Critics have often claimed that Hoover lacked the social graces required of a President. What constitutes required “social graces” of any President is subjective. One of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was criticized for the vestiges of his frontier upbringing as reflected in his Midwestern accent, his informality in attire when greeting people often without wearing a suit coat or shoes, conducting meetings beginning with readings from joke books, as well as inviting delegations of blacks to the White House breaking the long-observed color barrier. Except for Miss Manners, it is doubtful that anyone would be able to conduct themselves without violating accepted “social norms” dictated by social elites. Whether it matters is something else.
Hoover was typically candid and direct in his language. As the head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, he often angered British diplomats who were offended by his constant badgering until he got what he wanted. If he lacked the language of diplomacy and he tended to “dictate rather than collaborate,” Hoover did get results. In spite of his brusque manner, Colonel House wrote in his diary “I like Hoover and admire him the more I see of him. He is one of the few big men at the Conference.”
Hoover’s impatience reflected in his words was also seen in his eating habits. Numerous observers marveled at how quickly he ate his meals, often finishing before many of his guests were served. The White House physician, Dr. Joel Boone, observed that Hoover “was unaware that he was hasty. I knew it was not an act, a procedure of discourtesy, but rather a nervous compulsion.” Food seemed to Hoover a necessity for life, not something to be savored. Much of this mentality was reinforced by his mining career that took him to remote and desolate regions where food was neither abundant nor varied. Conversation at meals was carried on with Lou maintaining the flow of discussion. Hoover rarely spoke but engaged in active listening. Associates observed that Hoover could lead conversations with small groups, but he was usually reticent in large dinner parties. He always preferred to eat with company joining him at the table rather than eat alone.
No individual of Hoover’s accomplishments is unaware of their social environment and its requirements. The Hoovers entertained generals, foreign ministers, heads of state and were received by kings. They initiated social events at the White House such as showing Hollywood films and inviting the leading musical artists of all races for performances. These have been explored in previous blog posts. Ultimately, the claim that Hoover lacked the necessary social graces as president that contributed to his failed leadership is questionable. Hoover’s record of accomplishment before and after the presidency was not hindered by any perceived social quirks. The Depression was a new economic problem that lacked precedent and clear understanding. Economists continue to debate its causes and its conclusion. It was not something that could be solved by improved social graces.