Part Nine


Life After the White House

Democracy is a harsh employer," said Herbert Hoover in recalling his 1932 defeat. Rejected by his countrymen, Hoover departed Washington in March, 1933, his once bright reputation in shambles and his career in public service apparently at an end. Yet he refused to fade away. Prior to leaving office Hoover told his White House secretary:

"Here's what I am going to do. I'm going to lay off for six or eight months and then I am going to start raising Hell. I've caught a lot of it in the last four years; now I'm going to talk and write and do any damn thing I want to...anyway I'll have a lot of fun."

Hoover had little fun for the next twelve years, when Franklin Roosevelt occupied the Oval Office and the former president was forced to defend himself against charges that he had somehow either caused the Great Depression or done little to combat it. But Hoover's voice was not silenced. He wrote book after book, delivered countless speeches, twice reorganized the executive branch of the government, and raised tens of millions of dollars for favorite causes like his beloved Stanford University and the Boys Clubs of America. In the summer of 1941 he dedicated the towering headquarters of the Hoover Institution at Palo Alto, destined to become one of the world's foremost scholarly centers and a major recruiting ground for conservative presidents.

After Harry Truman invited him to undertake a post-World War II global relief mission, Hoover was again free to do what he did best, feed people. Gradually he regained much of the luster stemming from his earlier humanitarian campaigns. Walter Lippmann spoke for many who had disagreed with Hoover in the past, only to marvel at his rediscovery. In war and peace alike, said Lippman, Hoover's real self was "the bold and brilliant philanthropist who binds up wounds and avoids inflicting them."

The Boys Club

In October, 1936 the former president found a new cause, one that would engage him for the rest of his life. The same night Hoover joined the board of the Boys Club of America he was elected its chairman. For Hoover this was only the latest chapter in a story of an Iowa orphan who had gone on to feed children throughout Europe and organize the American Child Health Association.

"The boy is our most precious possession," Hoover said in the spring of 1937. "He strains our nerves, yet he is a complex of cells teeming with affection. He is a periodic nuisance yet he is a joy forever." Unfortunately, "we have increased the number of boys per acre." For the youthful resident of urban America, that meant a life "of stairs, light switches, alleys, fire escapes...and a chance to get run over by a truck."

A boy denied the pleasures of nature had to contend with the policeman on the beat. But packs need not run into gangs, said Hoover, not so long as "pavement boys" had a place to play checkers and learn a trade, swim in a pool and steal nothing more harmful than second base. Hoover was determined to start a hundred new Boys Clubs in three years. He more than met his goal. Not long before his death, this lifelong advocate for children was embarking on a still more ambitious plan - "A Thousand Clubs For A Million Boys."

A Comfortable Monastery

Beginning in December, 1940, Hoover spent most of each year in New York City. Home was Suite 31-A of the Waldorf Towers, a Park Avenue landmark he shared with such celebrated figures as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, the Shah of Iran and that monarch of cafe society, Elsa Maxwell. The Waldorf was a self-contained community, serviced by 155 telephone operators, two hundred cooks, and a small army of security men. The hotel even supplied Hoover with a personal waiter, named Daniel Rodriquez.

Now that Rodriguez was a member of the family, said the former president, he was entitled to call him Chief. When Hoover tired of hotel cooking, he sent out to the nearest Horn and Hardart for baked beans. When in need of fresh air he donned a hat and strolled two miles up Park Avenue, then down Fifth. Construction workers too young to have felt the Depression's sting greeted him warmly. Others, even less likely, took a protective interest in the elderly former president. "Mr. Hoover," announced a would be burglar one evening, "you should not be walking around in the dark this time of night. Now go home."

Home consisted of four rooms, one of them set aside as an office for up to five secretaries. Here Hoover conducted the largest and, arguably, the most productive ex-presidency in U. S. history. At the age of 86 Hoover traveled 14,000 miles, delivered twenty speeches, and accepted the latest of his 468 awards and citations. Said Hoover, "There is no joy to be had from retirement, except in some kind of productive work. Otherwise you degenerate into talking to everybody about your pains and pills. The point is not to retire from work or you will shrivel up into a nuisance to all mankind."

Back to the White House

In May, 1945 Harry Truman invited America's only living former president to visit him at the White House. "I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you," wrote Truman. "Also it would be a pleasure for me to become acquainted with you." It was the start of an unlikely, yet historic, friendship between two men who would form perhaps the oddest couple in American politics. Early in 1946 Truman dispatched the 71 year old Hoover to thirty eight nations in an effort to beg, borrow and cajole enough food to avert mass starvation among victims of World War II. During three months Hoover traveled over 50,000 miles and visited seven kings and thirty-six prime ministers. He paused in Rome to secure Pope Pius' blessing and in the rubble of Warsaw's Jewish ghetto to remember 200,000 victims of Nazi oppression.

Back home Hoover appealed to his countrymen to reduce consumption of wheat and fats, saying, "We do not want the American flag flying over nationwide Buchenwalds." Then he was off on a second relief mission to Latin America. In 1947 he returned to Germany and Austria.

His relationship with Truman deepened, despite political differences. Truman restored Hoover's name to the great dam that Roosevelt's Administration had called Boulder Dam. He had Lou's portrait hung in the White House. In 1947 he asked the Great Engineer to reorganize the executive branch of government, to make it more efficient if not necessarily more conservative.

All this activity had added ten years to his life, a grateful Hoover told friends. Writing to Truman in 1962, the former president remarked, "Yours has been friendship which has reached deeper into my life than you know."

