- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
While the Mayflower often enabled President Coolidge to escape the cares of state, I am sorry to confess that she and I caused him discomfort and embarrassment on the occasion when he was persuaded to hold a Fleet Review. At that period in our history the Navy was very much concerned about the already evident effects of the limitation of naval armament. The military clique of Japan, attacking “the indignity of the 5-5-3 ratio,” was stirring up strong anti-American feeling. We believed that they were building ships and fortifying the Caroline and Marshall Islands in violation of treaties—and yet we continued to haggle with Britain about how many cruisers each should have and, to show our good faith, destroyed on the ways thousands of tons of ships which, had they been completed, might have deterred Japan from ever making her attack on Pearl Harbor. Fearing the worst, the Navy Department saw in a Fleet Review an opportunity to throw the spotlight of publicity on the need for more ships and more positive action. They also wanted to demonstrate to the President personally some of our most evident weaknesses.
I think President Coolidge never had much faith in limitation of armaments as an instrument for peace; but he felt that, having gone so far, we must give it a fair trial. He was therefore reluctant to encourage any naval building at that time. Also, being a poor sailor, he was very fearful of being laughed at if he had the bad luck to be seasick during the review. But, after a good deal of discussion and with the aid of some members of Congress, he was finally persuaded that if we anchored the Mayflower in Lynnhaven Roads, well inside the Virginia Capes, there was very little chance of any motion and the fleet could parade by on its way to anchorage farther up the Roads. I pointed out that we could leave Washington as usual and make our customary two-day trip, except that instead of anchoring for the night at Piney Point we would keep under way at night and be anchored the second day for review. Finally President Coolidge reluctantly consented. There was a good deal of preliminary publicity. Weather conditions looked favorable. We left on schedule; but, alas, during the night a heavy ground swell began piling in through the Capes and when we anchored, the Mayflower had a roll—not a heavy roll, but heavy enough to embarrass others besides Mr. Coolidge—the one possible weather condition we had dreaded. The President was cross (as who isn’t when he’s seasick?) and stayed in his bunk most of the morning. In accordance with his instructions I entertained a specially selected group of press and photographers in the President’s dining room, and, at his expense, gave them a very superior stand-up luncheon. We told them that they had the run of the ship except for a small portion of the deck which was roped off to provide privacy for the presidential party. They were asked to keep clear of that space and I assigned an officer and two Marine orderlies to be sure there was no slip-up.
When the Fleet Flagship came in sight leading the column, a queasy Coolidge roused from his misery and his bunk and came to the bridge with his binoculars and yachting cap. During a full half hour he posed for the photographers, looking sternly through the long signal glass, pointing to each ship as she came abeam, returning salutes endlessly while trying to stand at attention and steady himself against the roll with the unengaged hand. He played his part correctly throughout the picture-taking ordeal. Then, when all the battleships had passed, Mr. Coolidge said he would go aft to the roped-off area and watch the rest from there. Behind the afterdeck house and out of sight of prying eyes, he sank into a sofa. Presently the fleet commander, Admiral Hughes, came aboard with a considerable staff, and a photographer slipped along with them unnoticed as the procession moved aft. Thus he was able to sneak a snapshot of Mr. Coolidge seated disconsolately on the sofa, grim-lipped, clearly dreaming only of terra firma and an end to his malaise. That rather comic stolen picture was given greater publicity than almost any other. Calvin Coolidge never uttered one word of reproach to any of us for causing his embarrassment. But neither did he give any support to a naval building program.
The man who, undoubtedly above all others, shared President Coolidge’s innermost thoughts and worries was his old friend, adviser and supporter, Frank W. Stearns, a successful Boston merchant. It was he, of course, who first singled out Calvin Coolidge as a man of destiny; conferred with him all through the famous Boston police strike; and with the help of Dwight Morrow, Thomas Cochran, and others engineered Coolidge’s election to the governorship of Massachusetts and later to the vice-presidency of the United States. As one success followed another, Frank Stearns spent the last years of his life applauding and encouraging his successful candidate.