I knew that my mother had served as private secretary to Herbert Hoover after his White House years, but as a seven-year old boy, I was far more interested in baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers than in politics or history.
In the early spring of 1952 mother and dad announced to my sister and me that they were taking us to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in Madison Square Garden in a few weeks. Excitement reigned even more so when they told us we would take an early train into New York because they had a surprise for us. With visions of Central Park merry-go-round and F.A.O. Schwarz toy store dancing in my head, we boarded the train that April morning.
Imagine my dismay when the taxi from the Grand Central Station dropped us off not at a toy store or carousel, but at a hotel, the Waldorf Towers. An elevator whisked us up to the top floor where an elderly gentleman warmly greeted my mother and whom mother introduced as Mr. Hoover. He ushered us into his living room, and while he, mother and dad chatted at one end of the coffee table, my sister and I sat dutifully quiet at the other end, where I amused my self by playing with a bowl of Taft For President buttons (remember, this was April of 1952).
At one point, Mr. Hoover turned to me and asked: “Ted, why are you in New York City today?” I replied that we were going to the circus. Mr. Hoover then turned to my mother: “Martha (my mother) do you remember when Lou Henry (his wife) and I took you to the circus?” Mother laughed: “Yes, and I remember how you kept trying to buy me cotton candy and peanuts.” Mr. Hoover also laughed: “Well, Lou Henry and I thought we should have a little girl to take with us to the circus and you were the closest we could find (mother was 34 at the time).” Tears welled up in mother’s eyes; “Chief, if I had only known, I would have eaten all the cotton candy and peanuts you wanted me to.” Mr. Hoover smiled and they resumed their conversation and I my contemplation of the Taft buttons (one of which I wore to the circus, much to my mother’s chagrin).
I went to bed that night filled not with memories of presidents but of clowns and elephants and with the taste of cotton candy and peanuts in my mouth. But later, in high school and college, as I was taught history by a succession of New Dealers, I had difficulty reconciling their picture of a grim and aloof president Hoover with the kindly elderly gentleman who had taken my 34 year-old mother to the circus as his little girl.
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