any other political figure with a tar brush of Herbert Hoover.
What aspects of that criticism would you say are justified?
What Hoover’s presidency tells us is that you must first of all be a politician who can speak to the American people. You must use the bully pulpit of your office. It’s not enough to do good deeds or good works. You must repeatedly tell the American people what you are going to do. You must follow through on what you promise and the remind them of how grateful they should be for what they’ve been given. And so we’ve built a whole public relations enterprise that we now refer to as spin that is completely foreign to Herbert Hoover’s way of thinking. Mr. Hoover would have argued that good works speak for themselves. And if you are doing the right thing you should not worry about popular or public reaction to it. On the other hand, Mr. Hover was sensitive to criticism and he would bemoan the fact that if a president was trying to do the right thing why is that others will oppose him just for the sake of opposition? Well that’s what politics is. And it was something that other presidents like Franklin Roosevelt seemed to understand intuitively exactly what needed to be done and how to let the American people know what they were doing. Roosevelt wasn’t any more successful than Hoover in those first, in that first term but he convinced the American people that he was doing the right thing and that he was on their side. They both delivered the same number virtually the same number of radio addresses, but Herbert Hoover would speak to the American people on the radio as if he was reading a report, a stock ticker or something to that effect. And he just did not have the requisite skills as a public speaker, as somebody able to reach to the American people directly. That’s what we learned from the Hover presidency. Not about policy but about politics.
Who was he listening to in the administration? Was there no one who was saying, hey we have to put some kind of publicity p.r. spin on this?
Hoover’s the group of people who worked with Hoover obviously who they referred to as the Chief. And he was the Chief. And he really did direct programs and he was a master at public relations in the sense of using the media, primarily the press but eventually also the radio to some extent and film, to try to spread the word as of a particular cause or a need. He was not particularly good at the human interaction that comes now with the presidency. But I also want to guard against the danger of judging Herbert Hoover through the prism either of modern presidential politics or more specifically Franklin D. Roosevelt who in many ways is the acknowledged master of presidential politics certainly in the ‘30s. The kind of reserved formal style that Hoover exhibits is fairly typical of presidents in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Certainly Woodrow Wilson was not outgoing and bombastic and given revealing much in the way of his personal side. He would be quite formal and certainly you would say the same of Coolidge. So In many ways Hoover is an extension of those earlier progressive presidents rather than a reflection of the later more revealing personal presidents like Franklin Roosevelt or the ones that have come since World War II. So yes I mean to some extent Hoover guards himself against the opinion of others. He was a man who was self assured. He believed that he was the most intelligent person in the room and that might have well been the case. Was he open to other ideas? - Without question because he believed very much in a kind of a commission form of government. He believed in bringing the best and the brightest to a table and sharing ideas, embracing ideas, revising his own ideas. He was a man who didn’t in effect write a speech from word one to the end. He would revise. He would move things around. This is a man who would have loved word processors. He would have loved to have moved ideas around and share ideas. He loved to listen to others. So it’s not as if he was completely isolated. But once he had settled on a policy, he believed in carrying forward that policy. He opposed the idea, for example, of a dole, of direct payments to individuals. And he stuck with that even though it would have clearly been more popular to have embraced that idea and gone forward in helping other people directly. But he said no this is wrong. We really have to allow Main Street and the voluntarism of the American people to help one another. So in some ways he was stubborn there’s no question about it. He stuck to his ideas. There are some who would say that’s a good quality and others who would say that’s obstinance. So it’s again, it could be either side depending on how you looked at it.
Certainly in a time of significant change, many might consider catastrophic change holding to an idea might be seen as a negative?
Yes holding to an idea in difficult times certainly did not help Hoover. He did not get any credit for being strong in the face of adversity or taking an unpopular position. And there is no question that a part of Roosevelt’s success we learn after the fact is his ability to continue to change policies as the people seemed to demand it. So we’ve learned with hindsight that Hoover would have been better advised to have been more flexible. But it’s hard to look at him in his times and given the background and his previous success in Europe, when he was obstinate in the face of challenges that the German government placed before him, when he was trying to feed the people of Belgium. When he had been so successful using those policies he persisted in trying to apply those to the economic enemy of the Great Depression. It did not succeed and he would have to acknowledge that although he was not a man given to admitting personal mistakes. He would have to have acknowledged that after the fact and obviously I think that he probably knew in 1932 that his chances of being reelected were slim.
He strikes me, as he is coming into office as more of a populist, not necessarily so much himself, as much the movement around him – as he is so incredibly popular, who was directing the spin on that? And creating that image for obviously the public bought it?
The people around Hoover, who don’t get as much credit because, of course, they tried to divert attention to the Chief, were to some extent anonymous. But George Akerson his first press secretary was very attuned to the press and was very keen on this idea on building up Hoover’s image as a Master of Emergency. Certainly Will Erwin the eventual playwright and who wrote Hoover’s campaign biography, another fellow who was with Hoover throughout the commerce years. In many ways all the people who he worked with in the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, people like Louis Straws and others would rally the troops. And even later after the presidency was over if the Chief was giving a speech on radio all of the Hoover men as they were called would call their local radio affiliates - Mutual, CBS, NBC and say you’ve got to carry the Chief’s speech. So you are right in the sense that spin existed not in quite the formal or elaborate way that it exists today, but it certainly existed in an effort to promote the ideas of Herbert Hoover, if not the personality. Again this is a man who wanted to apply the principles of science to politics. He believed almost taking the city manager movement and extrapolating this to the nation. Be a good scientist, run the country by good government engineering principles. Don’t draw attention to yourself, the idea is most important. Stick to your principles. And in economic times where people are suffering and they want someone to feel their pain, they don’t want to be told you know “things will get better we’re just going to have to tough it out.” They wanted more compassion. They wanted more empathy. And it was very hard for this young man who had suffered so much early on to show that kind of empathy, to show that he had in his heart that compassion that they wanted to see openly.
Was he in denial?
