Did Vice President Charles Curtis attend Hoover’s Cabinet meetings?

Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis, June 1928 (HHPL-M image 31-1928-46)

by Spencer Howard

One question often asked is whether Vice President Charles Curtis attended Cabinet meetings during the Hoover Administration.  At that time, it was a novel idea;  only President Warren Harding had routinely included his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, in Cabinet meetings.  Under most previous administrations, the Vice President presided over the Senate and had little involvement with the Executive Branch.  Charles Curtis brought an impressive legislative résumé to the Republican ticket – 35 years experience in Congress including 14 years in the House, 21 years in the Senate, and 4 years as Senate Majority Leader. How would Hoover utilize that expertise?

In August 1928, as the Presidential campaign was getting started, Hoover sent a telegram to his running mate formally inviting him to participate in Cabinet meetings.  “I feel that your lifelong accomplishment and experience in problems of government should be available to the administrative arm of the government,” wrote Hoover.  “That this should be accomplished to the fullest extent I am in hopes that in event of a return of Republican Administration you will consent to join in Cabinet sessions.”

Curtis replied just as formally,

I wish to acknowledge the receipt of and to thank you for your telegram of August 18 inviting me to attend your cabinet meetings if the Republican ticket is elected in November.  It has been my belief always that closer cooperation and greater harmony in the administration as a whole can be secured by having the Vice President keep in active touch with the executive problems of government and that in many respects this can be a distinct benefit to the executive branch as well as to the legislative branch.  Therefore it gives me pleasure to accept your courteous invitation and I shall do my best to assist in making the coming administration the most successful the country has ever had.

This minor bit of campaign news was reported throughout the country on August 19, 1928, but was largely drowned out by discussion of the hot political topics of the time, such as immigration, commodity prices, and Prohibition.  After the Inauguration and upon the first few meetings of Hoover’s Cabinet, Hoover’s invitation and Curtis’s acceptance were again widely reported, generally in a positive light.

The New York Times saw it differently.  In an editorial published shortly after the inauguration, the Times opined,

It is a pleasant gesture of confidence and good-will when a President asks a Vice President to attend Cabinet meetings…  Heretofore the plan has not produced much that is tangible.  When Vice President Coolidge sat with the Harding Cabinet he is reputed to have volunteered nothing and said as little as possible in reply to questions…   For one reason or another, Vice President Dawes attended to his job in the Capitol and was not an administration counselor [for President Coolidge].  Perhaps he felt that there was little use in sitting in with responsible officials when one had neither responsibility nor authority.  The same will be true of Mr. Curtis; and while he may attend Cabinet meetings for a time, he will probably weary eventually of that ineffectual effort.

There is no evidence that the Vice President ever tired of Hoover’s twice-weekly Cabinet meetings, nor that he missed sessions except for reasons of illness or travel as reported from time to time by the press.  Unfortunately, no minutes were kept at Hoover’s Cabinet meetings, so we don’t have a detailed account of Curtis’s participation.

Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s voluminous diary is one of the most important “insider” accounts of the Hoover administration.  He rarely commented on Curtis’s participation in Cabinet meetings, but his diary does provide two colorful vignettes.  On February 3, 1931, Stimson noted how Curtis cautioned Hoover about his approach to drought relief (see Herbert Hoover and the 1930 Drought for more on this topic), and offered advice about dealing with Congress.

At Cabinet Meeting this morning the President read to us his proposed statement with reference to the drought relief.  He has toned it down a little bit from what he had read to me the day before, and the Cabinet as a whole approved it.  The Vice-President was rather anxious not to have any statement made, but agreed that this statement was conciliatory…  The Vice-President’s position was that if an inflammatory statement was made it would make the Democrats insist on a special session, and at the special session they would pass not only drought relief but probably the veterans’ bonus, as they would have probably a much larger representation in both houses;  while on the other hand if a compromise was made, he thought they probably could hold the fort against anything being done at this session and very likely be in a stronger position for the next session.  But on the whole, the statement was so conciliatory that it was the view of all of us that it could not afford an excuse for trouble.

A few weeks later, Stimson was entertained by the banter of Curtis and two other Cabinet members, Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur and Secretary of War Patrick Hurley.

Quite a good cabinet meeting again.  In fact they are getting better now;  the members talk and discuss more freely;  and, I think, the President is really getting a little more accustomed to listen to debate by others.  This time Wilbur brought up the question relating to attorneys for Indians and the Indian tribes, and the duties of the United States toward them, and he at once struck a nest of experts, because old Curtis is an Indian himself and knew about Indian claims and Indian attorneys, and Hurley had been the regular attorney for the Choctaws.  So the discussion went back and forth, from one to another, and it was quite interesting.

Given that Curtis routinely attended Cabinet meetings, the next question is did his participation produce any notable results?  Most historians have portrayed Curtis as ineffectual and uninvolved in the Hoover Administration, even Hoover’s legislative agenda.  Stimson’s diary entries hint at one key factor – Hoover was always the man in charge. As was true in the many other organizations Hoover led, Hoover’s mode of operation was to bring a fully formed plan to the table for approval and buy-in, not advice or collaboration.  While the Cabinet did at times push back and persuade Hoover to modify his plans, most of the time Hoover did things his way, for better or for worse.  Vice President Charles Curtis was just along for the ride.

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