“May you have the happiest new year imaginable.”
By Thomas F. Schwartz
The recent film Jackie (2016) by Pablo Larrain offers an artistic interpretation of a life based on a 1963 Life magazine interview by Theodore H. White with the recently widowed Jacqueline Kennedy. One typically would not connect Herbert Hoover with this fashionable First Lady. But Hoover was quite fond of the Kennedy family having had a long friendship with Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan. Hoover and Kennedy served together on the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, more commonly known as the Hoover Commission. The purpose was to reduce the size and cost of government through consolidation of duplicative services, elimination of obsolete services, and other cost saving measures. The first Hoover Commission under Harry Truman was the most effective and caused numerous states to create their own “little Hoover Commissions.” In fact, California still has their Hoover Commission in operation www.lhc.ca.gov/.
In the course of their relationship, Kennedy introduced Hoover to his three sons. Robert would actually serve as a staff member for the second Hoover Commission. John Kennedy represented Massachusetts as United States Senator in the 1950s and maintained a cordial relationship with the ex-president. When the young Senator had crippling back ailments in 1954 that led to extensive hospitalization and spinal surgery, Hoover sent encouragement: “It doesn’t matter much what the politics of good men are. What does matter is that they get out and keep out of hospitals.” Much to his surprise, Hoover received the following letter from Jackie:
“Dear Mr. Hoover, You cannot image how much it meant to Jack having such a wonderful letter from you. That you should take the trouble of writing touched him so much more than I could ever describe to you. When you are sick, or going through the long business of getting well, it is so heartening to know that people think of you enough to write you a letter, but when it is someone as busy as you, whom he admires so terribly much, why that is better medicine than any doctor could give. So I must thank you too. May you have the happiest new year imaginable. Every good wish from us both.”
Several years later, Jackie penned another thank you letter, this time for lunch:
“Dear Mr. President
This is terribly late to be writing you so please forgive me, but I did want to tell you how terribly grateful I am at your hav[ing] let me come to lunch with you last Sunday [January 15, 1956] in Washington.
That was so kind of you, all I did was sit there and eat, but I will never forget that day and all your graciousness and hospitality.
I had heard Mr. Kennedy speak of you so much last winter and developed a slight case of hero worship. How lucky I was to have it all come to life and find you wiser and kinder than I could have ever imagined.
You were absolutely unbelievable at the hearing. I thought Senator Mundt said the nicest thing of all—that you were an American Churchill. It is an understatement, at least that is what Jack and I think and we will remember our lunch with you for as long as we live.
I do hope that when you come back to Washington we will have the privilege of seeing you again, and in the meantime, thank you so very very much.”
While the comparison to Churchill was meant as a compliment, Hoover’s own encounters with Churchill were anything but cordial. It was Churchill who tried to stop Hoover’s food relief efforts in Belgium in World War I, even accusing Hoover of being a German spy. Churchill was more successful in blocking Hoover’s efforts to feed Poland and Finland at the outset of World War II. Hoover and Churchill were in agreement about the Soviet threat following the war, so on this point he could accept the compliment.
On November 22, Hoover sent the following letter:
“Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
I extend my deepest sympathy to you and your children for this, the greatest loss that can come to you.
May the knowledge that he gave his life for his country be a consolation to you.”
Several months later, Mrs. Kennedy visited Hoover prompting this note:
“Dear Mr. President, It was most kind of you to receive me in New York. I have never forgotten the first time that I met you so long ago—nor will I forget this time. You were always wonderful to my husband and he admired you so much.”
As Hoover struggled with failing health in early 1964, Jackie sent flowers along with a note “I do hope you’re feeling better and send very warm wishes.” Hoover sent a reply on March 5, 1964 through one of his secretaries, Elizabeth Dempsey who wrote: “Mr. Hoover wants you to know how deeply he appreciates your gracious thought in sending him the beautiful gardenias. He says, they bring spring to his apartment.” Seven months later, Hoover would succumb to cancer at the age of 90.