DIBACCO: Herbert Hoover’s lesson in bipartisanship

Biography of Woodrow Wilson reached across the aisle

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In a town short these days on good political manners, let alone magnanimity, Washington would do well to recall the remarkable contribution of former President Herbert Hoover to the nation’s bipartisan history.  The 31st chief executive, a Republican, was the only one to write a biography of another one, Woodrow Wilson — number 28 and a Democrat. Hoover not only was admiring in his book, but he accomplished the endeavor when he was in his eighties.

To be sure, Hoover was no stranger to bipartisan efforts before his biography of Wilson, even though the general public still is quick to identify him as a failed party-line president synonymous with the coming and deepening of the Great Depression during his term of office from 1929 to 1933. Democratic president Harry S Truman appointed Hoover in 1946 to study food relief to war-torn countries. He also appointed Hoover head of a commission to recommend changes in the federal government’s bureaucracy in the interests of economy and efficiency, a task reinforced by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

Hoover's “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson” was published in 1958 and became a best seller. By Sept. 21, 1958, it was number 14 on the New York Times bestseller list, having been on that exclusive literary roster for 19 weeks. It continued its relevance for years, with NBC-TV doing a special interview on Hoover and the book on Sept. 25, 1962, drawing an estimated 10 million viewers. One of more than 40 books that Hoover wrote over his lifetime, it was not his last. Indeed, he would write five more before his death at age 90 in 1964, including one (“On Growing Up”) dealing with letters to and from children.

Still, the biography of Wilson was far and away his best work, because Hoover, along with assistants, did prodigious research. It was a sensitive analysis written at a time when the Cold War seemed as inexplicable to solutions as World War I and its aftermath. The book drew upon the observations of contemporaries who, like Hoover, knew Wilson personally. Hoover had worked directly with the president during World War I as head of the Belgian Relief agency, as well as serving as Food Administrator, a member of the American War Council and the president’s Economic Advisory Council in Paris, and director of Relief and Reconstruction of Europe.  A mining engineer who had spent his pre-White House years traveling around the globe numerous times when a big trip to most Americans was one to the country store, Hoover viewed the nation in a complicated world order.

World War I and the subsequent peace negotiations, in Hoover's view, magnified the assets and shortcomings of America’s first major entry into that diplomatic morass. The nation’s assets were enormous: Wilson’s appointments of sterling administrators were obvious. The president himself had unequaled talents: “With his ability to delegate work, his loyalties to subordinates, and his speed in evaluating problems, he proved a great administrator. A comparative study of the administration of any war in our history since Lincoln’s time down to the present would easily confirm this.”

The nation’s history also aided Wilson’s efforts in war and peace, what with an abundance of national resources and a modest population that were disincentives to following the European example of colonialism. Then there was the Declaration of Independence and its commitment to freedom. Add to that the “flaming banner of the ‘Fourteen Points and the subsequent addresses,’ his eloquence about self-determination, his denunciations of annexations and ‘bandying people about,’ Mr. Wilson was a menacing intruder in the concepts of British, French and Italian statesmen and a threat to their secret treaties dividing all Europe.”

American shortcomings were not so obvious, but they were grave. European officials had long honed the art of diplomacy “whereas our representatives were mostly amateurs and college professors.” The harsh emotions of the American people toward Germany outweighed Wilson’s hope to build a new Germany “of, and by, the people.”

Perhaps most of all, the disposition of Wilson and his advisors to engage in compromise after compromise with European negotiators, in the hopes of keeping the League of Nations as an integral part of the final document, was ill-advised. More than 75,000 words comprised the final treaty, the greater portion to reconstitute the map of Europe, but only 4,000 dealt with the League of Nations. Then came Wilson’s stroke and paralysis during the ratification campaign, making it impossible to establish “personal contacts essential for evolving successful cooperation with the Senate.”

Still, Hoover's biography of Wilson was gutsy and remains so, especially as dyed-in-the-wool Wilsonians over the years seemed to suspect Hoover's real motives and dedication in lauding Wilson. The book came at a time when Hoover's presidential reputation, as reflected by polls of historians, was almost universally negative. Also, published during the heady economic years of a popular Republican president (“I Like Ike”), the book made the author’s presidential name and record a stark contrast.

No matter. The book struck a responsive bipartisan chord in 1958, as illustrated by the remarks of the editors of AmericanHeritage Magazine in its June edition: “Most importantly, he [Hoover] shared Wilson’s ideals and aspirations and saw them, after endless, man-killing struggles, dashed in large part to earth. Mr. Hoover writes not only with the grace born of simplicity, wide experience, and clear organization, but also with humor and sympathy.”  

Former president Truman, with whom Hoover developed a close relation, was a bit more succinct: “I am reading your biography of Wilson,” he wrote, “and I like it.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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