CEO Stories: A Modern View of the Hoovers

Margaret Hoover
American Commentator

Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover, his wife of nearly 45 years, were two of the most significant, most influential Americans of the entire 20th Century. Join great granddaughter, author and CNN contributor, Margaret Hoover, on a quite extraordinary adventure of a couple coming of age in the late Victorian years.

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Listen to the podcast to learn more about their lives and how they regarded, and influenced, capitalism and the market economy in America.

Millennial Lifestyle

Henry Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover were true life partners at a time when tradition and society called for women to stay at home while men worked. Both graduates of Stanford, they traveled the world together and were first-hand witnesses to and participants in such events as China’s Boxer Rebellion and the crisis of Americans trapped in Europe at the outbreak of World War I.

National Prominence

Their roles in helping Americans navigate life in London as the city was paralyzed by war and then in arranging for food to be imported to Belgium – saving the lives of millions ­– for most of the war in brought them to great prominence, setting the stage for Hoover’s eventual foray into politics. It also helped crystallize the couple’s beliefs in the power of American individualism, the superiority of our economic model, and the inherent generosity of the American people – beliefs that would shape their actions for the rest of their lives.

Girl Scouts

While the Hoovers did most things together, Lou’s involvement with the Girls Scouts of America was a labor of love from the organization’s founding in 1914 to her death in 1944. Having been raised with a passion for nontraditional activities like camping, hiking, and sleeping under the starts, she saw the outdoor-oriented skills taught by the Girl Scouts as an important path to self-empowerment for girls. She served as chairwoman both before and after her time as First Lady, and as honorary chairwoman while First Lady – a tradition that began, at Lou’s suggestion, with First Lady Edith Wilson.

This Is Capitalism: Margaret Hoover

RH: This Is Capitalism, I’m Ray Hoffman. Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover, his wife of nearly 45 years, were two of the most significant, most influential Americans of the entire 20th century. Unlike any president and first lady who came before and only a handful who came after, they were true partners. And considering how this adventurous couple came of age in the late Victorian years indicates something quite extraordinary, almost singular about each of them.

So if all you know about the Hoovers is the fact that he was President when the stock market crashed in 1929 and nothing about her, you might want to spend a few minutes with their great-granddaughter, author and CNN contributor Margaret Hoover.

About how old were you when you learned your great-grandfather had been President of the United States and what did your family tell you about him when you were little?
MH: I would say I had awareness that he had been somebody special in American history from very, very early in my life, probably my earliest memories. There is an image of me at my great-grandfather and great-grandmother’s gravesite in West Branch, Iowa, which is the site also of Herbert Hoover’s birth cottage, the cottage in which he was born, and his Presidential library.

And on his birthday, August 10th, every year as a child. And especially when I was younger. I was born in the late ‘70s when many of these economic and political battles were still brewing around the legacy of the New Deal and what really had happened during the Great Depression and the ideas of smaller government and the modern American Conservative movement were ascendant. A picture of me with Barry Goldwater on the back of a golf cart in front of my great-grandfather’s grave–that sort of says it all. I was about three years old. It started early and it’s baked in the cake.

RH: Now on the flip side did your family tell you nearly as much about your great- grandmother, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover?
MH: Yes.

RH: Wonderful.
MH: Because was an extra…She was also in her own…I actually despise the term “in her own right” but that’s always what they said because we come from a culture where it is easier for people to talk about the accomplishments of Presidents and less of their wives. But Lou Henry Hoover was, and it was always imparted upon me, half of Herbert Hoover because they were this couple. Herbert Hoover was half of Lou, and Lou was half of Herbert Hoover, and together they were this partnership that took on the world in a time when the world changed really significantly.

I mean they were born in 1874 and Herbert Hoover lived until 1964. And extraordinary changes and transformations happened in industry and geopolitics during that time and they were intimately involved as witnesses and participants in each of those elements.

RH: They each went to Stanford, they each went off together to live a most adventurous life around the world. Outside of the 1874 part, it sounds like they could’ve been a couple of millennials.
MH: It’s like you read my mind. Many of the elements about Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover’s story I think actually really appealed to the millennial generation in the sense that first they were certainly Americans, but they were globally oriented. They had circumnavigated the globe five times before the advent of aviation, again before the . 1890s, before 1910.

I mean they had an extraordinary sense not just of having visited and toured other countries, but lived amongst the populations in those countries and interacted with people who are ordinary citizens to the highest levels of government. And so they really had an understanding of the different systems of government around the world, the different economic systems around the world, what worked and what didn’t and how lucky they were to have been born in the United States.

