Another Loss From America’s Best Generation

Stuart Rothenberg February 9, 2011 · 9:26 AM EST

John H.F. Hoving was buried last week with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He was 87 years old.

I met John some 25 years ago, a few years after I moved to Washington, D.C., and after he dropped me a kind note out of the blue about my newsletter.

A few times each year, John would buy me lunch at the Metropolitan Club. But the real sustenance of those occasions came from the stories John would tell me about his early days in Democratic politics and from his patient, thoughtful approach to problems.

John Hoving was born in New York City. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946, as an infantryman in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. He earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

After a brief stint in journalism in Wisconsin for the Madison Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal, John moved to the world of trade associations and then corporate America, first with the Air Transport Association and then with Federated Department Stores (Bloomingdale’s, Abraham & Straus, Filene’s and other stores).

He spent a decade in Cincinnati at Federated as senior vice president for public affairs, and he became known for his expertise in crisis communications.

An ardent admirer of company CEO Ralph Lazarus, John almost certainly was behind the company’s decision in 1981 to expand its employee contribution match program to schools and cultural institutions. He worked for a large company, but his concerns were always with his community.

The next year, John left the company and returned to the nation’s capital to open his own firm.

“Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘integrity’ came easily as his admirers expressed their appreciation,” wrote Cincinnati Post editor William Burleigh in a piece after a farewell dinner honoring John’s work in the Queen City.

Back in D.C., John found many crises to help manage. In 1989, for example, the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art retained him to help them navigate a controversy when the museum’s director canceled an exhibition of the work of the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

The New York Times quoted John as saying, “I am trying to help them talk it out, think it through, decide on where they want to go, how they are going to do it. There are no home runs in this thing, no one thing is going to resolve their problem.”

But John was a campaign junkie at heart, as well as a devoted supporter of the Democratic Party. Over the years, he worked for a number of Democratic candidates, include presidential hopefuls Estes Kefauver and Hubert Humphrey, and in 1972, he managed “New South” North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford’s (D) presidential campaign.

Although I didn’t know it until I recently searched online about John’s career, he was heavily involved in setting up the Humphrey campaign’s telephone operation in 1968.

I recently learned that John was a close friend of then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) and that the two men could sit up into the wee hours talking about Wisconsin politics and, I’d be willing to guess, the problems facing the country.

But what I will remember most about John was his repeated emphasis on the need to teach people about government and politics, about history and about the importance of ethics in business and politics.

No matter what we talked about — whether it was some current political development, his work as a young reporter, World War II or the world of business — John always ended up saying “and that’s why it is so important to teach people about ...”

John “worried about the fragility of democracy,” one old friend of his told me recently.

In 1995, John wrote a lengthy piece titled “Corporate Ethics: In Everyone’s Self-Interest” for the World & I magazine.

“Both a free-market economy and a political democracy depend absolutely upon free communication and true ethical behavior. A free society that is safe, secure, and productive for all its citizens takes some doing to produce, but the key is ethical behavior on the part of all,” he argued.

“American corporations can become effective and significant teachers for the rest of the word at this crucial time — by adopting formal corporate ethics programs themselves. ... It is vital for American corporations to teach that ethical behavior is absolutely essential for a free economy and political democracy.”

And John’s interest in ethics didn’t end with corporate America or politicians. In 1991, New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow referred to a letter he had received from “John H.F. Hoving, a reader in Washington.”

“I am puzzled,” wrote John, obviously looking to create a teachable moment, “how Gaylord Perry, who cheated on the field, gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame while Pete Rose, who cheated off but not on the field, is banned.” Berkow used his column to address John’s question.

John Hoving often dealt with nuts-and-bolts issues — such as the number of phone banks his campaign would need or exactly which words to use in a press release — but that wasn’t his greatest gift. As one old friend of his told me, “he thought far more strategically than most folks during his time.”

It’s not that John always had the right answers. It’s that he knew the importance of asking the right questions — questions that could help further democracy, freedom, opportunity, fairness and a corporate culture that produced successful businesses but did more than merely value the bottom line.

At a time when so many are absolutely sure they have all the answers, and shrillness and volume trump modesty and thoughtfulness, we need more folks like John Hoving. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling.