You know the race for the presidency is on when you start seeing huge political fundraising dinners. Actor George Clooney recently hosted one for President Obama where the cost was $40,000 a plate. Mitt Romney and the Republicans, not to be outdone, are having one at $50,000 a plate.
These events are great for the campaigns to build their war chest. But all it means for the rest of us is lots of political ads. Not very inspiring. History offers us an alternative.
In 1920, Herbert Hoover, almost a decade before he became president, set up fundraising dinners to help millions of people suffering from hunger after World War I. The war, as well as drought, had devastated food production in Europe.
Hoover, the head of the American Relief Administration, appealed to the public through a series of fundraising dinners called "The Invisible Guest." An empty chair was placed at the dinner table to represent one of the hungry “children of famine.” These were innocent victims of war "wasting away in their own homes," as Hoover put it. War brings hunger even after the guns fall silent.
Like many political fundraising dinners of today, the "invisible guest" events had high-profile figures attending. General John J. Pershing, who commanded American forces during World War I, presided with Hoover over one of the “invisible guest” events in New York City.
An Invisible Guest Dinner in New York City hosted by Herbert Hoover and General John J. Pershing. (Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)
The American Relief Administration distributes food in Finland after World War I (Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)
One thousand tickets were sold for $1,000 each at the New York event alone. Guests at the dinner, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., brought total donations up to $3 million that night, according to Hoover’s memoir. Other Invisible Guest dinners took place across the country.
These dinners meant food for hungry children in Austria, Germany, Poland, and other war-devastated nations. American food aid saved millions of lives after the First World War, particularly children, who need these nutrients or they suffer lasting physical and mental damage. A Hungarian official said American aid "saved from death and disease many of our children."