By Thomas F. Schwartz
The relationship between Herbert Hoover and Bernard Baruch was both mutual admiration and petty jealousy. They saw in one another tremendous strengths and skills that could advance the national interest, especially in times of crisis. Ego frequently got in the way, especially when it came to assigning credit to ideas and programs.
Baruch came from a prosperous family in Camden, South Carolina. His father was a physician and the family eventually relocated to New York City where Baruch attended the City College of New York. At the tender age of twenty-one, he began work as a stockbroker/investor that created his vast wealth. His genteel Southern upbringing and his passion associating with the politically powerful made him very agreeable company for politicians seeking financial backing. In return, Baruch offered his unsolicited views on public policy. Never interested in elective office himself, Baruch was content having unlimited access to those in power and hired his own publicist to keep him in the news. He was a major contributor to the Democratic National Committee. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Baruch to head the War Industries Board, bringing him into contact with Herbert Hoover as head of the U.S. Food Administration. Both went with Wilson to Versailles following the war. They frequently butted heads with Baruch often backing off and maintaining a surface civility. Baruch’s true feelings appeared when angry: Hoover “was a white livered yellow dog who was forever damning everybody else and taking all the credit for everything that was successful and shifting all the blame on the President or any one he could find for his failures.”
In truth, Hoover and Baruch shared many of the same values and visions for America that served as the basis for their begrudging admiration for each other. While Hoover was the more creative and systematic thinker and effective organizer, he had no taste or aptitude for ingratiating himself with party leaders or regulars. Hoover’s weakness was Baruch’s main strength and why Presidents and world leaders continued to court Baruch as an adviser. His vast wealth in service to assist Democratic candidates made him a person of consequence and influence.
Following President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Baruch invited Hoover to lunch, the topic of conversation being postwar planning. Both agreed that a council, similar to the War Council under President Wilson, should be set up to advise President Truman. Baruch also urged Hoover to call on Truman to which Hoover recorded “and for the fourth time I had to explain that I would not go to Washington except at the direct invitation of the President.” Why Hoover remained adamant in standing on protocol reflected his ego as ex-President and that he did not want the public to think he was offering unsolicited advice. Truman would reach out to Hoover resulting in the 71 year-old travelling 51,000 miles in under three months to provide a global assessment of food relief needs.
In 1955, Hoover penned the following birthday greeting:
“Your birthday approaches—and it ought to be a notable event because of the great services you have given our country over these years.
You and I have travelled much of the same highway for over 40 years. We differed in our membership of political parties, for you were a product of the South and I of the North. But we have not differed on the fundamentals of American life and government. Like old soldiers, we can recount the times when we were members of President Wilson’s team in World War I and at the Treaty making in Versailles. We can reaffirm our admiration for his qualities.
We can ruminate over the occasions when, since that time, we have joined in advice on great affairs. Time has proved we were mostly right and some good came to our people from that advice. Not always was it heeded, and our people suffered in consequence.
But most precious of all, as we approach the shadows, has been a constant friendship over two score years.
And I hope for the common good, you may have many years more for ours is a better country for you having lived in it.”
Baruch wrote a gracious reply that also expressed genuine gratitude:
“It is difficult, and, yes, even impossible for me to express to you how deeply touched I was by your letter of congratulations on my birthday.
You referred to many occasions when together we took part in great events. Your field has been wider and more active than mine. I have always appreciated the extraordinary qualities of your mind and heart. My admiration and affection have increased over the years, but, as you say, ‘most precious of all, as we approach the shadows, has been a constant friendship over two score years.’ I know that friendship will never lessen.
You have just finished a monumental work [the Second Hoover Commission], the contemplation of which staggered my imagination.
Again with thanks and appreciation I am….”
As time frequently does, it allowed the two old lions opportunity to reflect and savor the accomplishments each had brought about.