Now if you want a president by his speeches, consider Herbert Hoover. He is among the greatest Americans ever to be president. Perhaps only George Washington, among the 44 who have held that office, did more good in the world both before and after his White House service. And Washington’s immortality is as much based on what he didn’t do. Jimmy Carter’s hammer-taps don’t come close to what Hoover did in organizing, managing, and impelling efforts that saved literally millions of human lives.
It was his peculiar fate, like that of John Quincy Adams a century before, to have run an administration that failed in the midst of a life of hard-won triumphs in the service of his nation and humanity.
Hoover’s vision of America, of hope and work and public spirit, is much like the one Obama invoked Tuesday. More like it than the words of Lincoln, FDR, JFK — the presidents who popped into the media’s mind on the occasion.
The problem with Hoover is, his vision now is tied up in his prose. Literally. he’s not a good writer. He writes like a businessman, with a clunky voice and an inability to resist the temptation to use a hollow cliche if he finds one in his path.
So he’ll never be Lincoln, or Obama, but if you simply pay attention to the words and ideas, it’s the best elucidation of Americanism I can find.
Hoover is under no illusions about big business and the sort of crooks that will be parasites on the financial system. He also forcefully asserts the need to have the federal government play an active role in the game as an umpire and enforcer of the rules.
Most of all, he believes in the American people. Or he tells them he believes in them, which is just as important. If they think they are what he sees in them, if they strive just a little every day to live up to the ideal, if they keep this American way fixed in their minds, they will be better than they ever could be without that ideal.
Here is something he wrote in 1934 in a book called “The Challenge to Liberty” [pp.30-1]:
No civilization could be built to endure solely upon a groundwork of greed or even upon the enlightened self-interest of the individual. It is out of the altruistic and constructive impulses that the standards and the ideals of the nation are molded and sustained.
Our American System is not alone an economic method, a definition of rights, a scheme of representative government, an organization to maintain order and justice, a release of constructive instincts and desires. It is far more than that, for it is a system of stimulation to higher standards, to higher aspirations and ideals.
While we have built a gigantic organized society upon the attainment of the individual, we should not have raised a brick of it but by the stimulation to self-restraint and by drawing upon those high aspirations of men and women expressed in their standards of truth and justice and in their spiritual yearnings.
These ideals are never wholly realized. Not a single human being personifies their complete realization. It is therefore not surprising that society, a collection of persons, a necessary maze of instincts of individuals, cannot realize its ideals wholly.
This is not a “_______, but …” statement. There is no taking it back. It is what he believes.
While his work during and after World War I is notable, it is his less-known work after World War II, in the immediate years when starvation stalked Europe and Asia, that impresses me most. He had been in the political wilderness as long as Roosevelt was in office — Roosevelt deliberately and pettily cut Hoover out of participation in anything that would have reflected credit to him. Truman didn’t have that pique, and the two Midwesterners quickly got along and worked well together.
The war laid waste to the world. The channels of commerce that had fed humanity collapsed. Hoover took charge of buying or coaxing food from nations that had it and getting it to those that didn’t. Distribution, not supply, was the problem. And, again, as a conservative estimate, millions were saved that otherwise had perished.
Again, he took the case to the American people, and rallied their sense of what was right in plain language. After he toured the world’s capitals and took stock of the relief efforts, he came home and made a major U.S. radio address on May 17, 1946, to raise awareness and sympathy for the plight of world famine victims. Part of what he said was this:
On this journey I have seen much which I could criticize as to the management of the famine relief. I criticized such matters to many officials in the world frankly. I could criticize them bitterly. But, after every boiling of inward indignation at men and at nations, I come back again and again to the fact that millions are in grave danger of starvation. To explode into public criticism in this crisis would only weaken the amount of support and diminish the food they will receive. Criticism can wait for history. I only want to record that all has not been perfect in the world that I have witnessed. It all adds emphasis to the fact that today the vital need is unity and cooperation now, so that we may master this crisis.
Frank acknowledgment that the system has many gross defects and shady corners and outright waste. A desire to make it work better rather than have the mere glory of the critic and whistleblower. Give me more of that in bureaucrats.