Because Herbert Hoover, as you mentioned, was an orphan. He was orphaned when he was nine years old, he happened to get lucky enough to get into Stanford University’s first class, he was the first student at Stanford University. Lou Henry Hoover was the first woman to graduate with a degree in the hard sciences from Stanford University. They met in geology lab. And Hoover, when he graduated, only had $40 to his name. He was an entirely self-made individual, also a product of an economic system that could not have happened in any other country in the world.

RH: The idea that he was orphaned and shipped off to live with various relatives, now we’re talking about the 1880s and early 1890s, in most countries he wouldn’t have had much of a chance to achieve much of anything.
MH: That’s exactly right. He was separated from his siblings, raised by an estranged and rather cantankerous uncle of which we know very little because while Hoover was prolific in writing about his life at the end of his life, he wrote almost nothing about this very stern and probably pretty unhappy guy that put him under a stairwell as his room in their Quaker cottage.

And Hoover, through hard work and perseverance and really many of the values of that stoic Quaker upbringing, was able to not just pull himself up from his bootstraps but dig deep and really use all of those resources to excel in a world that frankly…I mean starting in manual labor. He worked the graveyard shift in a mine in the Sierras from eight at night until six in the morning and he’d get $2 a week.

And that’s what he did for the first nine months after he graduated from Stanford University until he got a break and started working as a stenographer for a renowned mining engineer in San Francisco, who then later recommended him to go explore properties in the outback of Australia for a mining engineering firm out of London called Bewick Moreing. And there Hoover discovered the most profitable vein of gold ever discovered in the Australian Outback that to this day continues to produce gold.

RH: So he comes back and married Lou Henry and then off they go to China.
MH: The next day. They’re married in Monterey, California by a Catholic priest, neither of them were Catholic, it was the only priest they could find, and the Catholic priest was loose enough that the decided he didn’t need to marry them in a church. They were married in the middle of the week because their steamer set sail the next day.

And there in China they found themselves embroiled in ultimately what became the Boxer Rebellion. They were among the last 137 foreigners in the final encampment in Tientsin to survive and then escape, thanks to the Marines who came in and a German mail boat that allowed them to acquire passage.

RH: And Lou Henry Hoover was just as active in terms of protecting them as Herbert Hoover was certainly.
MH: Maybe even more so. Herbert Hoover was on the outskirts organizing actually what was the largest mining acquisition by a foreigner in Chinese history at that time and Lou was organizing the encampment, trying to A, keep them safe, get supplies in…

Of course they were actually under siege every single day. So they were repairing the walls, they were getting bombardments; they were actually receiving mortars and bombs on their front door steps. And so Lou would wake up every morning and sweep the shells off of the porch and then go back to organizing. On a bicycle, she had the wheels shot out from under her. They were perilously close to death on many occasions.

And it’s sort of an extraordinary turn of events, but actually marked what was the beginning of their life in exploring what they saw and experienced was the tide of revolution as it swept the globe at the beginning of the 20th century. And many old governing systems and economic systems were being tested and challenged. And in China, the Boxer Rebellion was really the start of that.

And then they lived to see that through the rise of Bolshevism, the rise of Fascism, and the rise of what Hoover called these “-isms” that swept the globe in the beginning of the 20th century. And Hoover, who also had mining properties in Russia and lost them to the Bolsheviks, had mining properties on five continents by the time of the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

He had firsthand experience with how these ideas worked, how the old systems worked, and what the ideas of the new systems were such that in 1922 when he wrote a book called American Individualism to try to crystallize why the American economic and sociological system was better than all the others. He at that point thought Bolshevism had already proved itself in rivers of blood. That idea had been tried and failed, okay? In 1922 he believed this.

So unfortunately the world didn’t learn the lesson but he had had the firsthand experience to see the failure of these terrible economic systems as applied in real life.

RH: Well, they were the first international couple you might say of any prominence and they witnessed this important moment of history. And I find it really touching that now we are in 1929 and he is in the White House, they are in the White House that they would speak together in Chinese.
MH: They had a little bit of Mandarin that they had stowed away in their back pocket for key moments.