You know it’s very hard for me to to psychoanalyze somebody who’s as reserved and as formal as Herbert Hoover. And after twenty years of study I can’t say today I understand him to the extent that I’d like too or to say that I understand him all that much better than I did when I started my job two decades ago. What I can say is that in all of us there is a certain measure of denial and certainly all presidents of the United States at some point or another become defensive about their policies and their term in office. It’s a very hard job and Hoover was first to admit that only former presidents of the United States understand what their incumbents and their colleagues are going through. I think yes it’s perfectly natural to say that after the fact that Hoover if he could have gone back would he have done certain things differently, I don’t think there there’s any question that he would have. And I think he was frustrated by the difficulty of dealing with a Congress that resisted him. I think he would have to admit that he was overly idealistic about what the American people would accomplish. And that he was overly reliant on what he had learned and his successes at Commerce and during his years in Europe. So yes without question he would have to say, I could have done things better. But it’s very hard for any of us to admit that. Whether or not you agree with the individual or you disagree, whether you like him or don’t like him, at the very least you need to be conscious of who they were and what are the contours of their personality and their achievement. I have a hard time seeing Wilson handle the Bonus March the way that Hoover handled the March. Hoover’s reaction, the way he handles the Bonus March is a really surprise to me. It doesn’t strike me as Herbert Hoover. The Bonus March is very much of an enigma and what Hoover did. And it’s not so much that he would send Douglas MacArthur out there. Remember MacArthur had led many of these veterans who had come to Washington seeking from Congress a bonus that they felt entitled to and Congress had said they would give them in 1945. Well it was not 1945 it was 1932 and they needed the money now. Well, of course, Pelham Glassford the head of the police force in Washington said, “I can’t manage this group of people, Mr. President. Could you send the army?” Well let’s send the man who led them into battle. Let’s send them Douglas MacArthur who took it upon himself to drive those who wouldn’t leave out of Washington and create a public relations nightmare. What baffles me and I’ve sometimes I’ve think in my mind at the very least, said, “Mr. President why are you taking the blame for this boneheaded policy that was was directed completely and in some ways with insubordination. In some ways Douglas MacArthur was insubordinate in over superceding the authority that he had to drive these men out and and yet Hover takes the blame. He says this is my responsibility. Why? Particularly at a time when he is running for reelection. And I would agree with you and that’s something that perplexes me to this day why did Herbert Hoover take responsibility for the Bonus March when clearly it should have been laid at the feet of those, boots of Douglas MacArthur? And Hoover and MacArthur remained friends. There was no bitterness between them and yet I think as Roosevelt said about the Bonus March, “This wins it for me.” I think that it was certainly one serious nail in the coffin of Hoover’s political campaign in 1932. Let’s go back to the five or six years preceding the ’28 election. Maybe you can describe for the viewer what’s going on in America at that time. What’s going on that sets the stage for someone like Hoover to come in? We’d like to think of the 1920s as the Jazz Age. And in some ways we have a cartoonish image of bathtub gin and razzmatazz and girls bobbing their hair. We get the high points of American culture. What most people don’t realize is, of course, is that it was also a decade of great prosperity and great technology. In 1920 only sixty thousand American homes had radios, by 1930 nine million homes have radios. That’s a fourteen hundred and fifty percent increase. All of a sudden information that was restricted to newspapers maybe to the East coast is spread across the country as fast as lightening. And people are buying radios before they even have electricity in their homes. They are buying automobiles that allow them to travel the country if they choose. We tend to forget in the 19th century most people were born and were raised and died within a twelve-mile radius of the spot where they were born. Now they could travel the world. They could hear what was going on. So that the world opens up to America in the 1920s. It’s also an era when we have a tremendous amount of disposable income so people can buy labor saving devices like vacuum sweepers and other products. Once they certainly get electricity in major American cities it changes the nature of work. Women work more frequently in offices and elsewhere. They, we have typewriters and we have other inventions. We have elevators taking you to the upper floors. We have all types of improvements. There’s a notion of unrestricted values, that new types of American literature. We became sort of robust as a culture. We have a President who basically says hey things are going fine in Calvin Coolidge. Warren Harding the man who looked like a president who served for three years. He’s beloved, dies of a heart attack and is replaced by this Calvin Coolidge. Keep cool with Coolidge. Who basically takes naps, who has a laissez-faire policy, hands off of governance. And things are going fine. Big industries, people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone and others. We admire them. We admire the business. We also have a Commerce Department led by Herbert Hoover that basically is, says government has a role at the table of industry in approving standards. We’re going to have federal highway standards. We’re going to regulate traffic by having something called a traffic signal. We’re going to have road signs that will help people get across the country. We’re going to regulate radio waves to make sure that people get clear signals. We’re going to have the school lunch programs. We’re going to have lots of things that are going to make life better. So that things were prosperous. Things were good. By 1928 I don’t think there was any chance that the Democrats could be elected president because you’d have eight years of Republican prosperity. So with all credit that is due to Hoover if somebody else had received the nomination Frank Lowden, for example, of Illinois he probably would have been elected president. In fact what’s interesting I think about Hoover’s candidacy was that he got the nomination at all. Quite frankly I’m told the Literary Digest did a survey after the first announcement - Calvin Coolidge’s enigmatic announcement that I choose not to run for president in 1928. They polled political leaders of the Republican Party and said who are the top ten potential candidates to get the nomination. Hoover wasn’t one of the top ten. But it isn’t until the Mississippi River flood of ’27 that people are reminded of all that Hoover had accomplished in Europe. All that he was accomplishing down in New Orleans in the South helping people. Well, why not Hoover? And that becomes who but Hoover? And it’s a juggernaut. I mean in effect all that press coverage makes him the popular, the favorite to win the nomination and, of course, he does. So he’s almost swept into office the way a surfer’s riding a wave. And they’re riding this reputation that in part is being fostered by the friends and associates of the Chief but also the circumstances of the Mississippi River flood and how Hoover responded to it.
Why don’t you tell us about the flood and why he’s the man the nation turns to?
The Mississippi River flood is one of those at the time unprecedented calamities - rainfall in the upper Mississippi River watershed filtered down to the lower Mississippi and flooded vast areas of the southern part of the nation. Very poor parts of the nation in Mississippi and Arkansas and Louisiana. And there had in, up until that time all calamities of that sort even regional calamities, had been addressed locally or by regions, by states. We were after all the United States of America. It wasn’t the presumption that the federal government would step in and relieve the crisis. So in 1927 when flooding began to take place in the lower Mississippi, it was something of an unprecedented calamity. And the federal government did step in, in the form of Herbert Hoover leading resources from the Commerce Department but also taking responsibility for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Defense Department to address those people who had very specific needs. Nine hundred thousand people had to be housed and fed on a regular basis for months at a time until the flooding could be addressed and the water could recede, and so he’s the man whose there with the plan. He’s command and control. It’s very untypical of the federal government in general and more specifically Coolidge’s government Cool Coolidge’s administration to step in and and provide this kind of assistance. And so he got enormous press, popular press. And because it did focus on his achievement and his particular style of leadership, and it did hearken back to what happened in World War I, it propelled his candidacy forward. He was also helped by film, because, of course, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Signal Corps were filming all of the efforts that they were documenting this effort. Hoover is there and in fact they create a campaign film called Master of Emergencies, which is widely shown during the 1928 campaign. And so people begin to visualize who this man is. There’s a popular article that’s published during the campaign in 1928 that says. The title of which was, “Is Hoover Human?” I mean this is superman. You know this is and this is before the comic character. There were no Superman comics at the time. But he’s larger than life. And, of course, so much later in 1929 when the stock market collapse collapses why isn’t Hoover stepping in and doing in ’29 what he had done in ’27? - Different problems, different circumstances, different types of resources available. So fighting an economic collapse isn’t the same thing as fighting a flooded river. But that’s what happened in ’27 and so that propels Hoover forward.
As we talk about the flood and show the audience footage from the ’27 flood there is no question that they will be thinking of Katrina and the response to that flood.
