The Politics of Personal Destruction

Portrait of Lou Henry Hoover, 1928.

The eminent Hoover biographer, George Nash, describes Charles Michelson as “the Democratic Party’s chief publicist and spin-meister,” who, during the Hoover Administration, “orchestrated an unremitting barrage of disparagement of Hoover’s shortcomings: a foretaste of what later generations would call “the politics of personal destruction.” Michelson’s job was an unrelenting flow of criticism, often as ghostwritten editorials, speeches for others, attacking Hoover and his policies. His own memoir of these activities was aptly titled, The Ghost Talks.

Contained among Lou Henry Hoover’s papers is an undated memorandum describing a social gathering she attended without her spouse where she encountered Charles Michelson. A fierce defender of her husband and his policies, Lou felt much of the criticism directed at him more deeply than Herbert Hoover. It was at this gathering that Lou accidentally encountered her husband’s most vocal critic, afterward she wrote:

“There was a party the other night. A large party, in a large house, so that the guests moved about uncrowded, unhurried.

“It was not a party where guests sat down to eat, at table with one another. A lovely, gracious lady was there, from a distant city. But well known, she was the wife of a man who had been shamefully, brutally injured by another man some years before. Her husband was not with her. However, the other man was in the gathering and much whispering buzzed about, that any hostess should be so crass as to ask those two under her roof at the same time.

“But no one told them of each other, until they stood at right angles, some four or five feet apart, and then turning slowly, as tho’ Fate pulled the strings, they faced.

“The woman with her was not equal to the situation, but hesitating, flustered, flushing, she murmured the two names, as tho’ introducing them, or recalling slight acquaintances to each other,

“The room paused, electrified. The man was struck speechless, motionless. The lady poised, as it were, in her slow flight across the room. She showed no sign of greeting. She did not put out her hand with the smile of welcome or of interest that had met friend and acquaintance in the past minutes. But she did not move on. She simple stood erect, assured, unperturbed, but with her stead eyes not leaving his face. Forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, jay, she scanned. Slowly she repeated his name, in full, pronouncing every syllable. He was turned to stone, hypnotized. In a second she proceeded, with well-spaced, even tones, clam, low, but carrying to every corner of the room.

“I have long wanted to see you,” she said unhurried, still studying his countenance, with the slightest accent on the ‘see.’ Then after an appreciable pause, but before the gasp of conversation could be resumed in the room, ‘I have wanted to know what your face was like. I have wanted to know what your face could be like.’ For a long moment she continued then deliberately, she turned toward her companion and moved along the direction of their earlier course. She gave no sign of farewell or dismissal to the man. She took her glance from that face as coolly as tho’ she had been contemplating an unpleasantly interesting ugly marble bust. But she left upon it a hand of humiliation that cannot be entirely erased in the remains of a life time.

“It was that most utterly ruthless encounter that could have been staged. But it was spontaneous, unexpected, -one might say gracious.

“Before they had withdrawn beyond ear shot if quite all in that room they were approaching the door to the exit, she said casually, but distinctly, to her still stunned companion, “I am sorry to have had to do that in the home of my hostess. But she should not have asked me here at the same time as the man whom everyone knows stabbed my husband, and [me] in the back.”

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