The Hoover Commissions

In 1947 Hoover undertook a massive reorganization of the executive branch of a federal government bloated by war. Not only did Uncle Sam defend the nation and shape basic economic policy - he also manufactured ice cream, helium and retreaded tires, operated a railroad in Panama and a distillery in the Virgin Islands, owned one-quarter of the continental United States and $27 billion in personal property.

Unfortunately no one could account for more than a fraction of the whole. The Army alone had five million items in its warehouses, some dating to the Civil War - and no inventory. Because there was no central agency responsible for government purchases, the resulting paperwork often cost taxpayers more than the items and services themselves.

Do more with less: that was the theme of the Commission's reports, each written by Hoover and designed to fit on a single page of the New York Times. Not all his ideas were approved; for example, few agreed with Hoover's proposal for an administrative vice president entrusted with oversight of the federal budgetary process. But Harry Truman, re-elected against all odds in 1948, supported enough to see that more than 70% of Hoover's recommendations were enacted into law.

In 1953 a Second Hoover Commission returned to the task of pruning big government. This time its chairman lamented that he got less support from Dwight Eisenhower than from Harry Truman. Even so, as late as 1961 John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara, was thanking Hoover for ideas that could save billions in Pentagon spending.

Counselor to the Republic

In July 1949 Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy wrote his friend in a tone suggesting that Hoover's long passage through political purgatory was at last coming to an end. "You have had the acclaim of the American people; you have had the criticism of the American people," said Kennedy, "and now, in the twilight of your life, the American people have come to realize that Herbert Hoover is one of our few...outstanding men in the public life of this generation."

Hoover took a more detached view of the shifting currents of opinion. Asked how he had survived the long years of ostracism coinciding with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Hoover said simply, "I outlived the bastards." More whimsically he proposed a set of reforms in American life, including four strikes in baseball "so as to get more men on bases...the crowd only gets worked up when somebody is on second base," an end to political ghostwriters and the scheduling of all after dinner speakers before dinner "so that the gnaw of hunger would speed up terminals."

The former president became a kind of national Dutch uncle, advising presidents of both parties. A reporter who dropped by the Waldorf in 1960 could hardly believe that Hoover worked eight to twelve hours each day. After all, said the journalist, the former president was nearly eighty-six years old. "Yes," replied one of his secretaries, "but he doesn't know that."

With his unending series of books, articles, speeches and other public appearances Hoover's post-White House career was far different from that of other American presidents whose failure to win a second term had blighted their lives and all but destroyed their influence. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Herbert Hoover practically invented the modern ex-presidency.

The Angler

A true citizen of the world, Herbert Hoover was happiest in the woods - tramping a forest path, baiting a hook, savoring the icy scent of a winter's morning in the Blue Ridge or Sierra Nevadas. He found God in a trout stream as well as a church pew. He pursued Japanese tuna and Canadian salmon - and he laughed at Calvin Coolidge for preferring earthworms to fly fishing.

Hoover pulled in his first catch of the age of eight. In time he became familiar with "the steel of Damascus, the bamboos of Siam, the silk of Japan, the lacquer of China, the feathers of Brazil, and the silver of Colorado." As president of the Izaak Walton League, Hoover once declared:

"Man and boy, the American is a fisherman. That comprehensive list of human rights, the Declaration of Independence, is firm that all men (and boys) are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which obviously includes the pursuit of fish." Late in life Hoover registered a humorous protest against such modern distractions as "telephone bells, church bells, office boys, columnists, pieces of paper and the household chores." Fishing was a welcome alternative. Besides, wrote Hoover, no one ever went to jail while fishing "unless they forgot to buy a license."

A year before his death, his own angling days behind him, Hoover published Fishing for Fun and To Wash Your Soul. In a wistful postscript he reminded readers that the joys of outdoor life did not end with the last catch. "Two months after you return from a fishing expedition you will begin again to think of the snowcap or the distant mountain peak, the glint of sunshire on the water, the excitement of the dark blue seas, and the glories of the forest. And then you buy more tackle and more clothes for the next year. There is no cure for these infections. And that big fish never shrinks."

Death and Burial

In the summer of 1963, an attack of internal bleeding nearly proved fatal to the eighty eight year old Hoover. The old man was undeterred, telling his son, "I am going to pull through. I still have a great deal of work to do." The next morning, Herbert, Junior received startling confirmation of his father's resolve when the patient sat up in bed, called for his pipe and announced, "We're back in business."

In October, 1964, a few weeks after his ninetieth birthday, Hoover sent Harry Truman a get well telegram after his friend injured himself in a bathtub fall. Soon after Hoover himself suffered massive hemorrhaging in the stomach and intestine. For five days the Waldorf became a virtual hospital annex as doctors administered two hundred blood transfusions.

The vigil ended a few minutes before noon on October 20. Following ceremonies in New York and Washington, a C-30 Hercules aircraft bearing the body of Iowa's only president touched down in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, October 25. Thousands of people lined the thirty three mile route to West Branch, where a crowd estimated at 75,000 stood silently on a warm Indian Summer afternoon. Shielded from the prairie wind by a billowing stand of cedar trees, the mourners listened as Dr. Elton Trueblood, a Quaker theologian and family friend, declared that Herbert Hoover would be remembered for as long as the American Dream was cherished. "He has worked hard; he has been very brave; he has endured," concluded Trueblood.

Today America's 31st president lies beneath a slab of Vermont marble within sight of the tiny cottage where his life began. In a final demonstration of Quaker simplicity there is no presidential seal, no inscription of any kind, just the name Herbert Hoover and the dates 1874-1964.

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