WEST BRANCH, Iowa — It is a testimony to the promise of our country to stand inside the home of young Herbert Hoover. The scope of where the Hoover family began, lived and ended each day can be observed in the blink of an eye.
One room served as a bedroom for the future president along with his parents and two siblings. The other room was their living room, dining room, and kitchen. The rooms are literally side-by-side. They had little, they soon had less, yet Hoover persisted.
"This cottage where I was born is physical proof of the unbounded opportunity of American life," Hoover once wrote.
It's hard to disagree.
Few today know much about the poor little Quaker boy who was orphaned at age nine, separated from his siblings, and sent off to Oregon to be raised by an uncle; most students learn in school that he was America's president when the stock market crashed in 1929 and that he failed to right the country as it slipped, then fell, into the Great Depression.
It was a dark time in our history: In one day, some people lost entire fortunes, homes, livelihoods, and the promise of a better life. There were soup lines, 25 percent unemployment, low wages, and instant poverty as vacant lots soon became an assembly of makeshift homes built with bolts of cloth, cardboard boxes, and castoff wood.
Built by newly homeless, they were called "Hoovervilles."
No one can dispute that this is what happened – yet, there is so much more to this man, that is important for us to know, today and tomorrow. Why? Because what happened before guides us to what may happen again and serve as an instruction on how not to repeat our worst mistakes.
Forgetting history is shameful for any people; omitting, ignoring, or destroying history is worse. In truth, it is the highest moral and intellectual sin that a country's people can commit.
Hoover never finished high school, failed his college entrance exam and once admitted to college, wasn't exactly the best of students. But he found a way to persevere once he found his niche: problem-solving, which led to an academic major, and then to a career as geologist and an engineer.
And he was quite brilliant at it. Hoover and his wife, Lou, a fellow Stanford university graduate, would soon travel several continents and find themselves in precarious situations, such as being trapped in China at the beginning of that country's Boxer Rebellion. Their dedication, and his tactical eye, eventually earned Herbert a reputation for bringing troubled mining operations to life. It also earned them great wealth for his well-earned expertise.
Yet, Herbert never strayed far from his humble Quaker upbringing; he remained modest, not given to boasting, and loved hard work. He appreciated solitude and felt awkward when showered with attention.
What he loved to do most is "do." And he rose to that occasion in 1914 when more than 100,000 Americans became trapped in Europe without cash, food, or shelter as the continent descended into World War I.
Like that scene in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" — when the banks fail in Bedford Falls and Harry Bailey doles out all of his wedding money to his family's savings-and-loan customers — Hoover essentially reached into his pocket and got all of those Americans home on his dime, with a promissory note and nothing else.
That moment forever changed his life: Soon after, he was called upon to help Belgium survive a catastrophic food crisis after Germany invaded the country and cut off the food supply to the non-agrarian country.
He sprang into action, coordinated an unprecedented relief effort and, for two years, saved the lives of nine million war victims by distributing two million tons of food to them. He went on to lead the American food-relief effort after the war, became a national hero, and then the U.S. Commerce Secretary.
His political views were so well-hidden (he served in the administrations of Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Calvin Coolidge) that, when people began to wonder if he would run for president, a question often arose: "Well, is he a Republican or a Democrat?"
When he lost his re-election campaign to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Hoover took it hard. FDR made it harder because he used Hoover much the way Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi are used today by opposing parties for political gain.
Hoover found reputation redemption in Harry Truman, respect from Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and a deep friendship with John F. Kennedy.
Hoover was a complicated man: He never warmed to the trappings of the presidency; he was not a particularly good speaker or campaigner, a trait that did not help him at the dawn of the communications age.
Just outside his first home in West Branch, on a hill overlooking the grounds, Herbert and Lou lay in rest side by side; the spot is peaceful, overlooking the town that nurtured the first U.S. president born west of the Mississippi. The first man who was never previously elected to office, and not a general, to become a U.S. president – something we wouldn't see again for nearly 100 years.
There is much to learn from his successes and, if we are wise enough, from his failures — that is, if we take the time from his moment and from who and what we are today, to understand who we once were.
If not, we will stumble badly once again before we figure out who we will become.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.