I think there’s no question that historical comparisons between what happened in ’27 in in the southern Mississippi and what happened as a response to Hurricane Katrina have been inevitable. In fact there’s been, there were numerous newspaper columns lauding the approach that Hoover had taken which was in effect centralizing authority for disaster response. I think without question we are seeing an effort on the part of the contemporary Bush administration to centralize how we respond to any kind of economic collapse. You can’t have a Federal Emergency Management Agency doing one thing and the Red Cross doing another thing and the Department of Homeland Security doing a third thing - that you have to provide centralized control. And without question Hoover gets very positive press as a result of how he responded in 1927. And people draw those comparisons between that effort and the effort in response to Katrina.
The interesting thing is that there is logical order/approach to natural disasters - people have to fed, housed, clothed. Usually that requires short-term action. Although in the case of Katrina we blew the short-term response so now are faced with long-term consequences. How is Hoover’s response to the enormous fiscal emergency of 1929 different? How does this fiscal emergency test his philosophy of American Individualism and where does he turn?
Exactly I mean I think the real question on October 29, 1929 is, Herbert Hoover is President of the United States; the stock market there’s a terrible panic. Is this the beginning of a long-term change in our economy? Is this a long-term economic collapse that is going to require a new way of governance? Without question Hoover would have denied it at that point. In fact, what’s most interesting to me is that the economic collapse on October 29th was not one of the top ten news stories of 1929 as determined by the New York Times. Everyone in the nation was in denial. It was they called it a depression because they didn’t want to call it a panic. They didn’t want the American people to compare this to 1893 or some of the other periodic financial panics. And from really through 1930 and ’31 there seemed to be a mild recovery. Hoover convinced industry leaders to keep people employed at least part-time, to keep income flowing. He’s pumping money into public works projects. Things are going to be okay. Nobody wants to say oh my goodness this is a crisis. Into ’32 and ’33 other wiser people are saying maybe there’s something wrong with our economy. Maybe there’s something wrong with democracy. Maybe we can’t govern the way we’ve been governing. And so in that sense you begin to see the nation’s confidence in its economic enterprise unraveling and the responsibility is laid on Herbert Hoover and the blame begins to build. I don’t think there was anybody in early 1930 or even ’31 who would say well Hoover’s to blame. It’s Hoover’s fault that we are in the predicament we’re in. But beginning in ‘30 let’s say late ’31, ’32, ’33 when you have more and more Hoovervilles which were a collection of shacks from displaced people displaced from their homes. When you have Hoover hogs, which are, people eating road kill to survive. You have Hoover hotels, which are those cardboard shacks they are living in. It’s all negative Hoover. And so there is a rolling blame as we begin to learn that the economic collapse that started in ’29 is going to get worse. Most Americans believe that on the day Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated the Depression ended. Why? Because Roosevelt gave them something that Hoover couldn’t give them – a sense of hope that better times will be coming. Happy Days are here again or happy days at the very least will be here again. And Roosevelt kept changing policies. If this doesn’t work, let’s try this. If this doesn’t work, let’s try this. I mean Roosevelt when you asked him what his philosophy was he said well I’m a Christian and I’m a Democrat. But he had that ability to communicate that Hoover just couldn’t marshal. And so in that sense, that shift, that paradigm shift that we see in the Roosevelt years reflects poorly on Hoover’s presidential style. But if you look at Hoover from the perspective of Wilson or of Coolidge he appears very progressive and unprecedented in his response to the economic collapse. Some of the programs that Hoover does initiate do seem to fly in the face of his philosophy as he entered office. So it does appear that he was trying to find policies that will work. Additionally, are there any policies/programs that Hoover began that Roosevelt ultimately got credit for? One of the dilemmas I suppose of writing the Hoover story is that in many ways if you look at the policies that he was presenting in 1930, ’31, ’32, they’ re quite progressive. In fact, many of the early programs of the New Deal, the First Hundred Days, are programs that Hoover had introduced in Congress but were being held up in committee by a Democratic Congress. So to some extent we should give Hoover credit for some of the early days of the New Deal. But if Hoover were here with us he would probably deny this because he had personal animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt and toward the whole philosophy of the New Deal, which did not rely on the resources of the individual, that relied more heavily on government programs. Yes to some extent Hoover the engineer would tinker with different types of social programs. He certainly believed in the idea that you pumped money into the economy to get people back to work, which was not something that was strictly relying on American individualism. It was relying on the government to give a helping hand. But it’s also true that it’s very hard to be completely consistent and so in that sense Hoover would tinker. After the fact, if you were to talk about Hoover’s perspective on the New Deal he would be quite clearly an opponent of the New Deal. His book, Challenge to Liberty, was in effect his critique of the New Deal. And in fact his post presidential years are to some extent formed by his opposition to the New Deal. But in many ways I don’t think it was his disagreement with many of the ideas of the New Deal as stripped of their tags - helping other people, individuals and so forth. It was the personality of Roosevelt and the individuals that Roosevelt surrounded himself with, maybe his opposition to Harry Hopkins or others and their approach to individual support or support for individuals.
What about Henry Wallace?
You know the relationship between the Wallace family and the Hoovers is kind of problematic because I think there always was a certain measure of rivalry there even during the time that Henry C. Wallace was Secretary of Agriculture in the Coolidge years. And to the extent to which the tension and overwork led to Henry C. Wallace’s death and to the extent to which Henry A. Wallace blamed Herbert Hoover to, for contributing to that tension. What I think is most interesting is in some ways they have similar personalities in being shy, in being scientific, in being focused on programs rather than personalities. And yet philosophically they were very different people obviously. To the best of our knowledge there’s only one picture of Henry A. Wallace and Herbert Hoover together. And they both have a very pained expression on their faces. I think it’s kind of interesting that the two men are periodically bundled - these two Iowans who were deeply interested in and concerned with helping others but who were political opposites. I mean we have a Hoover Wallace dinner now and I’m not sure that either Herbert Hoover or Henry Wallace would attend the dinner in their honor or their namesake dinner, because of political differences. But it is interesting. That book Challenge To Liberty interestingly enough was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. And Hoover was very pleased that it was going to appear before the 1934 political campaigns. And only after the fact did he learn that it was a dual main selection of the Book-of-the- Month Club with a book by Henry Wallace. So once again Hoover and Wallace were bundled together. And they reflected different perspectives in some ways of Iowa’s political philosophy.
Having worked on a documentary on Wallace I see more in common than just the science and policy because they both understood food and the enormous power of food not only politically but in diplomacy. I think they both saw the potential of the United States to use food for the common good, which is not a Republican or Democratic idea.
The question of food and famine and how you change people’s views of the United States, views of the world, how do we ensure prosperity and peace? We have engraved on the floor of the Hoover Library a quote, which I can’t read for you because I can’t remember it, but it in effect it says, that Hoover’s core philosophy, these are words that he used in his last speech at the Hoover Library when he dedicated the library, is that what people wanted most in this world to ensure peace was economic security that came to the relief of famine. And it is the value of food as a sort of, a part of our diplomatic policy that he embraced. In fact, to the extent that he very much wanted to unify Germany after World War II because he saw Germany as the kind of the breadbasket of western Europe that could ensure peace and prosperity throughout western Europe for the coming generation. And I think there’s no question that Henry Wallace shared that philosophy. Now whether it has to do with political rivalry or personal differences I don’t know, but I think the observation that Henry Wallace, Henry A. Wallace, Henry C. Wallace and Herbert Hoover had far more in common than they had differences I’m sure would be disputed by some people. But I would agree that most historians see that commonality of purpose and that commonality starts with food.
