Herbert Hoover is one of the great foils for U.S. history courses. The Great Depression is on national standards and state standards. Images from the dramatic poverty that resulted win the rapt attention of even the most calloused, talkative high school juniors. Most video treatments leave students wondering why President Hoover wasn’t tried for crimes against humanity instead of just turned out of office.
In most courses, Hoover is left there, and the study of Franklin Roosevelt‘s event-filled twelve years in office (with four elected terms) takes over the classroom. If Hoover is mentioned again at all in the course, it would likely be for his leading humanitarian work after World War II.
But there is, hiding out in California, the Hoover Institution. Hoover’s impact today? Well, consider some recent fellows of the Hoover Institution: Condaleeza Rice, Milton Friedman, George Shultz, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Gary Becker, Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn. The Hoover Institution, “at Stanford University,” is the conservatives’ anchor in the intellectual and academic world.
Hoover’s legacy is being remade, constantly, through his post-Presidential establishment of an institution to promote principles of conservatism (and liberalism in its old, almost archaic education sense). The Hoover Institution has carried Hoover’s ideas and principles back into power.
Dallas has been wracked recently with the shenanigans and maneuvers around the work of Southern Methodist University to be named as the host for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. In a humorous headline last week the Dallas Morning News (DMN) said such a library could lead Dallas’s intellectual life in the future (the headline is different in the on-line version — whew!).
Humor aside, there is grist for good thought there. William McKenzie, a member of the editorial board of the DMN and occasional columnist, made a case on the day after Christmas for a legacy institution for Bush (free subscription required; if someone finds a permanent link to that article, please let me know). McKenzie wrote:
Libraries don’t mean the end for presidents, though. They can lead to a beginning.Look at Jimmy Carter. When he departed Washington, life looked bleak. He stopped his slide by growing a presidential center in Atlanta. It has produced substantial work on international elections, conflict resolution and disease prevention.
Look back even farther. Herbert Hoover left office beaten down by a growing Depression and ridiculed for Hoovervilles. After a sojourn, he turned to the world of ideas to make his mark. His signature was the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which has become a highly regarded think tank.
From such institutions are civilizations built, and the torches of freedom and democracy can be carried. It’s necessary to take a long view, however, and set up genuine thought, discussion, dissent and debate.
If the president wants, say, a research facility that only appeals to the hard right, which some in the White House still worry about, then it probably won’t influence many beyond social conservatives.
But if, like President Hoover, he wants a serious group of scholars who work on such issues as religion’s influence on societies, ways to improve schools and spreading democracy, it can sharpen the nation’s discussion. When you look at the Hoover rostrum, it has a conservative lineup, but it also has people like former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry.
Point being, there is an intellectual discussion going on that demands people listen. When I was talking last week to University of Virginia historian Sidney Milikis about presidential libraries, he summed up Hoover as a “tremendously prestigious and distinguished” institution.
Hoover’s intellectualness, his natural love of books and learning, does not appear to be a quality George W. Bush shares. With luck, however, Bush can let that facet of his life get burnished, after he leaves office.
In the meantime, we still have the Hoover Institution, and Hoover’s legacy.
In January I will spend a few days meeting with a group of teachers and Pepperdine Professor of Public Policy Gordon Lloyd, who recently published The Two Faces of Liberalism, How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the 21st Century. [Update: See a review of the book here; here's the Amazon listing.] Lloyd has collected a series of letters and speeches from Hoover and Roosevelt, mostly after the 1932 campaign in which Roosevelt made Hoover a one-term president.
Hoover knew that ideas have power, and he understood the importance of dissenting from common wisdom of the day when one has doubts, or certainties, that such wisdom is in error.
As we wait the dawn of 2007, we need to reflect on the lessons we learned in the 20th century, or if we learned anything at all. Santayana’s warning looms over us like a host of circling vultures, waiting to see if we can apply lessons taught to prevent the catastrophes of the past 100 years. Heaven knows there were many errors made that will kill us all if we make them again.