The current temporary exhibit at the Hoover Library, ‘Viva Hoover!’ showcases more than twenty gifts given to the Hoovers as they made their goodwill tour of Latin America in late 1928. Among the items exhibited are: photo albums, books, gold medals and medallions, silver trays and platters, ornately carved chests inlaid with tortoiseshell, ivory and mother of pearl, precious stones and the Paracas mantle. The captions for these artifacts are terse—offering an austere physical description of each. There is little said about the provenance of each item because little is known about their backstories.
When the Hoovers made their trip, procedures and protocols regarding gifts were not clearly articulated. While the State Department Protocol Gift Office existed in 1928, no one from that office toured with the Hoovers. The Hoovers were left to their own devices in accounting for the many gifts they received on the trip. Thanks to the careful record-keeping of Ruth Fesler and the crew of the Maryland, we can piece together some details on items given to the Hoovers as they traveled south. The precious stones from Brazil were valued at $283 per customs declaration of April 1929. The silver tray may have been a gift from the mayor of Santiago, Chile. We cannot be certain because the silver gifts, with the exception of the gilded animal horn-which had a declared value of $13, were not itemized on the customs declaration. One of the Ecuadoran lacquered chests contained rare books for Mr. Hoover; the other contained pearl earrings and small sculptures for Mrs. Hoover.
The exchange of gifts among heads of state is traditional. Ceremonial gifts are universal diplomatic symbols. Even though the gifts are expressions of goodwill, the Constitution expressly prohibits anyone in the US Government from receiving a personal gift from a foreign head of state without the consent of Congress. Today, the handling of gifts from a foreign official to any Federal employee, including the President, is governed by the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 1966 and further laws passed in 1977. Such gifts are considered gifts to the people of the United States.
The President accepts gifts on behalf of the United States of America. This tradition, dating back to Washington, grows with each administration. Today a President may receive thousands of gifts during their term. According to lore, Abraham Lincoln was offered a pair of Indian elephants. He politely declined. George H. W. Bush was given a 9-foot long Komodo dragon, an extremely dangerous beast, which he quietly re-gifted to the Cincinnati Zoo. The Hoovers were not given fauna, but they received much in the way of flora. None of these cut flower arrangements made the trip north.