Do you think Iowa as a place has impacted Hoover?
The real impact of Herbert Hoover, the real impact of Iowa on Herbert Hoover is hard to determine. If you go back to Hoover’s memoirs they comprise about 1500 pages - to be sure it’s a rich life of ninety years. But if I’m right I think there are only eleven pages on Iowa. And it’s a basically the chapter he has on Iowa is a rehash of a speech he gave in 1927 to the Iowa Society in Washington, DC and its idyllic. You know it’s sliding down Cook’s hill. It’s picking potato bugs to buy firecrackers. It’s political rallies. It’s fishing in a stream. You know it’s hanging around his father’s blacksmith shop. In many ways it doesn’t really reflect the real hardship that he faced. The real challenge a young boy is going to face first losing his father and then his mother and then being divided from his brother and sister. I think is some ways the world of Iowa, and Iowans were very proud of Herbert Hoover, don’t get me wrong. And they always invited him back. And he was pleased that he had unqualified love here in Iowa. But I don’t think that he had that much of a memory of Iowa. Once he had left Iowa and went to Oregon his values are shaped by a uncle who one might say applied tough love. And then more directly I think by Stanford University. I think if you are looking for the heart and soul of Herbert Hoover you find him not specifically in Iowa, but you find him at at Stanford. Where he met his future wife. Granted Lou was born in Iowa and they always had Iowa roots. Again, don’t get me wrong he was proud of having come from Iowa and that link with food and Iowa is very important to him. But he, but his best friends people like Ray Lyman Wilbur, his brother goes to Stanford. He builds the Hoover Institution Tower at Stanford. He always spent a week each year at Stanford before he went to the Bohemian Grove encampment. So Stanford is a vital, vital part and yet, of course, people from Iowa would invite him back. And when he had the opportunity to establish a presidential library in after 1955 he kind of resisted the notion at first. He had the Tower. He thought well let’s build a museum at Stanford to go along with my documents. But the people at Iowa said, oh but of we’ve preserved the cottage where you were born. We’ve built a reproduction of the blacksmith shop where your father worked. We but we want to preserve other things here - we have picnic shelters, won’t you let us build a roadside museum? And so Hoover says, okay. The museum we have there now would have been one that I think Lou would have loved because it focuses on Hoover as a person. But I think Mr. Hoover would have preferred a museum that had focused on his ideas. And so the idea of his youth in Iowa, although an historical fact, wasn’t as strong in his memory as I think those those Stanford years.
Let’s talk about the 1928 election. Who was Hoover running against? What were the political issues at the time? And how/why did Hoover win?
The 1928 political campaign is interesting because, of course, Hoover comes as a dark horse. I had mentioned earlier that he wasn’t among the top ten potential candidates. Somebody like Frank Lowden of Illinois or the sitting Vice-President, Charles Gates Dawes, might have been a more logical candidate for president when Coolidge says he’s he intends not to run. But nobody believed that Coolidge wasn’t going to run. So lots of candidates were sitting by the side. Hoover poses the question to Coolidge, if he’s going to run again, and a typically enigmatic Coolidge doesn’t say yes or no. So really late in the political process, Coolidge is still talked about as a viable political candidate. When Coolidge in effect has to fish or cut bait to use a Hoover analogy. He doesn’t. He cuts bait. He doesn’t run for reelection and Hoover because he has a kind of a group of followers and associates who were prepared to in effect to promote him and sell him if I can use that term as a candidate, jumps to the front of the pack and wins the nomination on the first ballot. Lowden and there’s a I’ve forgotten the name of a candidate in Ohio the first political camp or the first primary that Hoover enters is Ohio and he’s running against a favorite son. So I believe he loses, I’m not an expert on the ’28 campaign. But, but again Hoover’s record of achievement and this film Master of Emergencies becomes such a compelling story, it’s hard to deny him the nomination. He was no favorite of Coolidge. Coolidge referred to him as the wonder boy. What’s the wonder boy doing next? And so there was a fair amount of animosity I think within the Republican political establishment to this fellow Hoover whose ideas seem to wander off the Republican agenda from time to time. Who didn’t have any specific loyalties to any Republican political machine, what’s he going to do next? But it it was hard to deny him.
Hoover talks about poverty in his inaugural. To what extent does poverty and income disparity in general play a role in that election and in Hoover’s whole philosophy about how to approach the presidency?
You know one of the interesting things about all the Presidents of the United States in the 20th century is how many of them come from small towns. And how many of them come from relatively impoverished backgrounds. One of the sacred beliefs of the American political system is that anyone can grow up to be president of the United Sates. And that coming from a small town is is a wonderful thing. And the values that you learn from your aunt and your uncle as well as your parents and your next-door neighbor are to values to be cherished. And so in the sense that Hoover always pictured himself as this poor little boy from Iowa who made it big as an international mining engineer, was sacred to him too. I think preserving the cottage was important. It was gift really to him from Lou after the presidency to preserve that little two-room cottage. Because it underscored how poor his background was. He was no rich kid. And yet he embraced the Republican principles or principles of the Republican Party. He wasn’t truly a populist in the manner of the Democratic Party. He was I think as he defined himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. And Roosevelt had actually been a rich kid. But he loved the belief of helping others. And that he had come from such an impoverished background and so understood poverty. When Ding Darling the cartoonist of the Des Moines Register use to picture Hoover he was always in a in a pair of overalls, tattered overalls with just one strap you know hauling wood and what used to irate Franklin Roosevelt was that Darling always pictured Roosevelt as this little boy with a peter pan collar and a Lord Fauntleroy suit. So the idea of electing a rich kid president is something that doesn’t sit well with the American people. Hoover depicted himself, liked to think of himself, as a poor kid who was doing the right thing, who made all this money and was turning to public service.
Please talk about Hoover’s philosophy of American Individualism. He went from poor to rich and poor to the presidency of the United States. Some how he believed that anybody can. I think people today might dispute that. So why does he think this personal philosophy can carry over into an American philosophy?
Hoover’s own obviously political philosophy is shaped by this book or is reflected in this book American Individualism. And it really in many ways is his personal testimony to what he believes. Now where that comes from is hard to determine. I mean clearly this is a young man who was willing to kind of gamble to some extent – not take the safe route. He could have chosen at college, for example, to become a geologist, a scientist as opposed to becoming a mining engineer. He leaves college and the only job he can find is as a pick and shovel miner and so that’s hardly a a reflection of what he thought his life was going to be finishing college – that he was going to be in a mine for a year. But he persists. And if there’s anything that is I suppose a real reflection of his philosophy is persistence – persistence, keep at it, keep at it and he takes a job as a consultant to a mining engineer and that leads to a job in western Australia and then to China and so forth. And always willing to take the risk. And so this is a man who clearly, whose political philosophy is such that if you persist like the fabled ant that moves the rubber tree plant – that you can reach your goals or your dreams. The biggest challenge Herbert Hoover faced was in 1914 he had reached all of his personal goals in terms of wealth and family and achievement. What are you going to do now Bert? You’re forty years old. And in effect the opportunity to help people in Belgium really was a major career shift for him. And so in that sense then it’s the opportunity that opens up. He then applies persistence in that regard which carries him forward into American politics and then to the presidency.
