Commentary: Presidents, and the soft silence of history

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

WEST BRANCH, Iowa – The falling snow quiets everything.

My wife and I tromp through the snow covering the Herbert Hoover presidential site. Our boots make little crunches as we walk.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Winter storm warnings have prompted the National Park Service to close the white wooden buildings that recreate this little village where Hoover was born in 1874.

We walk to the back of the tiny cottage where Hoover was born. I point up a long rise of pristine white to the spot where Hoover and his wife, Lou, are buried. The site was chosen by the couple to symbolize the arc of their lives – the distance they’d traveled together from their homes in rural Iowa.

We head to the presidential library and museum.

I’ve always been fascinated by the memorials to presidents who have not been remembered with kindness by history – a minor obsession my wife indulges. There is something moving about contemplating the lives of those who have dared greatly, only to falter or fail when what they wanted most was within their grasp.

Few presidents traveled harder paths to prominence than Hoover.

Born in an isolated part of 19th-century America, orphaned before he was 10 and parceled off to unbending relatives in the Pacific Northwest, he transformed himself, largely through grit, talent and determination, into perhaps the most cosmopolitan and worldly figure ever to occupy the Oval Office.

He made a fortune before he was 40, then devoted himself – largely – to humanitarian causes for the rest of his long life. By the time he became president, Hoover had fed and clothed much of a Europe ravaged by World War I, eased the suffering of those whose homes and livelihoods had been washed away by the 1927 Mississippi River flood and performed other minor miracles of kindness.

It is one of the ironies of our history that this man who devoted himself to the salvation of others became a caricature of hard-heartedness.

Some of it was history’s fault.

The stock market crash of 1929 happened just months after he took office, and the Great Depression followed hard on its heels. In some parts of America, the unemployment rate was 40 percent. The hardship was brutal.

Some of it, though, was Hoover’s own fault.

Perhaps not surprising for an orphan who had clawed his way to success and a good life, he was guarded with his feelings. There was an inner core to the man few could penetrate. When disaster struck, he walled himself in the White House while Americans suffered and starved in the streets and the fields.

He lamented, privately, that he wished people could know what was in his heart.

But he couldn’t show them.

And he became reviled by the country he wanted, more than anything, to lead.

As my wife and I amble through the displays, I note, once again, that the museums of presidents remembered as great are celebrations, while those for the others serve as justifications, rationalizations, attempted vindications.

That work of vindication consumed the last third of Hoover’s life. He was not yet 60 when he left the presidency, and he lived to be 90.

His animosity toward Franklin Roosevelt, the president who succeeded him, was epic.

Hoover spent much of the last 30 years of his life scrawling anti-Roosevelt screeds his editors and counselors advised him not to publish.

It’s not difficult to discern why Hoover would harbor such anger toward FDR. The orphan likely couldn’t help but feel some disdain for the son of privilege who took as his due what Hoover had to scramble and fight for all his life.

But, in yet another of history’s ironies, it was the son of privilege, not the orphan, who succeeded in the presidency because he could show his fellow citizens who were suffering that he cared.

My wife and I note that Hoover led the land when our grandparents were starting their families. He was the first president our parents knew.

Our parents’ first years on this earth were a time of tumult.

Just like today.

Just like tomorrow will be.

The museum closes, and we walk outside, where the snow enshrouds the passions of the past in soft white silence.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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