Golis: With masks at the ready, we went out on the road
WEST BRANCH, Iowa
For political geeks, it was the perfect travel plan. In consecutive days, we were going to learn about the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman and Abraham Lincoln.
We got Herbert Hoover instead.
COVID-19 was to blame.
For our first extended travel in a long time, we were determined to be careful — wearing masks in indoor spaces, slathering our hands with sanitizer, eating from a box of groceries stowed in the back of the car, enjoying takeout meals here and there. This is not a stress-free way of travel, but after 16 months of confinement, we needed to do something, go somewhere.
The virus didn’t care. Lower rates of vaccinations led to higher rates of COVID-19 in Kansas and Missouri. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri announced they would be closed until further notice.
After news reports said Kansas City hospitals were turning away patients, we canceled our hotel reservations there and started over. Eisenhower and Truman (and the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois) would have to come later. We pulled out the map again and looked north. It was time to give Iowa a try (and maybe later, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland).
Mention Herbert Hoover and most Americans will think of the Great Depression. The stock market cratered during Hoover’s first and only term in the White House. Soon, the encampments of unemployed Americans would become known as Hoovervilles.
Yet here we were, standing in front of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. (Iowa notes: To Californians, Iowa is very green. Also, they grow a lot of corn here.)
Our masks made us the great exception in Middle America. As we made our way across the country, masks in restaurants, hotels and other indoor spaces were few and far between. Social distancing? What’s that?
Were we being unnecessarily cautious, or had all these maskless folks decided to take their chances? We didn’t know, but far from home, we chose to err on the side of caution.
Somewhere past Reno, we began to recognize the craziness of our scheme.
We were driving across a country that spent the past four years angry and divided — and more than a little confused about its future.
And — hadn’t we heard? — there was pandemic going on. More than 600,000 Americans had died, and more were dying every day.
What would we find?
It turns out there was more to Herbert Hoover than we knew.
Despite the starched image in the photograph, Herbert Hoover was not born into privilege.
He did live an extraordinary life. He was born into a small, Quaker community in West Branch, an idyllic village a few miles east of Iowa City.
By age 9, both his parents had died of illnesses. He was sent to be raised by his uncle and aunt in Oregon. He would gain admission to a new university in California. It was called Stanford (which today is home to the Hoover Institution).
Hoover studied geology and went on to great success as a mining engineer and entrepreneur, supervising mining operations in Australia and later in China (where he survived the Boxer Rebellion). A San Francisco Chronicle story described him as the highest salaried person in the world at his age. He was 28. By the time he settled in London in 1908, he owned a mining and consulting business with 175,000 employees from Peru to Siberia.
He was then recruited to administer international relief programs that served millions of starving people, and he was more than up to the task. Before, during and after World I, the successes of the relief programs administered by Hoover landed him among the most admired people in the world.
For his prodigious efforts, he became known as the Great Humanitarian. Here’s what one prominent American said in 1920 about Hoover’s humanitarian efforts: “He is certainly a wonder and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There could not be a better one.”
The prominent American was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would later run against and defeat Hoover in the 1932 presidential election
Between 1921 and 1928, Hoover would serve as secretary of commerce (where he participated in the first television broadcast).
Hoover won in a landslide in 1928, only to lose by a landslide in 1932 — his name forever linked to the Great Depression.
Was he alone to blame?
Probably not. As the library presentation attests, he inherited many of the conditions that led to the economic collapse of 1929. Hoover himself had warned of Wall Street’s excesses.
Revisiting his successes reminds us that history and our own memories can oversimplify the vagaries of politics, economics and luck (good and bad).
Hoover will be forever linked to the Depression because he was the president — and because he proved incapable of identifying what would relieve the suffering of tens of millions of Americans.
While he tried many solutions, Hoover, for example, remained adamantly opposed to direct relief for displaced workers.
His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, would have a different and more ambitious plan, a strategy that came to define the American disagreement about the role of government in our lives.
The current president, Joseph Robinette Biden, knows something about this.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.
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