The philosophy is predicated on opportunity and opportunity is in pretty short supply by the middle of his presidency so how did this change him and change the conservative notion?
One of the challenges I think every individual faces when prophecy fails so to speak, when, in fact, the individualism and the small town commitment that he had hoped for diminishes. Do you abandon the philosophy and in effect say well I guess the reality that I thought was going to take hold or to continue is gone or do you cherish it more? And that’s where in effect this problem of in effect denial that things were not going well probably does come into to play. He really did not want to abandon his belief that the American people could help one another. It was almost in his fiber, in his bone. And I can’t tell you why he clung to this so dearly in the face of a greater need to provide food to people and housing to people who clearly were living in shacks, were eating what what they could. He was applying everything he felt to the limit of the way he could do it applying everything he could to help those in need through indirect means. Mrs. Hoover was in effect sending letters to the Red Cross to help individual families because she was hearing from individual families. It’s not that they were heartless or that they turned their backs on this or saying things will get better systemically. But in effect he said there’s only so far we can go. That to to change our philosophy of governance or to change my philosophy of governance and my philosophy of living is not something I’m prepared to do even in the face of this economic collapse.
How was it affecting his life? First of all what changes was he making in how he lived?
Herbert Hoover in some ways was isolated in the White House during his presidency. There was only two state visits – one the Prime Minister of France and one the King of Siam. He really worked sixteen-hour days. People thought he was doing nothing but he was something of a prisoner in the White House – calling people, working with individuals, trying to in effect work behind the scenes. This is the way he had worked in Europe; in much of his work at the Commerce Department was behind the scenes. Let the idea or the program carry itself forward. And so in many ways the stress level increased. The one time, the times I should say when he could relax and could get away was to Rapidan – the cabin and the complex he built near Rapidan in Virginia in the Shenandoah Mountains. Incidentally he also helped to start the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Mountains which is now interstate but that was one of the public works projects. But again he could relax. He could fish in a stream. He took his grandkids up there. He took the Prime Minister of Britain. It was unguarded but when he was back in Washington he was full bore working sixteen-hour days and it was physically taxing. I think in a way once he knew that he wasn’t going to be reelected president and he could lay the burden down. It wasn’t as if he was ready to give up he told Ted Joslin, who was his Press Secretary toward the very end, I think it was March 3rd, Ted we’re at the end of our string. I think he felt exhausted. He felt there was nothing more that he could do particularly to resolve the bank crisis. I’m sure he was depressed. I mean I think you would have to be to some extent be depressed in response to this unprecedented economic collapse and angry and frustrated with Franklin Roosevelt. Although you won’t find any words to that effect or any document that says as much.
When you say depressed did he break down?
You know every so often we will hear stories of people saying I saw President Hoover when he visited Harry Truman and he had tears in his eyes. Or I saw president Hoover I have no evidence of Herbert Hoover ever crying in public that any one would have seen him other than Mrs. Hoover or maybe the boys under any circumstances. I have no, again this reserved quality of Hoover’s in which he kept his emotions to himself were such that tears or outward emotion of anger or laughter - there are relatively few pictures of Herbert Hoover smiling. And that in some ways hurts our ability to try to to drill down into the individual to say what are your really feeling? Because we live in a world where it is 24/7 media attention to people’s private lives. But Hoover had this very private life and he just didn’t reveal himself. So I don’t, I’m sure that a man who did as much for people who were starving in Europe and compassionate in so many other ways through the Boys Club and so forth must have deeply felt the suffering of others. But you’re hard pressed to find it in any visual or documentary evidence.
In terms of contemporary relevance, as you are describing Hoover – the 16-hour days, the Depression, the very personalized response to crisis – it’s President Carter that comes to mind. So maybe you can talk about that.
It’s often the case that people think of who are the engineers who have been our presidents and there have been two – Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Both served one term as president, both face unprecedented economic collapses that they seem to be powerless to control. Both have extraordinarily productive post presidencies around the world in so many different ways. And so it’s quite logical to link the two together. Both in some ways were micromanagers. They were very much active in their administrations. They didn’t delegate authority well. And yet I’m told that President Carter, I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m told President Carter doesn’t like the comparison. There are few men in this world who want to be compared to Herbert Hoover. And certainly I would imagine that Jimmy Carter is not one of them. That’s not to say that Jimmy Carter doesn’t appreciate what Herbert Hoover accomplished certainly as a former president or maybe even as a certainly as a before he was president. It’s just that I think each president likes to be judged as himself. He doesn’t want to be compared to others with the possible exception it seems that all Republican candidates want to be compared to Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan and all Democratic presidents want to be compared to John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. So you know in most cases these two engineer presidents don’t like to be linked together. I think if you look at the two presidents though you can see one commonality and that is they both were outsiders. They both believed that you could apply a certain amount of of scientific management principle to the office of president and to leadership. And that it did not succeed in the sense that politics and being, having strong political instincts and strong communication skills seems to be paramount among the credentials you need to be a successful president. By successful I mean not what you accomplish but by the image that history seems to accord you.
Earlier you mentioned the idea of spin – that if Hoover had been better about spin he would have been better at pointing out the good things he had done that the public may not have been aware of and certainly Carter too.
The irony of history is that we look back on any number of administrations and we say this is a man of courage. We’ve looked back, for example, on Gerald Ford and at the time he pardoned Richard Nixon people thought the fix is in, how cowardly, how low. But here it is just before he dies he wins the Profiles in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library as doing something that was important for the nation. So history has a way of mollifying our criticism at the time. And I think without question people look back on the Carter presidency and some people, historians certainly, on the Hoover presidency with with a more subtle approach to the nature of their governance and leadership. The hostility that Hoover felt, the people in line shouting we want bread, and the references to him as son-of-a-bitch Hoover or whatever are generally gone, not completely. There are people who will still not come to the Hoover Presidential Library because they blame Herbert Hoover for the suffering in their family. But for the most part historians look back on Herbert Hoover and they will say you know a blemished presidency to be sure, but many important accomplishments and lays the groundwork for much of what is later accomplished in this country. So it is in part successful. The public has a very limited notion of Herbert Hoover that’s based in large part on what they learned in the 11th grade. And they judge Hoover based on contemporary standards of presidential intervention. Why didn’t he do more? Why wouldn’t he give direct aid in the manner that we give through social security? We judge Hoover and find him wanting because he isn’t a mini version of Franklin Roosevelt. Rather than saying in effect, wait a minute, no one individual Democrat or Republican and, in fact, if you look at the ’28 campaign and you look at Al Smith’s programs versus Herbert Hoover’s programs they’re very similar. I mean and, in fact, in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt runs against Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt says he’s going to balance the budget. Hoover is a spendthrift spending too much money on those public works projects. Roosevelt’s going to balance the budget. Well of course that was about as far from the truth when we got to it as as you can imagine. So in point of fact philosophy versus circumstance it’s a difficult mix.