RH: It’s so amazing how Herbert Hoover stepped up in Europe. Maybe a 150,000 Americans were traveling in Europe or residents in Europe in August 1914. Many of them trapped with no money. It’s not as if you were carrying an American Express card.  And somehow this basically retired mining engineer now turned investment manager steps up to do this job of rescuing them and Lou Henry Hoover is right next to him I understand at the Savoy Hotel in London. He was processing the men and she was processing the women.
MH: Yeah. This is an amazing story of the two of them and really the place where they get Europe’s attention. You’re exactly right, there were over a hundred…In the summer, right? This is the summer months, it’s traveling if you’re a wealthy American, and it was mostly upper middle class and upper-class Americans who have the wherewithal at the time to go to Europe and travel and tour Europe for a month or six weeks in the summer.

And of course the Archduke in Austria is assassinated, the war breaks out, suddenly there is a panic and every English-speaking…all Americans obviously want to get first to England, this English-speaking country, and then get home, secure passage home. But because of the panic there are no ships going across the ocean. Because of the panic, no American financial instruments of credit are accepted. Nobody knows what to do.

And so basically there is a flood of Americans in London who, because no one will honor their instruments of credit, have no housing, they have no housing. They have no accommodations, they can’t buy food, they can’t anything. They don’t even…some of them have their belongings with them, some of them don’t because they just left their things and went. It was truly…

It was at the Savoy Hotel where Walter Hines Page, who was the American Ambassador, called Hoover, who was at this point, you’re right, a mining consultant, he had his own consulting business in London because London was the capital of mining finance. He stopped working for this British firm and he opened up his own shop in London and because he had enterprises on five continents, they knew he was well-connected, they thought maybe he would be able to help secure passage home for these individuals across the ocean and it turned out he was able to do much, much more.

At the Savoy Hotel they organized basically through their contacts in London arrangements for a 150,000 people to stay and he essentially, out of his own pocket, lent money, more than $1 million of his own money, to all of these Americans. And at the end of the ordeal they discovered that they had had all but $40 re-paid. And at that moment Hoover recognized the inherent goodness of the average American, the ordinary American, and realized that he could rely on Americans for their voluntary spirit and their good-naturedness.

Now that experience in London actually elevated his prominence, he and Lou’s prominence amongst the diplomatic set in Europe. And it was when they realized there was a massive imminent humanitarian crisis in Belgium with the English blockade and the German invasion, the Germans who decided they would not feed the occupied population in Belgium, suddenly they had a massive crisis because 80% of Belgium’s food was imported and it wasn’t able to get in. So you had 8 million people inside Belgium with dwindling food supplies facing imminent starvation.

And it was then that Walter Hines Page turned back to Herbert Hoover and said, “you did such a great job at the Savoy Hotel, what can you do about feeding an entire country?”

RH: And this is a matter of maybe two and a- half, three months later?
MH: The Savoy Hotel was in August, the beginning of August. By November, 40,000  tons of food had been delivered to Belgium. By December 80,000 tons of food was delivered and 80,000 tons of food was delivered to Belgium every month after December 1914 for the entire course of the war. So it was really between August, September, and October that they organized the international food relief. And it began distribution in November, right on time because the Belgians wouldn’t have made it another month.

RH: And then President Wilson names him the first and only ever head of what was called the U.S. Food Administration. And as head of the Food Administration’s Women’s Committee, your great-grandmother taught the nation a technique that became known as Hoovering.
MH: Hoovering or Hooverizing, I’ve heard both. During the war, average Americans, ordinary Americans wanted to help. And what Hoover also realized because he learned from the Savoy experience is that you could ask them for help and they would eagerly pitch in. And so to Hooverize during the war meant to conserve different things that our country would need for the war effort.

And so they would have meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. They would also pull together all sorts of materials that the troops would need on the front lines. And Lou Henry Hoover would lead this charge along with her husband.

RH: And this was concurrent with her new involvement in the Girl Scouts, which were brand new in the World War I era.
MH: This is I think really a key point. She was born in the west, the only daughter to a father who had desperately hoped to have sons because he wanted to share the traditional activities that you shared with your sons. Well, it occurred to him that he didn’t need to have boys in order to do those activities. And so he imparted on his daughter, Lou, all of his own personal joys, which became Lou’s–camping, hiking, sleeping under the stars, things that Victorian women were not normally treated to.

And this Girl Scouting movement particularly appealed to her when she returned to the United States after living abroad for almost 20 years because it was actually how her father had raised her and it was a movement at the time. It was really almost a political and a social movement. It was a more a social movement to get girls outside because girls had been raised indoors. They had been raised to sew, to participate in the arts and participate in the letters but not taught to make a fire, a campfire, or not taught any sort of survival skills.

