By Thomas F. Schwartz
A tradition observed by Herbert and Lou Hoover annually invited the Diplomatic Corps and the public to the White House on New Year’s Day. The President and First Lady would head a receiving line and greet the Diplomatic Corps first and then the public. It was an exhausting event where several thousand people would comprise the receiving line. President Theodore Roosevelt shook 8,513 hands during the January 1, 1907 New Year’s Day reception, setting a record that remains in the Guinness Book of World Records. The tradition embodied the spirit of a democratic republic: that elected officials should be accessible to their constituents. The following entry description comes from the diary of Marion Redmann, the governess who cared for the Hoover’s grandchildren while their son recovered from tuberculous in Asheville, North Carolina. Redmann writes:
“New Year’s Day (Thurs. 1931) was the big reception day. In the morning, about eleven o’clock, President and Mrs. Hoover received (in the Blue Room) the Diplomatic Corps, the members of the cabinet, the justices of the Supreme Court and members of Congress. Florence [Gehlke, the grandchildren’s nurse] and I went down to watch for a while. It was very interesting to see the ambassadors in their various uniforms brilliantly decorated with gold braid. The Chinese Ambassador’s wife wore a suit following the lines of her native dress. The guests came up the stairway near the East Room and formed a line in the main corridor. From there they passed through the State dining Room and the Red Room into the Blue Room. The Marine Band played—they were divided into two sections, one on each side of the lobby. One division played a number, and as soon as it was finished, the other division played. The men were dressed in bright red coats trimmed with gold braid and blue trousers.
At about one o’clock the reception was open to the public. There was a long line that had been waiting most of the morning, about three or four abreast. One rather shabbily dressed old man stood first—he had been the proud leader of the line for several years in succession. We heard that there were two young boys about the age of fifteen who had come from quite a distance to shake hands with the President, and that they were there early in the morning, so the President invited them in for breakfast.
This group followed the same line of march as the morning group had. They entered the main entrance. Velvet ropes helped to keep the people in line. Florence and I were slipped in quite near the head of the line. Aides and Secret Service men stood at each door way. At the entrance of the Red Room we were told to go single file. The men posted along the way carefully watched everyone’s hands. No one was allowed to carry anything in his hands. Mrs. Hoover smiled and said, “Why, isn’t this nice” when we came along. About every fifteen minutes the line was held up, while President and Mrs. Hoover sat down for a brief rest. They greeted people that day.”
Not every tradition is worth preserving; at least this was one that Hoover declined to observe on January 1, 1933. Having lost reelection to Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover decided go fishing over the holiday and therefore cancelled the New Year’s Day reception. Since then, no president has revived it. Handshaking is an exhausting exercise and presidents must endure countless receptions.