What comes out of the Hoover presidency, talking about foundational things that do continue, that we might look back on today and say I had no idea that originates with Hoover? Radio is certainly a big thing.
When you look back on the Hoover presidency and you want to say well this is a difficult time what sort of accomplishment, what bright moments are there in the Hoover administration that anyone that says well you know maybe I should take another look. Well let’s look at some of the institutions that Hoover established during his time in office. Very few people remember that The Veterans Administration was established during the Hoover Administration. Very few people realize that the beginning of the St. Lawrence Seaway the canal that allows us to get products all the way to Chicago by ship started in the Hoover Administration. People forget that the Golden Gate Bridge started in the Hoover Administration. People forget that the Federal Triangle in downtown Washington, DC, the Justice Department and so forth started in the Hoover Administration. Very few people realize that the school lunch program was started by actually a private nonprofit program started by Herbert Hoover. That the National Institutes of Health, the people who protect us against disease, was started as legislation a collaboration between the Congress and the president and the legislation was signed by Herbert Hoover. Heck even the Star Spangled Banner was made our national anthem during the Hoover Administration. And the Purple Heart was made, reinvigorated as the medal given to soldiers wounded in battle in the Hoover Administration. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which helped industry. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which continues to this day, started in the Hoover Administration. So there’s an enormous list particularly in the first two years of the Hoover years Hoover Administration that he could point to in pride. But they’re caught up in this enormous tidal wave of economic need and suffering that we call The Great Depression that continues on from 1929 really until 1941 until we enter Word War II. And what people forget is that in 1945 economists were predicting that we were going to go back into depression. So the the enormity of the Depression has casts its shadow along with Roosevelt’s success cast a shadow on any positive assessment of the Hoover presidency.
Why does he decide to run again in 1932?
Hoover decides to run again in ’32 because he felt that he was on the right path. Yes times were hard but he had an unqualified belief that the programs and ideas that he was championing were going to work. And to some extent that was true. What he didn’t realize was how impatient the American people were. I think he felt that in effect there was a sizeable number of people who accepted what he had to say. Keep in mind he still won 40% of the popular vote in the 1932 campaign. Yes he lost in the greatest landslide. He had won in the greatest landslide I think up until that time and lost in the greatest landslide the following term, but at the time he felt that the people would stick with him, stick with Hoover. And of course he’s listening to those people who are around him who are positive in his support. So to some extent being in the White House he’s not necessarily hearing or seeing the kind of suffering that might have caused him to to have doubt. But he’s not a man who had self doubt or at least we have no way to document that self doubt if he had it he kept it in his heart.
What does America look like in 1932?
America in 1932 is hurting there’s no question about a third of our workforce is out of work, 11 million people I think. And they’re suffering and it’s people who in many ways are suffering not just economically but almost spiritually in the sense that there’s a crisis of confidence. There are many, many people, many reasonable people Nicholas Murray Butler who had been given the Nobel Peace Prize, as I recall, the President of Columbia University, who says in effect democracy is at an end. And this is causing chills up the spine of the American body politic. So what you have is a crisis of confidence. You have a lack of confidence in this man in the White House. Who in spite of the fact that he’s using the radio. He used the radio almost as many times as Franklin Roosevelt – he used nearly 100 times, a 100 speeches during the time he was president, that is Hoover. He couldn’t convince the American people that they were on the right track with the right person. He spoke in a flat kind of a monotone voice. He tend when he gave speeches to kind of bounce on the soles of his feet as if he wanted to be someplace else. Whereas Roosevelt had the wonderful tone to his voice so by comparison in the ’32 campaign Hoover’s giving these rather rushed speeches. In fact it’s only after Franklin Roosevelt decides to tour the country in a train that Hoover late in the campaign after Labor Day begins to tour the country delivering speeches. So he’s a defensive president at that point and he just didn’t want to believe that the American people would abandon the man who had saved Europe. He felt he had earned the right to a second term. I think he would say it I again I have no documentation from him saying this is why I would why he wanted to run a second time or why he felt he could carry forward.
At this time did Hoover have a false perception of who he was, believing that the American people would not abandon him; was he out of touch with the American public at that point?
You know it, when one is President of the United States, when one is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and you’re living off of your own economic means and the result of your hard work, you are not getting the opportunity to get out of Washington. You’re not touring the kind of slums and so forth. To some extent yes he is isolated. But I would argue that virtually every President of the United States is to some extent isolated, that to, yes, they’re surrounded by people who tend to agree with them, that there is an absence of negative criticism that get’s into the White House. I think also without question that Hoover felt he was doing his very best. And he didn’t like criticism so he probably avoided it. And so yes to to some extent there is an isolation that prevents you from seeing what is actually happening. But there is also an omniscience. I don’t think Franklin Roosevelt understood how much suffering was going on in ’32. He saw it as a political opportunity and a political advantage but I don’t think that he had personal experience in seeing the suffering. He was blessed to some extent with the political philosophy of his wife who was eager to travel the country and see what was happening and would regularly report to her husband. And it’s not that Lou didn’t show compassion, she did. In many ways she was an extraordinary First Lady. And she did provide food relief through the American Red Cross. But she was not as active or travels as much as as Eleanor Roosevelt.
In that ’32 election what stands out for you in both the Hoover and Roosevelt campaign?
I think the most amazing thing about the ’32 campaign is when there was discussion and this is documented in part in Ted Joslin’s diary, when there was discussion about who Hoover would run against in 1932, he wanted to run against Franklin Roosevelt because he felt that Roosevelt wasn’t particularly intellectually engaging. He wasn’t even sure that Roosevelt was healthy enough to run for president of the United States. He felt that Newton Baker would be a stronger candidate, a more difficult candidate to run against. So to some extent clearly Hoover was out of touch with what was going on in the Democratic Party. I don’t think Hoover realized that the press would cooperate in not telling the American people about Franklin Roosevelt’s disability, that he was a paraplegic. That in effect the press would only show Roosevelt standing or kind of game fully walking by using crutches and the arm of his son Jimmy. Or that Franklin Roosevelt would engage in such a vigorous campaign in ’32. You know in spite of his paraplegia Roosevelt flew to the Democratic National Convention to accept the nomination in person – a first. He traveled the country by train. He seemed vigorous. So clearly that’s a surprise for a man who I think often understood his enemies or understood his rivals I should say. I think Herbert Hoover underestimated Franklin Roosevelt and his ability as a political candidate. I think the Bonus March remains a political enigma for me. Why Hoover would have accepted the blame during a time where he politically was weak during the campaign would accept this debacle, and accept responsibility for it, I still don’t understand that to this day? What still surprises me to this day, not so much about the ’32 campaign, but in general about Hoover’s reputation is the fact that his reputation continues to be mired in the lower ranks if you assess presidents in a linear fashion as from best to worst. That people implicitly and historians implicitly have not forgiven him for not doing more during the Depression. When they know intellectually that it wasn’t, that he didn’t have the ability to do more. So those are some of the things that surprise me. I suppose what disappoints me most about the Hoover presidency is the inability of Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover to build a rapprochement after the election. I think it was inevitable that Roosevelt was going to be the next President of the United States but the country was truly hurting after the election but before the inauguration in March. And Hoover reached out to Roosevelt on several occasions to come to the White House to build a common response to the Depression. And Roosevelt refused. I mean he felt politically it was not wise to do that he would be tarnished with the Hoover policies. And he probably was right politically but was wrong in terms of what was best for the public welfare. And so that’s a surprise and a disappointment to me that Roosevelt wouldn’t respond and I think that it lead to the anger and animosity that Hoover always had for Roosevelt after that fact. Hoover would not come back to Washington if FDR was in town. If Roosevelt had gone to Warm Springs or gone up to Hyde Park Hoover would come to to Washington. But he he just wouldn’t, he wouldn’t respond to that man.
