A Tale of Two Hoovers

J. Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover at the wartime conference of Boys' Clubs of America dinner, 1944.
J. Edgar Hoover and Herbert Hoover at the wartime conference of Boys’ Clubs of America dinner, 1944.

It should come as no surprise that Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover were frequently confused during their lives and remain so in death. The two men were not related, and they first crossed paths in Washington in the early 1920s. While the Clint Eastwood film has a scene depicting Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone offering a young J. Edgar Hoover the job of FBI director, it leaves out the fact that Stone had consulted with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover about the appointment. Herbert Hoover’s assistant, Larry Richey, had worked in law enforcement and knew that J. Edgar Hoover was a competent rising star in the bureau. When Herbert Hoover mentioned Stone’s inquiry concerning the job opening, Richey immediately recommended J. Edgar Hoover. Herbert Hoover forwarded the suggestion to Stone, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Herbert Hoover’s correspondence files contain many examples of letters received that were meant for J. Edgar Hoover. The two Hoovers were constantly forwarding one another mail and, in the process, became close friends.

In one instance, a young girl sent a letter addressed to “Mr. Herbert Hoover, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, Washington, D.C.” making the following query: “Will you please send me some information on the subject, ‘Crime.’ I need to make a report from my Sr. History Class.” President Hoover sent it along with a cover letter, joking with J. Edgar Hoover, “Surely you are able to deal with this inquiry! It would not take you more than two months to prepare an essay for the young lady!” In another misdirected letter, an unidentified gentleman from Chicago asked that the FBI investigate strange activities in a basement dwelling on South State Street. President Hoover quipped in his cover letter to the director “This letter must be intended for you. I do not carry on a business of searching basements!”

While the two men could laugh about the public’s confusion, the bureaucrats at the FBI were not so amused. Perhaps the most telling example is a Memorandum for the Director dated November 13, 1935. It begins: “While listening to a radio program last night over NBC, I heard the comedian Jimmie Durante, say, in effect, to a traffic policeman who, according to the radio skit was trying to arrest, ‘I am a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover and all the G-Men…Yes, sir, I am a personal friend of J. Edgar Hoover and also his brother, Herbert Hoover.'” The memo goes on to emphasize that many Americans will not see the joke but accept the relationship as fact. The memo warns how harmful the misperception is to the FBI since the bureau is nonpartisan, and ends by encouraging “all Bureau speakers to get across the true state of affairs in this connection.” The author of the memorandum should have looked on the bright side. Confusing the former President of the United States with the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was undoubtedly preferable to confusing either Hoover with a vacuum sweeper.

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