Aide To Four Presidents

PrintPrintEmailEmailOne day in 1926 when the world was quiet and no wars were in progress anywhere, Wilson Brown, a spare, erect and self-effacing captain in the Navy, reported to Washington, confidently expecting to pick up orders for his next job, as naval attaché in Paris. Instead, and without explanation, he was hustled over to the White House and subjected to a brief interview with Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States. In a few laconic questions Coolidge learned that Brown was an Annapolis man, Class of ’02, had staff experience and had commanded two destroyers in the Great War. Had he been through the Naval War College? “Yes, sir,” said Brown. “Well,” allowed Coolidge, without a smile, “I guess that’ll keep you from tripping over the White House rugs.”

Thus unceremoniously Wilson Brown found himself appointed Naval Aide to President Coolidge, and launched on a remarkable series of experiences. For while his purely naval career was not over (he was later head of the Naval Academy, and led carrier forces against the Japanese in 1942), he kept returning to the White House, serving also Hoover, Roosevelt and, briefly, Truman. An aide’s job, never formally defined beyond the ceremonial duties and the command of the presidential yacht, depends very much on the President himself. It amounted to most under F.D.R., whom Brown served twice, in the ’30s and in the war, giving him the daily war news and accompanying him on his travels, including the grueling trip to Yalta. No military man has studied four more different historic figures from such an intimate vantage point.

AMERICAN HERITAGE is privileged to present here excerpts from Admiral Brown’s forthcoming book, Four Presidents as I Saw Them .

 

 
 

At twilight on a pleasant August afternoon in the year 1926, Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth President of the United States, sat in a rocking chair at the side of his Vermont farmhouse. He had arrived at Plymouth only a few hours before, after a day’s journey from his summer camp in the Adirondacks. It was his first visit home since the burial of his father in the local graveyard the winter before. Then heavy snow in Vermont made all travel difficult, and piercing wind and cold lashed the funeral cortege. Today a green and smiling countryside welcomed Vermont’s most distinguished citizen. His purpose in this return was to revisit the grave of his father and his beloved younger son, whose recent tragic death also seemed only yesterday. Today, after all the hurly-burly of high office, President and Mrs. Coolidge could inspect the house he had inherited from his father, and they had it to themselves, attended only by an austere spinster neighbor who acted as their local housekeeper. Except for a few who remained in the neighborhood on duty, the presidential following of secretaries, Secret Service, telegraph and telephone operators, press and photographers had moved on another fifteen miles to the hotel in the neighboring town of Woodstock.

From where he sat, Calvin Coolidge could look across the country road to his pasture land that leads away to a green valley and hills beyond. He could also see what went on at the crossroads country store where he was born, fifty yards up the road—the only dwelling within half a mile. At the moment it had become the headquarters of the duty section of his Staff and there a curious crowd had quickly assembled beyond a cordon fixed by the State Police to prevent further encroachment on the presidential privacy.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The President had been very grumpy all day on the trip to Plymouth and had refused Mrs. Coolidge’s earnest pleas to address crowds that had waited hours for a single glimpse of him; and at times he refused even to stand up where he could be seen. It was clear to all of us that we should leave him alone unless we had something important to deliver. It fell to me, the new man, to be the first intruder.

It was a completely strange environment for me. I had taken command of the presidential yacht, Mayflower , and had assumed the duties of Naval Aide only a few months before. I had seen very little of President and Mrs. Coolidge. At the few White House receptions and during trips on the Mayflower I had found them friendly but very official and formal. On board the Mayflower I knew what my duties were and how to do them, but in the mountains of Vermont I had no intimation of what was expected of me beyond the generally accepted requirement “to be on hand in case something turns up.” The recent death of President Harding had put everyone around the White House on the alert for other possible emergencies and I was on my toes. My navy blue uniform with aiguillettes, which custom required me to wear, seemed particularly inappropriate to the surroundings. It collected all of the dust of all of the country roads in spite of most diligent brushing. I felt conspicuous and a little silly. I was staying with the nearest neighbor (Farmer Brown, the President called him) and, in order to be of some slight service, I had constituted myself a link between the President and our telegraph operators established in the country store with a direct wire to Washington.