- Historic Sites
My Friend Garfield
One summer brought excitement and glory to the young secretary of a political leader. How could he know that the next one would brim with tragedy?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
I proceeded to my desk on the second floor, and at ten o’clock I was in a veritable maelstrom of office seekers. Each day saw the milling of a hungry mob of job hunters working overtime. I understood what it meant to be thrown into a den of wild beasts as were the ancient martyrs. The President very felicitously characterized the attitude of these office seekers when he said one day in utter desperation, “These people are merciless; they demand blood, flesh, and brains.”
Fortunately I knew Washington life, had no illusions, some courage, a fair sense of humor, and intense loyalty to my chief. In those primitive days of indifferent organization, when the private secretaryship was not political, the protection of the President from the public—and I might add his friends—was his secretary’s paramount duty. Later I was to read in the President’s diary his appreciation of my efforts in that direction.
It should be remembered that this was a period when the rule of “to the victor belong the spoils” was still in full force. My first step was to issue an order that no cards or persons could go to the President unless approved by his secretary. The net result was that from ten to four an ever-changing group of from twenty to forty men and women of all grades of intelligence were in and about the office of the private secretary, seeking personal favors from the President. This was a terrible tax on patience and ingenuity. Here are some illustrations of the types of incidents which occurred.
The term of the postmistress of Fort Worth, Texas, was about to expire. She had interviewed the Postmaster General and, finding her chances for reappointment were slim, broke through the rules of procedure and fled to the President as a last resort. As she told her story, she grew increasingly emotional and incoherent and finally burst into a flood of hysterical weeping, much to the interest of the many onlookers. The only thing to be done was to place her firmly but gently in an easy chair commanding a view of the beautiful grounds with its early spring flowers and whistling blackbirds, and admonish her to regain composure. The dear lady made other and less tearful calls and, if my memory is not at fault, the Postmaster General in the end proved to be kind.
The afternoon papers [one day] announced the sudden death of the Baltimore postmaster. When the President heard the sad news he exclaimed, “All Baltimore will be here before breakfast tomorrow.” I had hardly reached my office next morning when the delegations representing aspirants for official preferment began filing in. There were four of them, and I placed each group in a corner of the large room. When they had cooled their heels for about an hour I went to the library and said, “Well Mr. President, nearly all of Baltimore is here as you predicted.” His reply was, “What shall we do?” I suggested that in a few minutes he should step into the center of my room, call the delegations to him, and tell them to agree on a candidate at once. This was done. The surprise was complete, backbiting was impossible and, with a little tactful steering from the President, the plan worked. The delegates had hardly left the building before the name of the postmaster of Baltimore was on its way to the Senate for confirmation.
The President’s friends were sometimes very courteous and sometimes quite otherwise. The delightful Colonel [Robert G.] “Bob” Ingersoll strolled in one day and, walking to my desk, drawled out, “I see by the placard, Mr. Secretary, that the President sees members and senators on Tuesdays and Fridays. When does he see gentlemen ?” I replied, “Colonel, this is your lucky day,” and he secured an interview with the minimum of delay.
About four o’clock at the end of an especially devastating day, Associate Justice [Stephen J.) Field of the Supreme Court, unannounced, bustled in and informed me in brusque tones that he desired to see the President at once . Now of course an Associate Justice of the United States has the right of way if one is available, but the President was keeping a very important appointment and could not be disturbed. Unfortunately for me I knew that fact but the caller did not. There was an indignant demand to know why an Associate Justice could not see the President, but that was just what he was not to know. It was carefully explained to him that at the earliest possible moment an appointment would be made and he would be informed by note delivered by a special messenger. Even this conciliatory procedure could not entirely smooth the ruffled plumage of the Associate Justice. When arranging the interview I found the President a sympathetic and even joyous listener.
There was one event which gave me the keenest satisfaction. By agreement with Major Powell, the creator of the U.S. Geological Survey, Clarence King, a distinguished geologist, had been made its first director. In the course of a year he grew very weary of administrative work and resigned. It was my great pleasure to see to it that the Major’s nomination as director was promptly sent to the Senate for confirmation.
Even though all matters relating to appointments were remorselessly referred to the heads of departments and more callers “paying their respects” to the President were limited to a few minutes of grace just prior to the lunch hour, the days were abnormally burdensome, yet on the whole interesting.