The President’s Best Friend

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CROATE, 1935

THIS TIME they were really in trouble. The twelve boys lined up in the headmaster’s office at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, awaited sentencing for their crime. It was Monday, February 11, a glowering, heavy-skied New England winter morning. The loudest sound in the headmaster’s chambers was the rattle and hiss of the radiator. The headmaster sat silent at his desk. Before announcing their punishment, he would wait until every one of the thirteen accused was in his presence. All of them were guilty. One of them was missing.

The tallest boy in the lineup, K. LeMoyne Billings, a bespectacled, six-foot-two-inch, 175-pound sixth former (senior), knew exactly where the missing boy was at that moment, but Billings was mostly concerned about the face he himself was presenting. Billings had difficulty with his face: the natural expression of his emotions was usually about half under control. His eyes, friendly, blue, and guileless, were nearly incapable of bluffing, and anyone who knew him well could detect the supreme effort of trying to keep his face from breaking into a vast and reckless smile.

So, for the moment, it was probably better that Billings’s best friend and roommate, John F. Kennedy, was missing. If there was a single offense that would surely and swiftly bring the end of all things to a Choate boy, it was laughter in the face of the angry headmaster.

To his students in general, and to LeMoyne Billings in particular, Headmaster George St. John was scary. Inscrutable monarch of Choate since 1908, his enforcement of rules, and his punishment of renegades, was harsh, inflexible, and final.

“Ten percent of the boys at Choate are muckers ,” St. John had thundered during his sermon in evening chapel the preceding month. He had gone on to portray the typical “mucker” as a “bad apple in the basket,” a boy who cut up in class, behaved impiously in chapel, and made a general nuisance of himself in the eyes of school and God. In the new term ahead, St. John warned, muckers would not be tolerated.

That evening after chapel, during the half hour before the bell rang for dinner, Billings and Kennedy reflected on the headmaster’s sermon. Life for sixth formers was deregulated to a small degree; they were allowed to play records on Victrolas in their rooms between chapel and dinner. Because the two boys roomed near the dining hall, the doorway often i got so jammed with students that Billinss and Kennedy had difficulty getting into their own room. That night they decided to form a club and offered membership to eleven of their closest friends, who would then share the exclusive privilege of listening to Kennedy’s Victrola. A resolution was unanimously carried, naming each member of the club president. Later on, each purchased a gold, charm-sized shovel upon which was engraved his initials, the abbreviated title “Pres.,” and the initials of the newly established institution, “CMC.”—Choate Muckers Club. The club broke none of Choate’s cardinal rules during its brief and risky existence. Its membership roster showed a majority of outstanding athletes (including four varsity captains), none of whom drank or smoked or sneaked into Wallingford after lights. But the Muckers did tend to be careless about Choate’s minor regulations. Occasionally, for instance, when they were supposed to be in class, a recurrence of “sore throats” permitted them to have their throats sprayed at the infirmary where they were issued a “tardy” slip, which they had to place on a clipboard in the headmaster’s office before returning immediately to class. But the tardy slips could be doctored with a pencil, crumpled, and presented as “absent” slips; so a few Muckers were not merely tardy but altogether absent from a class or two.

Now, on this grim Monday morning, John F. Kennedy was carrying such an absent slip to the clipboard in the headmaster’s office, unaware that the balance of the Muckers Club membership was assembled within. If he was startled when he entered the room, he did not show it.

Kennedy looked extremely inquisitive, LeMoyne Billings noticed, perhaps a little amused. Carrying himself with utter confidence, the five-foot-eleven-inch, 155-pound seventeenyear-old quietly joined his friends and the headmaster.

Mr. St. John briefly summarized his knowledge and opinion of the group’s immature behavior. Then he declared that the punishment for establishing an illegal club—indeed, deliberately giving it a mocking name, which he did not care to repeat—was expulsion. He told the boys to pack their trunks immediately and make arrangements to leave Choate by the end of the day. Their parents, he added, would be notified by the school. That was all.