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Liked By Ike …

March 2023
1min read

In the 1950s Georgetown University’s McDonough Gymnasium was the largest clean auditorium in Washington, D.C. (The Armory was larger, but it was filthy.) In the spring of 1953 the chamber of commerce held its annual banquet in the gym and invited President Eisenhower to be the principal speaker. Although campuses were relatively quiet in those days, the Secret Service treated this occasion as it would any other public appearance by the President.

The campaign for student-government elections was under way, and my friend Frank Van Steenberg was a candidate for president of the junior class. His campaign manager was Francis Murphy, a flamboyant New Yorker. Murphy thought he could use the banquet to help his man, so late in the afternoon he walked into the gym, found Eisenhower’s place at the head table, and slipped a “Frank Van Steenberg for Junior Class President” card under the grapefruit plate. Nobody objected or even paid any attention.

That night, at the beginning of his remarks, Ike said, “I find here that Frank Van Steenberg wants to be president of the junior class, and if I were one-third my age, I would vote for him—and can only hope that you who are no older will do so. I do commend this boy for his initiative,” holding up the card and joining in the laughter.

About three minutes later a troop of Secret Service agents burst into our sophomore dormitory, cursing, slamming startled students against the wall, and demanding to know the whereabouts of Frank Van Steenberg. Frank was found, he fingered Murphy, and Murphy underwent angry questioning by the flustered agents. Murphy explained that he hadn’t knowingly done anything wrong. He had just walked in and walked out, right down the main aisle. Murphy had a guilty face but true Irish fluency, so they let him go.

Despite Ike’s help, Van Steenberg lost the election. The incident, including the voting results, was written up in Time magazine.

Later we were sitting in Frank’s room, and he said, “You know, John, I didn’t really mind losing the election, but I didn’t want the whole country to know.” He never ran for office again.

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