And Lou believed there could be as much self empowerment and self awareness and learning in the outdoors as in the indoors. And so she decided that she had actually been a scout all her life and was delighted that there was then a movement in the United States afoot to help girls have her experience.

RH: And before long she was vice president of the organization, then president, then chairman of the board.
MH: And chairman of the board on two different occasions–before she was in the White House and after she was in the White House. And she was the one who went to Edith Wilson, President Wilson’s wife, and said, “you ought to be, as First Lady, the Honorary Chair of the Girl Scouts.” And so every First Lady henceforth has been the Honorary Chair of the Girl Scouts.

RH: And she started her own troop in Washington, which in the 1920s was a southern town and that’s important in giving context to what she did in terms of having an integrated Girl Scout troop.
MH: The Hoovers were Quakers and Quakers fundamentally believed in the individual spark of every person regardless of their gender, their race, their religion, their creed. And it is absolutely consistent with the Hoovers to have seen every individual as equal and to have wanted every girl to have the same experience that she had regardless of their religious or racial or ethnic background.

RH: Could we make the case–and I think we probably could–that Lou Henry Hoover was perhaps the most important white woman in the U.S. in the 1920s, certainly in terms of advancing the idea of racial equality?
MH: Certainly. And in the end, I’ll add one anecdote to that, you can absolutely make that case. As First Lady, one of the things she was informed she would do is invite all of the wives of the members of Congress for tea. And so she went about doing that. And at the end of one day, once all of the invitations were issued, there was a massive uprising. She didn’t realize what she had done, but what she had done was included the African- American wife of Congressman De Priest from Chicago.

RH: Who had just been elected.
MH: Who had just been elected. And she invited her to tea. Of course she invited her to tea because she was the wife of a congressman and she was to invite all of the wives of the congressmen, she didn’t get the memo that it was only the white wives of congressmen that were to be invited.

Well, she shared this with her husband at the end of the day and to make her feel better he of course said, “well of course you’re going to have tea with her, have her come.” And then at the same time, he doubled down and invited her husband over to meet with him in the Oval Office, in the President’s office, which was the first meeting, open meeting, with an African American that the president had had as well. Booker T. Washington had come to the White House, but in secret to meet with Teddy Roosevelt. So the Hoovers absolutely believed in the ideal of the declaration, true equality for all.

RH: And this is the spring of 1929. She also designed the first Presidential retreat.
MH: Camp Rapidan in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Again, going to the scouting movement and to being outdoors. Both of the Hoovers loved the outdoors. Herbert Hoover was an avid fisherman. He would fish anything; anywhere with any kind of line or any kind of fishing–deep-sea fishing, bone fishing, fly-fishing, regular casting–it really became his religious experience. He had to do it every week.

Sometimes he would even go to Rock Creek, and this was Lou’s as well, they designed Camp Rapidan, which is still there and you can go to, it’s part of the National Park Service. But at the time, it was an incredibly remote place. And there were even children who were around, watching the construction of this that after not much time spent with them Lou realized didn’t know anything about the federal government, let alone that they were speaking to the First Lady of the United States or that they lived in Virginia even.

So the Hoovers built a school for the local children in the Blue Ridge Mountains that still is there today. And they continued to fund it personally out of their personal coffers for a good decade or so after until the federal government took over the school.

RH: And we haven’t even mentioned her role in promoting women’s amateur athletics.
MH: Well again Lou was an athlete. She was an incredibly accomplished equestrian, cared deeply about being in the outdoors, and she raised around $700,000 in the late ‘20s for this organization that promoted women’s athletics. It was a cause very dear to her heart.

RH: You have your own cause célèbre, gender equality in particular. And so if somehow you could ask her right at this very minute one free question, a question that would answer or clarify something about Lou Henry Hoover from the perspective of 2017, what would it be?
MH: I don’t know that I have a lot of questions about her.

RH: Because her life was so well-defined?
MH: It’s well written about, it’s well cared for. I’ve asked a lot of questions of my grandmother. I would just love to sit with her and to experience what she was like, like to have five or ten minutes of just chatting with her, to get a sense of those elements. The best parts about learning about her have been reading the personal letters of individuals who interacted with her and were so delighted by her presence. And I would love to have that experience of having an interaction with her where I could just feel that charisma and the thing that caused delight in people who met her.

RH: Margaret Hoover was born 33 years after her great-grandmother died quite suddenly in New York in 1944. She was born 13 years after her great-grandfather died in 1964 and she couldn’t be more proud of them.

This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.