John W. Hill on Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy

By Thomas F. Schwartz

President John F. Kennedy calls on former President Hoover at Hoover's Waldorf Astoria apartment.
President John F. Kennedy calls on former President Hoover at Hoover’s Waldorf Astoria apartment.

In his memoir, The Making of a Public Relations Man, John W. Hill, founder of the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, Inc., devoted a chapter, “Hoover and Kennedy—A Study in Contrasts.”  Hill was a friend of Herbert Hoover so much of his assessment was not based upon hearsay from others but personal observation.  Hill’s main emphasis underscored the meteoric dependence modern presidents devote to public relations.  Using the Kennedy example, Hill argues satellite communications providing instantaneous televised news globally, the Cold War placing the Unites States President as the global leader of the free world, and Kennedy’s own telegenic manner allowed him to shape public opinion in a way not even Franklin Roosevelt  could imagine.  Hoover served before the rise of the public relations boom and “predated the vast ‘public information’ apparatus that since has become a fixed part of our federal government.”  Public speaking and creating a public image were at odds with Hoover’s personality, which tended toward working with small groups and fiercely protecting his privacy and that of his family.  Not having a White House photographer, images of Hoover’s grandchildren playing in the White House were images that remained in the family and not shared with the public unlike those taken by the Kennedy White House photographer.

Hill points out that both Hoover and Kennedy faced economic crises:  Black Friday of October 26, 1929 and the market crash of Monday, May 28, 1962.  Both presidents sought to reassure business and the investing public in the fundamental soundness of the economy and both recommended tax cuts, public works investments, and market reforms.  “A major difference,” according to Hill, “is that Mr. Hoover saw restoration of public confidence in the private sector of the economy as the prime goal.  Mr. Kennedy seem to see public acceptance of an expanding government role in the economy as the key solution.”  Hill argues, “the Kennedy Administration has worked more assiduously with more evidently conscious planning on its public relations than any previous administration in our history,” as evidence of the necessity of effective public relations.  He realizes that there are limits to the impact public relations can ultimately have on an administration’s popularity.  Quoting James Reston of the New York Times, Hill notes it is “easier to write messages than to draft programs to implement the messages.”

An interesting argument Hill posits is worth citing in full:

“In 1928, soon after the Hoover election, the Democratic National Committee set up an operation in Washington’s National Press Building specifically charged with the task of discrediting the Hoover Administration and its head.  Such effort on the part of political parties was not unheard of then although not as commonplace as today.  After the depression this operation was concentrated pitilessly upon a single purpose never paralleled in American Life.  There began, under the questionable genius of Charles Michelson, what was to become perhaps the most vicious, persistent, and effective smear-campaign ever conducted against any public man in American history.”

An examination of his claim will be the subject of a future blog post.

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