So when I visited the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, I had a lot to learn. I found things about Hoover that are praiseworthy but also some things that troubled me. I struggled to find a lens to use in understanding the man, his life, and his legacy. Surprisingly, I found it by thinking about another president who only served one term—Jimmy Carter. There are a number of similarities and some key differences.
Both were molded by a strong religious faith—Hoover as a Quaker and Carter as Southern Baptist. This influenced many of their decisions in office and also contributed to a title that can be applied to both men—humanitarian. Both were concerned about the basic needs of those with the least.
Hoover was the first president from Iowa; Carter was the first from Georgia. Both grew up in rural surroundings, but Carter’s family was rich compared to Hoover’s. Hoover became an orphan at 10 and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon who helped him develop a strong work ethic; Carter had a doting mother and father who encouraged his development and dreams.
Both were engineers—Hoover was trained as a geological engineer, Carter as a nuclear engineer in the Navy. Hoover used his skills and ambition to make a fortune; Carter served his country and went back to peanut farming and politics. Both brought a concern for details to public service that only an engineer can.
While in office, both faced significant economic and foreign policy challenges beyond their control. Hoover, of course, was undermined like the rest of the country by the Depression. He also was pushed to face up to frightening developments overseas such as an imperialist Japan invading Manchuria and the rise of Fascist Germany (he wanted both to go away because he did not want to involved in another war, so he tended to ignore these issues). Carter was challenged by inflation and gas shortages at home and the Iran hostage crisis overseas. Certainly, these are the types of problems that made both of them one term Presidents.
Both entered office with a great deal of national optimism and as virtual heroes. Both left under a cloud of failure and ridicule.
Both men had extraordinary second acts. Hoover was invited by President Harry Truman (although Truman was a Democrat and Hoover a Republican) to help rebuild Europe after World War Two and provide recommendations on government reform. Hoover became a prolific writer and an honored advisor to both Republican and Democratic Presidents until his death in 1964.
Carter also has had a great impact as a former President by addressing both social and political issues through the Carter Center and such organizations as Habitat for Humanity. He has also written a number of books, many expressing his faith. But he has done it primarily on his own. Even his own party has tended to marginalize him in political matters.
There is much admirable about Hoover—he provided food relief to Belgium during WW I and other countries after the war; he was the most ambitious Secretary of Commerce of all time, initiating radio protocols, regulating air travel, and standardizing building supplies; he fought for and achieved the building of the dam that bears his name; and he had a good second act as a senior statesman.
Most Presidential Museums have great quotes from the person they honor, inspirational words that motivate and encourage. I did not see much of that at the Hoover Museum, but I did see the record of good works and a love for humankind. That counts!