- Historic Sites
Aide To Four Presidents
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Mr. and Mrs. Stearns were frequent visitors at the White House. They apparently had a standing invitation to visit whenever they liked and for as long as they liked. All of us on the Staff were always glad to see them, for they were charming, cheerful, friendly people and they gave each of us the feeling that they were fond of us and interested in our welfare. When they knew us well enough to feel sure we would not repeat confidences that might annoy the President, they told us some of the things the President told them. Some of these showed the Coolidge method of discouraging even his best friends from taking liberties with the President of the United States. “I’ll have you know, Mr. Stearns,” he said once—and it was always Mr. Stearns and Mr. President , “I will have no Colonel House in my administration.”
But if no one got too close to Mr. Coolidge, some of his friends understood him very well. One such, for example, was the late Major Coupal, an Army doctor who had served with Coolidge when he was lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts. He gave the President his daily physical check up; perhaps in some mysterious way it is easier to read a man’s character when his braces are down and his shirt is off. I remember that it was Coupal who pointed out to me one interesting idiosyncrasy of Mr. Coolidge: he liked the jingle of certain words and would often frame a sentence just for the pleasure of uttering them. He was particularly fond of an occasional military or naval expression that would catch his ear: psychiatrists, aware that Mr. Coolidge had no real military experience, may read into this what they will. Normally the military and naval aides wore side arms when accompanying the President—not pistols that might have been of some value against assassins but the old-fashioned saber for the Army and straight sword for the Navy, more badges of office than weapons. One day when we were to attend Mr. Coolidge when he went to the Capitol to deliver his annual message General Cheney and I decided, without bothering the President about it, to leave our swords at home. The law forbids the military from appearing on the floor of Congress under arms and we would have had to find some place to get rid of them. Just as the President got in his car, with photographers shooting pictures and reporters alert for something to write about, he turned to us with his best poker face and said, “What! No side arms, gentlemen?” and drove off before we could reply. We had to hustle to jump in our following car. On our return we were seriously debating whether to explain or wait to be asked, when Coupal came along and said, “Don’t be silly. He doesn’t give a damn whether you wore side arms or not. He simply wanted to hear himself utter ‘side arms’ before an audience.” Nothing more was ever said about it.
While I think the late Chief Justice Hughes was wrong in persisting in the limitation of naval armament experiment when he was secretary of state, I am sure that the success of his Pan-American efforts spoke for themselves in World War II. The first positive step in his campaign was the conference of all the Americas at Havana, Cuba, engineered by Secretary of State Kellogg with the powerful support of his distinguished predecessor, Mr. Hughes. These two felt that the President should address the conference as a gesture of friendliness and as an indication of the importance the United States gave the meeting.
Needless to say President Coolidge was hard to persuade. He was too cautious—not to say timid—to make such a decision without careful thought and consultation with Congressional leaders as well as his Cabinet and other advisers. He questioned whether the voters would approve; the sea trip raised the old problem of seasickness and ridicule; and he was doubtful how he would be received by the Latins.
He finally consented. I was instructed to make all travel arrangements, in co-operation with the Secret Service, for a distinguished group of about a dozen U.S. delegates, including Hughes and Kellogg and an unspecified number of reporters and photographers. Everything started off as scheduled. The President was edgy and held everyone at arm’s length. He and Mrs. Coolidge kept to themselves in the presidential armored railroad car and never invited the Secretary of State or any other delegates in for a meal or for tea. Some of the delegates were a little miffed. Several hours before we were due at Palm Beach, Mr. Kellogg asked the White House First Secretary, Everett Sanders, what the President would wear for the drive around the city. Everett said he didn’t know and wasn’t going to ask, as he had had his head bitten off every time he’d gone near the President since we’d left Washington. I volunteered to find out.
I found Mrs. Coolidge knitting tranquilly while the President hid behind a newspaper. When I told him that Mr. Kellogg had asked whether the delegates should wear top hats and tail coats, for the drive through the city, or straw hats and summer clothes, he answered without looking up from his paper, “That’s his hunt.”
“Now Calvin,” Mrs. Coolidge said, “that’s no message to send to the Secretary of State.”
Mr. Coolidge angrily lowered his paper, glared at me and said, “What are you going to wear?” When I told him, he said, “What do you think I should wear?” I advised straw hat and summer clothes. He snapped, “Tell Kellogg to wear a top hat.”
I thought at the time that it was pure cussedness, but learned later that he usually angered at being asked to make a trivial decision that should have been made by someone else. If I had said, “If you approve, Mr. Kellogg will instruct the delegates to wear straw hats,” he would have agreed without a moment’s hesitation. The ill temper lasted all the way to Havana.