- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
The gossip around Washington was that Mr. Coolidge ate his dinner in bored silence and refused to be drawn into conversation by the most charming ladies. One favorite story dealt with a Washington hostess, occupying the seat of honor at the President’s right, who was supposed to have confided in him that she had made a large bet that she could make him talk or at least get three words or more out of him, and begged him to let her win the bet. His alleged reply and only comment of the evening was, “You lose.” That story I think was probably made up out of the whole cloth, for Coolidge was not a man to be deliberately rude to a dinner guest. I have sat at his table at a good many formal dinners and even more smaller luncheons and I have never seen him ignore his partners. He was of course never loquacious and when pressed—especially by gushy matrons—would clam up completely. Nor was he niggardly, as many wits suggested. The Coolidge board fairly groaned and there were many courses. According to present-day standards there was too much to eat. Wine was, of course, never served as Calvin Coolidge would not temporize with the law even though he did not approve of Prohibition. An invitation was much sought after by all who did not, like the Cabinet, get too much of it.
State receptions were carried out with the same pomp as the dinners—lavish floral decorations, Marine Orchestra, aides in full uniform. The guests would begin arriving a full hour before the time set for the reception, for several thousand would have been asked. Except for a few seniors who led the line, the others would form in the order of their arrival—filling the East Room, the lower corridor and the stairway leading to the main floor from the lower corridor. The Cabinet and their ladies assembled in the Blue Room. At the appointed hour the President and Mrs. Coolidge would make their formal appearance to the strains of “Hail to the Chief!” Preceded by the aides, they would descend the stairs, normally kept closed with iron gates, to enter the lower hall in the midst of the assembled guests. The stairs are wide and graceful and their use lent a faint air of royal pomp or, at least, Viennese opera to this republican soirée . The President and his lady then passed through the crowd in the main hall by a passage kept clear by the junior aides, into the Blue Room where the Cabinet was assembled and up to the ropes that fixed the position of the receiving line. The President’s job of the evening would then begin—shaking hands with more than 2,000 guests. It was quite evident to all that Mr. Coolidge wanted only to get this manual marathon over with as quickly as possible, and he combined with his handshake a perceptible pull toward Mrs. Coolidge on his right. If the passer paused to chat, as many would, the pull was more powerful. But any apparent lack of cordiality in the President was counterbalanced by Mrs. Coolidge’s charm and friendliness. She really appeared to enjoy seeing people, calling by name without prompting all she had ever met before. Mrs. Coolidge never seemed to tire and would be as gay and sparkling at the end as at the beginning. This was frankly not so with the President or his two aides. Genera] Sherwood Cheney and I alternated every fifteen minutes, standing on the President’s left and announcing to him the name of each passerby. The guest would give us his name and we would repeat it to the President. We would turn the head to the left; concentrate on hearing and grasping the name; turn the head to the right and announce the name; then turn back to catch the next name; and so continue without pause until relieved. The faster the line moved the faster we had to turn, listen, turn, speak, as if in a squirrel cage. The head would get dizzy, the neck would ache. It all appeared very serious to Mr. Coolidge and we could sense his annoyance when we bungled a name. When I had the job to do years later with Franklin Roosevelt, who had the added torture of standing for a long time on braces, he was the gayest of us all and joshed General “Pa” Watson and me when we called a wrong name.
After one reception General Cheney and I had preceded the President and Mrs. Coolidge in their march to the second floor, which was always the finale of the evening. We started down the stairs as they turned toward their apartment; but, suddenly remembering that we had a question to ask about next day’s duties, we turned back just in time to see the President and his wife, believing themselves to be alone, solemnly dancing a minuet with exaggerated bows and curtsies. Perhaps he didn’t take his receptions as seriously as we thought.
Once I remember hearing an earnest lady admirer tell President Coolidge that she did not see how he could bear up under all his pressing responsibilities and that she prayed often for his health and guidance. Did he not often find his burden more than he could endure? “Oh, I don’t know,” said the President. “There are only so many hours in the day and one can only do the best he can in the time he’s got. When I was mayor of Northampton, I was pretty busy most of the time and I don’t seem to be much busier here. I just have to settle different kinds of things.”
It often seemed that Calvin Coolidge’s main pleasure in life was the privilege of taking weekend cruises on the old Presidential steam yacht, the Mayflower . As part of his duties Admiral Brown commanded this luxurious old craft, which had originally been built in the Nineties as a private yacht for Ogden Goelet and had been taken over by President Theodore Roosevelt after the Spanish-American War. The Admiral’s account of Coolidge’s seafaring routine recalls the tranquility of the time: