Article — From the July 2009 issue

Barack Hoover Obama

The best and the brightest blow it again

( 2 of 6 )

The story of the real Herbert Hoover reads like something out of an Indiana Jones script, with touches of Dickens and the memoirs of Albert Schweitzer. Orphaned and penniless by the age of nine, Hoover was raised by an exploitative uncle who considered him more chattel than son. He had no illusions about the America he grew up in, writing years later, “As gentle as are the memories of the times, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sadness was greater, and death came sooner.”

Removed from public school at fourteen to work as his uncle’s office boy, Hoover nonetheless learned enough at night school to make the very first class at the newly opened Stanford University, where he studied geology and engineering. He paid his own way by working as a waiter, a typist, and a handyman, and eventually running a laundry service, a baggage service, and a newspaper route. (Unsurprisingly, his favorite book was David Copperfield.) After graduation, he ran mining camps and scouted new strikes around the globe. It was an adventurous life; on one occasion he made a small fortune by following an ancient Chinese map and tiger tracks into a moribund silver mine in Burma. By the time he was forty, Hoover was worth $85 million in today’s dollars, and he retired from business to take up public life. “The ideal of service,” he would later write, was no burden on the striving entrepreneur but a “great spiritual force poured out by our people as never before in the history of the world.”

He had long lived up to his ideals. Caught in the siege of the Western delegations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, only Hoover and his fearless wife, Lou, cared enough to sneak food and water to the Chinese Christians besieged elsewhere in the city. He first came to national attention after the start of World War I, when he led the effort to feed the 7 million people of occupied Belgium and France. He worked for free, donated part of his own fortune to the cause, and risked his life repeatedly crossing the U-boat–infested waters of the North Atlantic. His postwar relief efforts rescued millions more throughout Europe and especially in the Soviet Union; it’s unlikely that any other individual in human history saved so many people from death by starvation and want. Questioned about feeding populations under Bolshevik control, he banged a table and insisted, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” In 1920, many people in both major parties wanted to run him for president, but he opted for the Republican cabinet. As secretary of commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he was a dynamic figure, tirelessly promoting new technologies, work-safety rules, and voluntary industry standards; he supervised relief to Mississippi and Louisiana during the terrible 1927 floods and advocated cooperation between labor and management.

“We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved,” the journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote of Hoover’s inauguration in March 1929, in words that might easily have been used in January 2009. “Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.”

's most recent novel, <em>Strivers Row,</em> is the final installment in his "City of Fire" trilogy about New York City. His article "Change Without Movement," appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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