- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
As the bearer of war news, I had the immediate right to see the President at any time of the day or night. Except on very rare occasions, however, when the President demanded to be informed at once of the outcome of any expected action, we established as regular a routine as possible in order to lighten his load and to interfere as little as possible with other government business.
My standing orders were that all important war news was to be delivered to the President at once, and then to me. After the President had gone to bed, all news was to be telephoned to me on my private wire, which passed through the White House switchboard only. Unless his immediate decision was required, there was no need to disturb his sleep. Good news or bad could wait till morning, if there was nothing he could do about it. Once on a train trip, when a message came through several hours after the President had turned in, I had to call him as a member of the Cabinet asked for immediate instructions from Washington. I went to the President’s stateroom and knocked on the door. “Mr. President,” I called, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have a message I think you ought to see at once.” “Come in,” he called back in drowsy tones. By the time I’d opened the door, he’d turned on the light, reached for a cigarette, and was wide awake. He read the message carefully, discussed it with me for a few minutes, and then gave me an answer, clear, brief, positive. He said next morning he’d gone right off to sleep again. The incident shows his faculty of ceasing to worry over a matter once he had made his mind up and given a decision. It is one of the reasons Franklin Roosevelt survived twelve years of killing toil and responsibility.
I attended President Roosevelt as his naval aide at all of the conferences except those at Newfoundland and Casablanca. I saw a good deal of the Roosevelt-Churchill teamwork at close range at all the meetings, but of them all I like best to recall those at Quebec. The war was definitely going our way by then. Instead of the tense and distrustful atmosphere of conferences with the Russians, there was the hospitality of smiling friends who spoke the same language and held the same aims. The preliminaries indicated the cordiality of the occasion.
The President had invited Prime Minister Churchill to meet us at Hyde Park for preliminary discussion on our way north to Quebec, and he arrived shortly after we did, accompanied by a small staff and his daughter Mary. Mr. Churchill used the occasion to provide entertainment for himself and others. We had noted before that, like my friend General Watson, who would arrive on the Sequoia in Tyrolean costume, he enjoyed at times appearing in new and sometimes strange dress—sometimes very smart uniform or civilian clothes, sometimes very informal attire. At Hyde Park Mr. Churchill had the stage all set for one of his best performances. The day after our arrival Mrs. Roosevelt invited all of us to her cottage, about two miles from the big house, for a swim in the pool on her grounds and a hot dog luncheon to be cooked and served by herself. It was a hot day and a swim was most welcome. The President would not go in because he wanted to discuss the Irish situation with our Minister to Ireland; but he sat on the terrace where he could watch the swimmers. Mary Churchill was the first in the water and became the center of interest at once by doing all sorts of difficult dives from the springboard with great skill and grace. None of the rest of us could begin to match her stunts and, as a result, we crawled in and out of the water in the most inconspicuous manner possible. But not the Prime Minister. Accompanied by his trusted Scotland Yard inspector and carrying a small black bag, he marched to the outdoor men’s dressing room with the confident air of a maestro.
“Wait till you see the old boy in a bathing suit,” muttered one of the less respectful aides to me. “He looks exactly like a nun buoy.” And sure enough when Mr. Churchill emerged there was no denying that the greatest circumference was very near the waistline. But if there was any momentary doubt about his agility, it was soon dispelled when he advanced quickly and without a moment’s hesitation to the end of the springboard. There he jumped up and down several times for momentum, leaped into the air in a graceful parabola and landed head first in the approved manner, albeit with considerable splash. The President led the applause, which was modestly acknowledged with a benign smile as the performer swam sedately to shore employing the old-fashioned breast-stroke. Mrs. Roosevelt alone had sufficient courage to compete further with Mary on the springboard.
At Quebec the entire Hotel Frontenac was turned over to the several hundred of the Combined Staffs and their multitude of helpers. Hopkins, Leahy, and I were installed with President Roosevelt on the second floor, while Mr. Churchill, Commander Thompson and a few helpers took quarters on the first floor. We had our meals together in the state dining room, where the President presided, as if he were senior member of a mess aboard ship. He assigned the seating arrangements, generally in accordance with rank, but when Mr. Churchill became too insistent in so pressing a point during the forenoon that he might be expected to continue during lunch, the President would invite him to join the fourth ward.* He always enjoyed Churchill’s company, but at times he seemed a little miffed.
* The junior end of the mess table.