The common virtue of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter

October 9, 2020

On Oct. 1, Jimmy Carter turned 96 years of age. Carter, already the oldest-living former President on the occasion of his 95th birthday last year, continues to be in good health with his wife Rosalynn following his surgery last year. He recently enjoyed a quiet birthday celebration at home in Georgia, where he has long taught Sunday school and helped to direct the Carter Center. His presence there provides a living root which connects this country to as distant a year as his birth year of 1924. Every year, the memories of that decade grow more distant as this country moves further forward, but with Carter we can at least have reassurance that the great difficulties of the present day can be placed into context by one who no doubt has a personal memory extending back to Herbert Hoover.

Indeed, the presidency of Herbert Hoover, which lasted from 1929 to 1933, has been compared with that of Carter, who governed from 1977 to 1981, for very understandable reasons. Both terms were recalled with intense disfavor for years after in the public imagination for their associations with disaster—not disaster in the form of an event such as Pearl Harbor or a mid-term recession, but disaster of a years-long, multifaceted nature that would provide the tipping point for overwhelming electoral realignments.

While neither are to blame for these disasters, neither could they decisively resolve them. In the autumn of his first year in office, Hoover faced the 1929 stock market crash, which thereafter spiralled into a depression at its absolute nadir by 1933; Carter, likewise, observed four years of economic malady characterized by a brutally hybridized stagnation and inflation. Catastrophes at home and abroad additionally afflicted the Carter years, including the Iranian hostage crisis and its botched rescue mission, the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania and the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State; it is little wonder that American morale gradually sank in what Carter famously identified to be a “crisis in confidence.”

Both Hoover and Carter were succeeded by men of great skill and charisma in Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who each assembled broad majoritarian electoral coalitions that would endure for decades.

But here is where the similarities between Hoover and Carter as presidents end, and where their similarities as individuals begin. Both lived to observe very long post-presidencies. Hoover would live to age 90, at the time outlived only by John Adams among all the presidents. Upon his death in 1964, Hoover had reforged his reputation as an elder statesman and historian, his intellectual archives preserved to this day at the Hoover Institute in Stanford University. Carter has witnessed four decades since 1981 and his later legacy has, in similar fashion to that of Hoover, been recast by the accumulated authority of his post-presidential endeavors.

Their reputations as private citizens, crafted outside the punitive shadow of public service, share a common humanitarian devotion. For Carter, the work of his eponymous Carter Center has spoken for itself. Its efforts in international arbitration, socio-economic development, and the protection of natural rights are displayed within a great host of nations around the world, and it was for these efforts that President Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. 

The virtuous credentials of Hoover are no less outstanding. His formation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium delivered countless tons of foodstuffs to the devastated Western European states, which no doubt reduced the risk of famine in the difficult years following World War I. He again resumed his humanitarian efforts during the Second World War, through his attempts to provide relief to Nazi-occupied Europe and his role as coordinator of the Food Supply for World Famine in 1946.

There is a common mindfulness by Hoover and Carter of the delicate nature of human life. The extent of their devotion to the welfare of others may surely offer a timeless standard of virtue, worthy of remembrance today. Let not their time in office, but the virtue of their time as private citizens, determine the value of their lifetimes.

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