Barack Obama was the most recent President to smoke cigarettes. He did his best to keep his habit out of the public eye knowing that it was frowned upon. Before the habit was socially stigmatized, many Presidents smoked. Herbert Hoover was one of them. A recent reference question concerning Hoover’s choice in pipe tobacco led me to read carefully the three folders labeled ‘Tobacco’ in the Presidential Personal Files.
Ther were frequent letters from various Anti-Smoking Leagues asking Hoover to join them in condemning cigarettes. Hoover and his staff always demurred politely. I was struck by the irony of one such exchange bracketing a note from Hoover’s secretary Larry Richey reminding staff to pick up 1000 cigars from the Ritz Carlton Hotel tobacco shop. These cigars cost $600, no small sum in June 1929.
Another exchange of letters in January 1930 caught my eye. The National Education Association sent Hoover a copy of a poster that they intended to distribute to 200,000 classroom teachers. This poster was addressed to the youth of America and admonished them to never smoke. They quoted seven famous men, all warning about the dangers of smoking. The men included David Starr Jordan, Henry Ford, Walter Johnson, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Herbert Hoover.
Hoover’s admonition read: ’There is no agency in the world today that is so seriously affecting the health, efficiency, education, and character of boys and girls as the cigarette habit.’ The NEA sought a letter from Hoover sanctioning the poster. Hoover’s staff initially was sanguine, thanking the NEA for bringing the matter to Hoover’s attention in a January 18, 1930 note. Four days later, another staffer wrote the NEA asking that they remove Hoover from the poster because ‘the statement quoted in the second paragraph of this poster was not made by the President.’
Hoover’s usually competent staffers must have had smoke get in their eyes. They lost sight of Hoover’s iron clad rule to not use his name or office to endorse any public position, no matter the cause. This confusion led to months of work for his staff to track down misappropriation of this quote in other publications. As late as October 1931, they were answering letters explaining that this quote was not made by Hoover.