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C-Span Program on President Herbert Hoover
C-Span is a national institution, and its series on the American presidents is excellent. We awaited with great expectancy the program on Herbert Hoover, whose life was closely entwined with his alma mater, Stanford. The dominating feature of the campus is the Hoover Tower (whose dedication in 1941 I remember) in which he had a top-floor office, where I visited him. It has exhibit rooms devoted to him and his wife Lou Henry. The archives have the records of his foreign relief programs and other memorabilia. The residential area is crowned with the Hoover House, which he built and which was the scene of many memorable events, including wild rejoicing when he was elected president; he donated it to the university as the official residence of the Stanford president.
I am incidentally one of the few people here who knew Herbert Hoover, since we live quite close to his residence. Thinking that the Stanford ties would be of interest to the C-Span, I forwarded to Brian Lamb the interesting WAIS exchange of postings about the Hoover presidency. I received no reply, nor was it mentioned in the program. Had he been invited, a Stanford historian could have provided interesting information about Hoover's university years. C-Span ran a conversation with a teacher at Herbert Hoover Middle School in San Francisco.
The 3-hour long program came from the Hoover Memorial Library in West Branch, Iowa. Its the former director, Richard Norton Smith, the author of a good biography of Hoover entitled Freedom Betrayed, made an excellent presentation, ably questioned by Steve Scully. However, the program contained only very brief references to Stanford and no pictures of the sites mentioned above. How this came about I do not know. Hoover was embittered by the harsh public criticism of him, especially by that which came from the faculty of his home institution. It was for this reason that he decided his memorial library should be moved to his birthplace. He and his wife are buried in simple tombs on a knoll with a view of the tiny house where he was born of a blacksmith father. He wanted people to realize that in America a person of humble origins can rise to the presidency. It is possible that this resentment played a role in the decision to virtually exclude Stanford from the TV program.
This strange silence is reflected in the Stanford Bulletin, a 686-page guide to Stanford and its programs. It opens with a section on the history of the university. The section on Stanford graduates mentions the first American woman in space, the producer of Nightline, a recipient of a Tony Award, various Supreme Court justices, and others, but not a word about its most famous graduate, Herbert Hoover.
There is no mention of the role Hoover played in the development of the university. Among the campus features praised is the Rodin Sculpture garden, but there is no mention of the dominating feature of the campus, namely the Hoover Tower, and there is no picture of it. These glaring omissions may be an unconscious hangover of the period when Hoover was not generally esteemed here. In any case, it is very ungracious.
Wild accusations against Hoover still circulate. One C-Span viewer made one to which Richard Norton Smith, who was frank about Hoover's shortcomings, simply replied by rolling his eyes. Another viewer called in to point out that the Democratic National Committee had hired a PR man simply to sling all the mud he could at Hoover. Mr. Smith gave details.
The program made it clear that Hoover was not a black reactionary. On the contrary, both parties wanted him to run for president. He described himself as a progressive Republican and supported the Bull Moose campaign of reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt. He promoted all kinds of reform.
During the depression, he pleaded with corporations not to fire workers or reduce their wages. Workers around the world today are bitter because corporations follow the "American" example of closing factories, or firing thousands of workers and moving plants to countries with lover wages, often without consulting the workers. Herbert Hoover would have been appalled by this "example." Rightly so. Think what the depression did to the reputation of Herbert Hoover. Think what a future worldwide depression would do to the reputation of American corporations, and indeed of the United States, not to mention the most important: the lives of millions of humans.
It is time to heal the wound left at Stanford by the Hoover problem. Both sides must contribute to the healing process. The Stanford faculty must be fairer in its assessment of Hoover, and the Hoover Institution must return to the ideals for which it was created by him: the study of war and revolution and the promotion of peace. Godless Communism was once a threat, but it has now faded into the background. The Hoover Institution should avoid political appointments.
Postscript: There was a follow-up to the discussion of Hoover' life: Hooverfest 99, also at West Branch, Iowa. It featured a re-enactment of his life, with William Wills playing Hoover and Sue Wills playing Lou Henry Hoover. Both performed admirably, and the presentation was very informative and pleasant. Again, however, while their Stanford student years, and their meeting in President John Casper Branner's geology class got full treatment, there was only a brief mention of the Hoover House at Stanford and none of the Hoover Institution and its tower, the biggest and most impressive monument to him.
This strange omission suggests that something went on behind the scenes. Clearly Hoover, the first President born west of the Mississippi, felt in his last years that the true America was not in ungrateful Stanford, nasty Washington or the supercilious East, but in Iowa. He was right. When I was a boy in England the Americans I met were all from the East, who affected utter scorn for the Midwest. One even lamented the fate of a friend who had married an Iowa girl. When in 1937 I first traversed this country and saw Iowa, I realized how wrong these Easterners were. I came to Berkeley and married an Iowa girl.
Leland Stanford's reputation suffered as did that of Hoover. It was common in history classes to describe him as a robber baron, in disregard of all his achievements. That attitude still persists. One WAISer, the leading authority on Stanford, has written a biography of him, but the Stanford Press will not look at it. To neutralize this blackening of Stanford's reputation, there is now an annual presentation of him and his wife, but without the detailed biography given by the Hooverfest. It was very well received.
Last year I suggested that the local reputation of President Hoover could benefit from a similar dramatic replay. Naturally, nothing happened. So I repeat my suggestion with a new feature: William and Sue Wills should be invited to Stanford to put on their excellent presentation. All kinds of crazy shows are put on at Stanford. If this suggestion is not taken up, the only logical conclusion would be that Stanford lacks a sense of values. I hope this will be disproved. We shall see.
Ronald Hilton, Professor Emeritus