I didn’t know that – the idea of Hoover reaching out to Roosevelt. You do read or hear a lot about Hoover’s outspoken, cranky attitude towards Roosevelt; perhaps you can talk about that.
Sure I mean I think after Hoover leaves Washington in March of ’33 he becomes somewhat bitter obviously about the way he felt he was treated by the Roosevelt team, by the kind of negative political campaigning alluded to by Charlie Michelson and the fact that the Democrats had used Hoover as a foil. So he becomes bitter and it begins, becomes an opponent of the New Deal and he doesn’t trust Roosevelt. He doesn’t trust the Democrats in Washington and what they’re doing. And he begins to write about it in his book Challenge to Liberty. But even efforts later, much later, 1939 Roosevelt wants to bring Hoover back into the government to help with the the needs of Europe during the times where Europe is at war in late ’39, we’re neutral. Hoover will have none of it. Norman Davies the head of the American Red Cross comes to Hoover as an emissary from Roosevelt trying to bring him back into government. Hoover will have none of it. The Red Cross can, does this. Why? He doesn’t trust Roosevelt. The same is true quite frankly of even efforts to invite Hoover to social functions. We have at least two invitations in the Hoover Papers to return to social functions at the Roosevelt White House. Hoover declines both. Declined it says in his bold pencil handwriting on the card. When Sara Delano, President Roosevelt’s mother dies, Hoover doesn’t send a letter of condolence to Franklin Roosevelt. He sends a letter of condolence to Eleanor Roosevelt. And when Lou Henry Hoover dies and Hoover gets a telegram from President Roosevelt – a telegram of condolence. Hoover doesn’t respond. He does get a letter, a personal letter from Eleanor Roosevelt and he responds to that. But he does not respond to the President. After the two men part on March 4. 1933, Inauguration Day there is no evidence of any communication between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And these were two men who were colleagues in the Wilson Administration. These are two men who worked together during the Commerce years when Franklin Roosevelt was head of the American Construction Council and Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. They’re kind of co-parents of the two-by-four because housing construction standards were fostered by these two organizations. They weren’t pals but they were colleagues and after ’33, no communication at all.
What did Roosevelt do that made Hoover so angry?
You know it’s one of the interesting issues that one has to deal with is obviously Herbert Hoover’s continued animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s refusal to come back to the White House after the election to help Hoover deal with the bank crisis and other challenges of the Depression, which so angered Herbert Hoover. One would assume that Hoover would you know get over it, if it was a political response, but there’s something deeper there that I can’t quite fathom, that touched Hoover. And I suppose it was his belief that the American people were suffering and that Franklin Roosevelt was using politics for personal gain at that time. Because I contrast that with the way Harry Truman treated Herbert Hoover in 1948. Truman’s back is against the wall. He’s running for re-election and running hard against Tom Dewey. And actually he’s using Herbert Hoover as his foil. Well Hoover doesn’t like it but after Truman wins re-election Hoover continues to work with Truman. He sets aside the political decisions that Harry Truman made to continue to work with Harry Truman. He couldn’t set aside FDR’s political decisions in 32 and ’33 and just refused to meet with the man. And it began it really defined his life in the 1930s as an opponent of the New Deal.
Please talk to Hoover’s post-presidency and his legacy.
What propels Herbert Hoover to seek the presidency or think that he can become a significant president and in effect what allowed the American people to embrace him and in part it’s built on his reputation as this extraordinary individual who seems to emerge out of an engineering career in 1914 to take an enormously important role feeding the people of Belgium. He really establishes the first international NGO, non-governmental organization for humanitarian relief. I mean what most people don’t realize is before World War 1 there weren’t international organizations doing this sort of thing. He’s invited by Walter Hines Page the U.S. Ambassador to help the people of Belgium and northern France, which he does. This propels him into a job as Head of the U.S. Food Administration working for Woodrow Wilson in a Democratic administration. Mind you at this point Hoover has never, he’s now 45 years old, he has not voted in a national election. So he, nobody knows what his political philosophy is and interestingly enough in 1920 Walter Lippmann the great columnist said that only Herbert Hoover among all of the major figures in World War 1, only Herbert Hoover emerges from the war with his reputation enhanced. In 1920 both parties seek Herbert Hoover as a potential nominee for the office of President of the United States. In fact, interestingly enough, we’ve talked about the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. And we talk some times about counterfactual history or what might have been, if only. Well in 1920 I believe it was in March before the election Franklin Roosevelt goes to the home of Herbert Hoover on S Street and tries to convince him to declare himself a Democrat. And at that point Roosevelt says he will run Hoover’s campaign for president because he thinks so highly of this man Hoover. So interestingly enough had Roosevelt succeeded and Hoover ran for president in 1920 you’d have a completely different political structure today because Hoover would have been president from 1920 on. There was no question he wasn’t going to get the nomination. The Republican Party didn’t know who this fella Hoover was. Wasn’t going to trust him and so forth. But it made Hoover begin to think and it’s all a direct result of this compassionate relief that he showed for the people of Belgium and northern France and then later on as the Head of the U.S. Food Administration. We tell the kids he became so well known in America that his last name becomes a verb -to “hooverize” meaning to help find food for people in need. And so he becomes well known around the world and particularly in the United States and that propels him into to the role of Secretary of Commerce and doing so much to make life better for the American people. So the presidency was a logical next step for a man who believed that he wanted to spend the rest of his life helping people. The other bookend Herbert Hoover leaves office in Washington as President Reject as Time Magazine called him. What is this man who is about 58 years old, doesn’t know how much longer he has to live, what is he going to do to be meaningful? So this is a man who builds triumph out of tragedy. He turns to social causes like the American Red Cross, The Boy’s Club, other organizations. He begins to write books. So he remains a Republican. He remains an active opponent of the New Deal. But he also turns to voluntary social causes. And then what changes his life once again, interestingly enough, what ends his sort of isolation from Washington is the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12th of 1945. Now as I said Roosevelt dies in April by the end of May Herbert Hoover is back in the White House at the invitation of Harry Truman. The relationship between Hoover and Truman is an interesting one because, although they are the first two presidents born west of the Mississippi River, and both really forged on the anvil of World War 1, they were as different politically as one could imagine. Hoover eschewed politics, whereas Truman embraced politics. And yet the two men needed one another because they lived in the shadow of FDR. Truman needed Hoover to come back to the White House to give him a certain measure of political cover in the years after World War II to help feed Europe. Hoover was eager to come back in a useful role, a presidential role, a high visibility role, and they agree that he is going to become Honorary Chairman of The President’s Famine Emergency Committee. So there’s no question this is President Truman’s committee but the Chairman is Herbert Hoover. And he travels to 35 different countries on an unpressurized DC 3 airplane. It blows out his eardrums. The plane was called the Faithful Cow. He travels all over the world. He begins to find food to feed people. It really in many ways is the beginning of the Marshall Plan. It is the beginning of the salvation of Europe. And both Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman share in that credit. They turned then to reorganizing the Executive Branch of government with Truman agreeing Hoover would chair a bipartisan commission. Dean Acheson more of a partisan than Truman in this case, Dean Acheson is Vice-Chair. Hoover is the Chair and they basically come up with a blueprint to reorganize the Executive Branch of government that we live with to this day. The Defense Department is the result of recommendations of the Hoover Commission. Health and Human Services a direct result of the Hoover Commission. So this man who as he ages begins to define a useful role for former Presidents of the United States that really continues to this day. Presidents like President Carter and President Bush, President Clinton all owe a debt of gratitude to Herbert Hoover who in effect said just because you’ve been voted out of office, or just because you’ve completed the end of your second term, doesn’t mean you can’t be a useful counselor to the Republic. And that’s really what Hoover became after he was President of the United States.