Then a plain argument for feeding the enemy:
There are Americans who believe it right, and a duty, to feed women and children even of a surrendered enemy. No one is the enemy of children. There are others who believe that the only hope of a peaceful world is to save the enemy peoples from starvation and thus start building them into peaceful, cooperative peoples. There are others who, remembering the immesurable crimes the enemy has committed against all mankind, believe in “an eye for an eye,” a “tooth for a tooth.” To these, let me say that to keep five hundred thousand American boys in garrison among starving women and children is unthinkable. It is impossible because, being Americans, they will share their own rations with hungry children; it is impossible because hunger brings the total destruction of all morals; it is impossible because of the danger to American boys of sweeping infectious diseases, which rise from famine. It is unthinkable because we do not want our boys machine-gunning famished rioters. It’s unthinkable because we do not want the American flag flying over nation-wide Buchenwalds.
Americans will listen to that sort of appeal. If not, we’re no longer worthy of the name.
The strength and wealth of America was its people and its ideals. Hoover prefered that that strength and wealth act directly on the problems, rather than waiting for the government to make rules to force it. He knows large organized efforts must be made and only governments can accomplish them. But he felt the tendency to rely on the government to do everything sapped the power and will of the people. He wanted the public to know it was doing the essential ground-level work on its own.
And here is where he sounds a different note than Obama (or, when you get past the mere rhetoric, any other modern president of either party). Here is his press statement on President Truman’s appeal to save food, New York, Feb. 8, 1946:
I am convinced that it is entirely possible for us to meet this need of increased food exports by voluntary action to eliminate waste and unnecessary consumption and to do it without compulsory rationing. We have now had experience with both systems. In the first World War we placed food consumption on a moral and Christian appeal and voluntary organization of the housewives, eating places and food trades. We have now, in this war, had experience with compulsory rationing, and an examination will show that the consumption over capita was no greater and probably less under the voluntary system.
Hoover had a Quaker spirituality. He supported a war but was aware of its toll on the victors’ souls, and the need to restore and repair not just infrastructure but national morals and dedications to truth and liberty, both of which necessarily are impinged in war.
[B]efore the war we protested in deep indignation the bombing of children, women and civilian men by the Japanese at Nanking, the Russians at Helsinki, the Germans at Warsaw and London. We said war must be confined to clashes of armed men, not the killing of civilians. Yet did we not wind up the war by killing tens of thousands of women and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Even if we grant that it was necessary, it is not a matter to exult over
The two needs, post-war self-redemption and charitable expression, dovetail in the relief effort. Here is part of an address he gave in Madison Square Garden Sept. 21, 1947, to “rally for another winter American moral and spiritual forces engaged in voluntary relief to a distressed world.”
Primarily, this meeting is concerned with charitable programs. While the broader bases of economic action such as I have mentioned are necessary if we shall solve the world situation, there is no less need in the world for private effort and charity. This earth is indeed in need of spiritual and moral stimulation. Charitable action and the voluntary reduction of consumption to save human life are among the highest of moral and spiritual inspirations to mankind. We must call upon these forces of the spirit if we are to succeed in our economic as well as our charitable programs. Indeed, the great charitable organizations in the United States which will be putting forth their efforts to save the individual cases of destitution and hardships, as distinguished from broad governmental programs, have a great work to perform — not only in the service they give, but in the moral and spiritual stimulation they can lend to the American people in these efforts.
The fundamental law of our civilization is based upon compassion and charity. And compassion and charity do not ask whether the sufferer has always been good or bad, whether he has brought his misery upon himself, or is the innocent victim of forces beyond his control.
It is sufficient that there is suffering and that we possess the means to alleviate it. The key to our hearts can always be turned by little children, by mothers, by the aged and the destitute. We are, thank god, sentimentalists. We know that the great bounty that has been placed in our keeping must not be hoarded while others starve and are in pain. We dare not, even in this age of gross and abject materialism, forget that our consciences were forged by tender women and strong men who have built for themselves a world to their liking, always setting aside a mite for the charity that they knew God enjoined upon good people.
And we are a good people. We have in the past responded to every call for human aid.
I hope that the day never comes in this country when all our good works are done through taxes, for then the moral strength that comes from compassion and charity is lost to us