Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Off the Record" and the Archival Record

It's no secret that Herbert Hoover talked to Commonwealth Club audiences at nine "off- the-record" events between 1936 and 1947. He also gave four formal speeches at the club, most of which were published. But wouldn't it be interesting to know what he said off the record?

Those talks consisted of informal question-and-answer sessions at the club’s dinner meetings. Only club members and their male guests could attend; all understood that Hoover was not to be quoted. The press was not invited, and the events were not recorded. Hoover "felt that second-hand statements of such informal opinions as he proposed to give were never satisfactory either to the one quoted or the one informed," as one reporter who was shut out of the 1936 event explained the blackout. This is where the Commonwealth Club records at the Hoover Archives come into the picture. Could they contain accounts of Hoover's comments?

The club's files certainly indicate that the conversational dinner meetings with Hoover were a big hit. Seven hundred and sixty-six people attended the 1936 dinner; another two hundred were turned away (the next most popular dinner meeting of that year, the club's annual evening of literature and music, drew just 233 people). Some of the other dinners with Hoover had even more attendees, peaking at 875 in 1947.

The club used a form to evaluate its speakers; one doting evaluator wrote of Hoover's 1945 appearance, "Tops in every way--Everybody said, 'What an evening!'" Not to be outdone, the same evaluator wrote of Hoover's next talk, "Probably the most successful meeting the Club ever held." Apparently Hoover was entertaining as well as knowledgeable; under the checkbox for "Humor" on the form, another evaluator checked "Yes" and then underlined it for good measure.

The club provided Hoover with a list of prospective questions a day or two in advance. A couple lists of questions have been preserved, but they are far too numerous to have all been covered in the ninety or so available minutes. Among those for 1945 were Can Europe feed herself this winter? What is the future of synthetic rubber? Will there be an effort to internationalize the Suez and Panama Canals?

Food for the dinner meeting was an issue in 1945. A note in the files indicates that it was 95 percent likely that the entrée would be fish (mutton was the alternative) but that nearly all fish, except salmon, as well as poultry and mutton, were only available on the black market. (It was hoped that barracuda or sea bass would be off the black market by the time of Hoover's talk.)

That's about all we know; because the club honored Hoover’s terms, we don't know what he said. Unfortunately, it's the kind of archival dead end that researchers often encounter in their work.

Announcement of Hoover's "off-the-record" talk for August 7, 1947. The Commonwealth, August 4, 1947 (box 624), Commonwealth Club of California records, Hoover Institution Archives.

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