Modern Hoover Myths: Part 3

A jovial Herbert Hoover at Bohemian Grove, 1941. (HHPL-M image 31-1941-a49)

Individuals who are inclined to be introverts in public are often assumed to be humorless. Funny people usually command the center of attention not only with their wit but larger than life personalities. The characterization that Hoover lacked a sense of humor is baseless simply by examining his speeches and public comments. Like his martinis he had a dry wit seeing humor in everyday life. Perhaps the most notable example is when Hoover was asked what accounted for his loss to Roosevelt in 1932. Hoover responded, “as nearly as I can learn, we did not have enough votes on our side.”

Humor is tricky. What some people find funny cause others to take offense. Unless you know your audience, it can be dangerous for public figures to make jokes at others expense. Most of Hoover’s humor is reserved for audiences that were not part of the larger public record. His talks before the Bohemian Grove and the Dutch Treat Club where all conversations were off the record and not to extend beyond the audience in the room best display Hoover’s humor. In prepared remarked before the Dutch Treat Club, Hoover takes to task speakers who don’t know when to stop talking. For Hoover, all speakers must have notable “terminals” or stopping points. He stated:

As a preliminary I may mention that in my lifetime I have attended more than 1,000 association luncheons and more than 2,000 public dinners. They all have one thing in common. That is the hard-bottomed chair which is built to get harder as the proceedings go on. I have come to have a deep sympathy for these imprisoned human beings in their increasing anxieties for a terminal by the speaker. And a special alarm shoots through my mind when the speaker starts an ad-lib performance. They have no sense of time or your next appointment or the hard-bottomed chair. It is only those who speak from a prepared script that give you any hope of a terminal. I have a script. The terminal will come in about 13 minutes. I was the ghost who wrote it.

I have no objection to other people using a ghost. Such a speech is likely to be better, and in any event, they have a terminal. Incidentally, there ought to be a law compelling disclosure of the ghost. If we know who he was, we would know which of them to elect.

Hoover’s humor could be cutting. Such occasions were reserved for his closest staffs’ ears only. When Calvin Coolidge tried to reassure Hoover not to take his critics comments too seriously, Coolidge asserted, “You can’t expect to see calves running in the field the day after you put the bull to cows.” “No,” Hoover replied, “but I would expect to see contented cows.” Exasperated by the actions of one Senator, Hoover claimed he was “the only verified case of a negative IQ.” At the announcement of the birth of one of his granddaughters, Hoover quipped, “I’m glad she doesn’t have to be confirmed by the Senate.” Near the end of his life, when Hoover was asked how he survived all the ostracism after the presidency he declared, “I outlived the bastards.”

Hoover’s playful wit shows up best in his replies to children’s letters to him. One asked if he travelled much. Hoover responded, “Presidents must travel in order to learn what the people have in mind and to explain their policies. However, travel has improved for Presidents. George Washington required five or six days to go with horses from New York to Washington. Presidents today can do it now, in one hour by jet. But jets go over the heads of the people—like some of the speeches.”

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