Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover

By Timothy Walch | Go to book overview

Elder Statesman: Herbert Hoover
and His Successors

Michael J. Birkner

Losing hurts. Losing a reelection bid for the presidency, in effect a repudiation of one’s own hard work, is a bitter pill indeed. Though there were notable exceptions, throughout the first 150 years of the republic most defeated presidents returned quietly to their homes and kept largely out of the public eye. Rejection at the polls, as Jimmy Carter has noted, puts a president in a position of “despair and embarrassment and frustration,” with more life yet to live but a role still to be defined.616 Or as Lord Bryce put it in his classic study, The American Commonwealth, a former president “soon sinks into the crowd.”617

In wake of his election defeat in 1932, Herbert Hoover had grounds for sinking into the crowd or at the least, choosing a quiet path. He owned a comfortable home on the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where his institute of war and peace studies was based. Nearing sixty years of age and financially secure at the close of his tumultuous presidency, Hoover had books he wanted to write and philanthropic causes—notably related to children—that he was eager to promote. He was entitled to retreat from the often brutal spotlight aimed at nationally prominent political figures.618

But that went against Hoover’s grain. In the years remaining to him, Hoover never lost his yen for a good fight in a good cause. As the nation’s number-one humanitarian, and during the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower the number-one enemy of red tape and government waste, Hoover gradually regained the affection of millions of his countrymen. Hoover never did accomplish his major objective—rolling back the New Deal political revolution—but he could take solace in winning some battles and crusading at all opportunities for the values he held dear.619

Hoover’s rehabilitation as an ex-president is not unique. John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter, two other presidents roundly rejected for

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