Hoover letter to Guy Gillette on the Election of Federal Officials, September 28, 1951

President Herbert Hoover casting his vote in the 1932 presidential election on the Stanford Campus in Palo Alto, CA. 11/8/1932

Iowa Senator Guy Gillette wrote to Hoover in early September 1951 seeking advice on how to draft legislation that would ensure federal elections were a ‘fair and honest expression of the will of the electorate.’  Hoover answered the question with his customary thoroughness, detailing six needed changes.

Hoover opened his letter to Gillette by writing: ‘There is a vital need for corrective or remedial legislation to make our elections to these federal offices more nearly a fair and honest expression of the will of the electorate. We have been concerned over the lack of accountability over huge expenditures of money in these campaigns…. I am glad that your Committee is taking a strong interest in these problems. They have a vital bearing upon public confidence in our political system.’

Hoover goes on to say: ‘I do not have the facilities for the investigation which these subjects merit; nor can I presume to have the legal experience to draft actual legislation which the problems involve. I can, however, make some suggestions of areas which might be explored such as: (1) the extension of Federal law to cover primaries for Federal offices; (2) the reorganization of the existing law as to financial limitations on campaign expenditures; (3) the need of better definitions in these laws; (4) the political activities of civil servants; (5) the Government propaganda and political campaigns; (6) the use of defamatory and scurrilous literature.’

His first suggestion was to extend federal laws regarding general elections to apply to primary elections because, in many states, winning a primary campaign was tantamount to winning the general election. Hoover’s second recommendation was to recognize that the campaign finance limitations established by the 1926 Federal Corrupt Practices Act were outdated given the impact of new media of radio and television and inflation in the 25 years since the law was enacted.  Hoover’s third point suggested tightening definitions of political clubs, educational groups and committees, which often did their work at the behest of the party, would be covered by campaign laws.  Hoover’s fourth idea was to put teeth into the Hatch Act, so that civil servants would not campaign.  The last two changes dealt with controlling government publications which veered toward propaganda in election years and giving candidates stronger legal recourse against defamatory and scurrilous literature

Hoover closed his letter to Gillette with this glum assessment: ‘In the last analysis, no law will substitute for ethical standards applied as a matter of course by individuals in their daily conduct of the public business. There is a dangerous weakening of morality and of ethical standards in public life generally, the very area in which we should expect to find integrity and leadership on high principle. Without improvement in the minds and hearts of men, law and institutions are not enough to prevent deterioration in political behavior. And the people cannot be blamed if the bad example of men in public life leads to public toleration of corruption and abuse.’

Gillette’s proposed legislation gained little traction in the Senate.  The bill was not passed.  As time passed, the political will to defend morality and ethical standards in public life seems to have waned. One has to wonder what “improvement in the hearts and minds of men” Hoover had in mind, and what prescription he would have offered.

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