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Presidential mentoring: Hoover and Truman first got it right

Truman Library
President Harry S. Truman with former President Herbert Hoover at the White House in 1951.

Inasmuch as January is National Mentoring Month, I started seriously thinking about how the person with the most important job in the world gets wise counsel and advice of a confidential and often personal nature.

Chuck Slocum

It was at the birthplace and presidential library of Herbert Clark Hoover in West Branch, Iowa, that some lessons of history began to come together for me regarding presidential mentoring.

The pro-business, proper Republican Hoover and the populist, salty Missouri Democrat Harry S. Truman, an odd team if ever there was one, set a nonpartisan example for what has become, arguably, the most exclusive club most of us have never heard much about.

Background of Hoover

Hoover, a poor Quaker lad whose missionary parents each worked in advancing their religious faith, was orphaned at age nine. Strongly influenced by an uncle for the next decade, in 1891, the enterprising young Hoover became a part of the first class ever at then tuition-free Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He graduated four years later with a degree in geology.

Over the next two decades, the married father of two achieved a net worth estimated at $4 million (about $200M today) in owning and developing natural resource mining businesses, mostly in Australia, China and Africa. Hoover also honed some strong values — the importance of global awareness, helping people to help themselves, rewarding success, a belief in limited government and the private marketplace among them.

When World War I began, the prominent citizen Hoover was recruited by President Woodrow Wilson to organize the return of around 120,000 at-risk Americans from Europe. He recalled, “I did not realize it at the moment, but on August 3, 1914, my business career was over forever. I was on the slippery road of public life.”

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, Wilson persuaded Hoover to head the American Relief Administration. The ARA fed millions of starving people, mostly children, as Hoover worked 14-hour days from London. He became a hero at home and abroad and was urged to enter the political arena by bipartisan national leaders, including both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1928, after serving as Commerce Secretary in Republican Calvin Coolidge’s administration, the 58-year-old Hoover was overwhelmingly elected U.S. President.

Background of Truman

Harry S. Truman was born of a nomadic Missouri farm family in 1884 in Lamar. His parents chose “S” as his middle initial to please both of his grandfathers, a common practice among the Scotch-Irish. After high school, Truman unsuccessfully tried to gain some higher education but to limited success, never graduating from college.

Of very poor eyesight, he memorized the chart to pass his physical. Truman’s fellow members of the Missouri Army National Guard elected him at age 31 as the top officer of their field artillery battery. Together, the group served in combat in German-occupied France, at one time assigned to George Patton’s tank division.

For years, Truman courted Bess Wallace of Independence and, in 1919, after returning from the war as an Army captain, they were married. Several years later a daughter named Margaret was born.

The war had been a transformative experience for Truman, whose natural leadership qualities were honed. His decorated war record made possible a postwar political career. First elected to various judgeships — he had earned his law degree by correspondence course — and then being appointed as Missouri’s director for the Federal Re-Employment program, in 1934 Truman won office as a U.S. senator and headed to Washington, D.C., to join the majority Democrats.

Selected as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1944, he served only six weeks before becoming president when Franklin Delano Roosevelt suddenly died in 1945.

Hoover had been mostly ignored by FDR

FDR, who had soundly defeated Hoover in 1932 in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, repeatedly reminded Americans of Hoover’s personal responsibility for the nation’s problems as electioneering Democrats effectively won control of the national government for five consecutive presidential election cycles.

When the common man Truman succeeded the erudite but secretive FDR, he was without knowledge of such things as the development of the atomic bomb, the wind-down options for World War II and the reshaping of our postwar economy at home and abroad.

Hoover, who had volunteered to help FDR in various capacities but had been mostly ignored, was called by President Truman to re-engage in feeding a war-ravaged and starving Europe for the second time in three decades; he did it well.

The post WW II partnership proved to be most successful as Hoover played quiet roles in backing Truman’s agenda, including the recruitment of George Marshall as secretary of state and helping to shape the Marshall Plan in stimulating Europe’s economic recovery. Truman also asked Hoover to lead a major government reorganization that strengthened the office of president while streamlining and making more accountable its many functions. The plan was eventually adopted in a bipartisan fashion.

Confidential mentors

When one has served as president of the United States, there emerges an institutional memory that offers invaluable support to the current president. The individuals share a love of country, a respect for the office, an understanding of what being an effective president is all about, an ability to do things without publicity, and, a network of invaluable personal relationships. In short, they know the territory.

The notion of former presidents as confidential mentors of acting presidents became a something of a formality at the 1953 inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower as the 78-year-old Hoover suggested to his good friend Truman, 67, that the two ought to form an exclusive club to help the new president. Truman responded favorably to the idea, telling Hoover “you be the Chair and I will be the Secretary.”

As it turned out, Ike was less interested in their help but later did become an effective one-on-one mentor himself to the three presidents who followed him.

John F. Kennedy carefully listened to the former presidents but never got a chance to help others. LBJ repeatedly called on the former presidents, especially after leaving office as he and Richard M. Nixon exchanged views on the continuing war in Vietnam.

Nixon became deeply involved only after leaving office in disgrace in 1974. Gerald R. Ford and James E. Carter became most effective advisers to sitting presidents, and Ronald W. Reagan stayed involved with his successor, George H. W. Bush and had special influence on William J. Clinton. Clinton became especially close to both Bush ’41 and ’43 and used Carter for special foreign missions.

Today, Barack Obama has access and doubtless taps into the views of four former presidents: Carter, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43.

The nation and the world are no doubt better as a result of this kind of mentoring.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm, and can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.


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