By Thomas F. Schwartz
A widespread characterization of the Hoover presidency is that he ignored the needs of average Americans during the worst hardship. In fact, the opposite is true. Every request for assistance sent to the White House was forwarded to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Mrs. Hoover set up a system which both evaluated the severity of the need as well as assigning the task where it would get the best response and attention. Unfortunately, most of these requests no longer exist because Lou Hoover felt the requests were private matters and that most of the individuals did not want their requests known as a simple matter of personal pride and dignity. What follows is a memorandum written by Philippi Harding Butler who served as personal secretary to Mrs. Hoover from 1920-24 and again from 1929-33:
“RE Relief Cases & Various Pleas for Help received by Mrs. Hoover
This type of mail became so voluminous that in early 1931 Mrs. Hoover designated one of her secretaries—one in her personal employ—to use every means possible to find help in response to these appeals.
In every Cabinet Secretary’s office we had a contact to whom were sent the questions and appeals which would only be answered or investigated by a Department. In each case the writer of the appeal had a reply from Mrs. Hoover’s secretary telling what was being done with the question, and in each case there was a follow-through by the Department in question with a report as to what was or was not possible and what had actually been done.
For the great number of questions and appeals of various kinds, we contacted friends all over the country who were located in an area from which a letter had come, or Committee which had been formed by various organizations to help in the emergency (to wit—Girl Scouts, General Federation of Womens Clubs, etc.). The great mass however were handled by a Miss Heizer, recommended by the President’s Committee on Emergency Relief, who gave part time to this work and was paid personally by Mrs. Hoover. She had knowledge of helpful Committees and organizations all over the country.
In each case the writer of the original appeal had a reply from Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, and his or her permission was asked to send the appeal to someone who might be helpful. No appeal was sent to anyone without such permission. Mrs. Hoover felt very strongly that people would write to her, as the President’s wife, not knowing where else to turn, and all names and circumstances were regarded as confidential by all of us working on the cases. Reports came back on each ‘case’ and in a vast number real practical assistance was given; a very small proportion was found to be unworthy. In a great many cases, where special help was needed with no source for it, Mrs. Hoover would donate the money needed, but anonymously, through the friend or agency handling the situation.
As a consequence of Mrs. Hoover’s insistence that all such matters be considered confidential, at least a quantity equal to two filing drawers full were removed from the files. Many routine matters and those sent to Departments for official answer were left in the ‘Downstairs’ files.”