Can you speak more about Black Tuesday also the Smoot Hawley Tariff?
Some of the interesting sidelights about October of 1929 that come to mind, of course, I mean it was an extraordinary day to say the least. One hotel clerk at the time when one stressed out person came in to check into a room, the clerk asked if it was for sleeping or jumping. So many people were committing suicide on that day. It was a horrible, horrible day. People saw their fortunes vanish. So in that sense the crisis was extraordinary. But I don’t think that anyone believed at the time it was that serious. Smoot Hawley - Hoover I’m told reluctantly signed the Smoot Hawley Tariff, which exacerbated the Great Depression. I don’t think, I mean, people have to remember it did pass Congress. I mean it was in fact a majority that that did pass the Smoot Hawley Tariff. And, of course, it was signed by Hoover so Hoover gets often blamed for it. But it was a collaborative effort between the President and the Congress.
What do you think makes Hoover relevant today? Why is it important that this film be done now in the context of crises that exist today?
I think that what makes this film important or what makes Hoover’s life matter is that it does show that life doesn’t always give you an unqualified measure of success. That periodically we are all forced to address circumstances well beyond our control. So that it isn’t necessarily that one points to the Hoover presidency as you know an unfortunate crisis. But how does Hoover respond to the crisis? And in for each of us when we face these personal conflicts how do we respond? Hoover rebuilt a very useful live after the presidency. He served a very useful role before the presidency. It does show how important politics is in the political process. That if you avoid being political focusing more on public service as Hoover said he did that you find yourself often facing a dilemma. So that politics and the ability to communicate directly with the American people, to again, tell them what you’re going to do, follow through on your promises, and explain to them why it was important for you to have done that and to some extent take credit for it. Don’t presume that the American people understand all that you’ve done or are doing on their behalf.
Why do you think most Americans don’t have a very favorable impression of Hoover? And what do you wish people would understand about Hoover?
I suppose if one was to look at the life of Herbert Hoover I would hope that they would look beyond just the four years as President and take the life as a whole. Which is not typically the way American people look at their presidents. They judge an entire life based on the time that the individual serves at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And I think that’s unfortunate because those aren’t the four best years of Hoover’s life or the most significant achievement that he made in world history. The fact that one person can make a difference. That he along with other people like Henry Wallace and Norman Borlaug saved the lives of billions of people is to be acknowledged. Attention must be paid. The fact that he was President is important. The fact that he found a crisis of leadership is something to be acknowledged and recognized as something less than the success he might want to have achieved. And other in other times, in another decade or in a different order his presidency would have been completely different. But he made a difference in the lives of so many other people and that’s why Herbert Hoover is still revered in places like Brussels and Helsinki and Warsaw but not in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. Ironical is it that in his own own country he’s revered to some extent in Iowa because he’s Iowa’s only president, but the rest of the country either doesn’t know who he is or remembers him as the man who was responsible for having taken away Great-Grandpa’s farm. And that that’s a tragedy. That’s unfair to, not only to him personally but it’s unfair to history because it doesn’t carry the nuance and the nature of who this man was.
What do you think Hoover’s legacy should be?
Herbert Hoover’s legacy is one person can make a difference and no matter what you face in terms of adversity you can overcome it. Those two messages come forth clear. And we tell students who come through the Hoover Library look at all that this man who came from this little cabin accomplished. It’s not all roses. There were hard times there and you can see it in the presidency and certainly in his response to the Depression and the life he had to live after the Depression in terms of public repute. But he did not withdraw. He refused to slink away and he made a difference. And all of us are going to face adversity and all of us can recover from it. And that’s what the life and the message of Herbert Hoover is.
What makes the state of Iowa such a Petri dish for American politics?
What is it about Iowa that makes it sort of a Petri dish for American politics? Well I’d sure like to know that answer to that question. I think one of the things that underscores or is woven through Iowa culture is this willingness and ability to communicate with one another and to share ideas without recrimination or reproach. And I think the New Hampshire town hall, like the Iowa caucus, is evidence of the ability of people to come together and solve common problems together. And whether that’s the rocky granite of New Hampshire or whether it’s the rolling farm fields of Iowa, these two states seem to have resonated well. Now there are those who will say well we are not representative in terms of the population. On the other hand it seems that at least in these rare moments, these months before the beginning of the the silly season – the political season, that people are willing to listen to Iowa and New Hampshire. And we’re pleased to have them listen. We’re pleased to have them come and visit. We’re pleased to have them participate.
Did Roosevelt visit Hoover in the White House after the election?
The relationship between Herbert Hoover and FDR, which is endlessly fascinating - we’ve, the Hoover Library did a book on it. And, in fact, Jonathan Alter has a wonderful new book on the first days of the Hoover Administration that talks a little about the Hoover Roosevelt relationship. After the election Franklin Roosevelt did visit the White House on I think actually two times between I think once in November and maybe once in December to kind of both plan for the transition and but also to talk about common economic issues that needed to be addressed. That moratorium, for example, the World War I nations still owed the United States money. And we were going to have a moratorium on the debt payments and so forth, but as the crisis worsened, the economic crisis, leading to the bank crisis of ’33, Hoover wanted Roosevelt to come back and and that’s when in effect I think Roosevelt’s people begin to advise him hands off. The there’ll be time enough after March 4th was the response that Hoover got and that’s the the source of the bitterness. Is the unwillingness to take those the two meetings and build a stronger bond in those weeks just before the Inauguration.
Is there anything you want to add?
I don’t want to say that I’m a partisan voice but I think the presumption would be that you know to some extent the Director of the Hoover Library is going to be a champion of Herbert Hoover. But I think you’ll get some, actually what I think you’re going to hear from a lot of the others are many of the things that I’ve said.