The Ike Blog (Sept. - Oct., 2011)
THE OFFICIAL BLOG OF EISENHOWER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Among the 860 of Ike's books arrayed in the bookcases throughout the Eisenhower home, there are two in particular that provoked the General into wild fits of margin scribbling. One was Soldier of Democracy written by Kenneth Davis and published in 1945 shortly after the end of the war. It was one of the first biographies written about Eisenhower. In fact, right there on the inside cover, Ike writes:
Of the so-called biographies I've seen, this is the first that makes any serious pretense to be worthy of that classification. Others have frankly been "stories" to catch an artificial market.
It will be interesting to see how accurately this one is done - the man took about two years, I think. He stayed around my hq in Europe for a couple months.
Then on the cover page, there's an inscription by the author himself:
Dear General Eisenhower,
The book throughout is heavily notated by the General and it's interesting to see with what great facility and variety he expresses his disagreement with and disappointment in the author, page after page:
This is not to say that there aren't a few positive and agreeable comments, but Ike's critical commentary is far more numerous and noticeable. The book overall is well written and a good read… Ike's criticisms, however, are what provide all the fun and entertainment. It's all his marginalia (and what I've listed above is just a small percentage of the total) that make the volume so exceptional and enlightening for the historian.
By reading the marginalia alone you can come away with a host of different impressions about the book's subject:
That Dwight Eisenhower is a man comfortable being praised only when extolled for his modesty, who prides himself in his ability to relate to his men, who would prefer to be remembered for his common touch, who is quick to take offense to any criticism of his officers and readily offers up excuses for their questionable actions and decisions, who expects and demands precision in language and who appreciates a shrewd observation…
There's a second biography among the President's books that I've heard is almost as entertainingly notated: Patton and His Third Army. Apparently, the author has Patton almost winning the war single handedly and Ike takes issue with that interpretation, stating so accordingly throughout the book's margins. But I'll have to leave that for a future blog entry. The book currently sits behind Plexiglas in a bookcase in the President's office.
I await the curator to one day remove the Plexiglas so I can inspect it for myself.
As a kid, I was always partial to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce who led his small band of Indians through the mountains while relentlessly pursued by the American army. Undermanned and underfed, he fought a brilliant rear guard action against overwhelming numbers and superior arms. When it was impossible to continue with the women, children, and elderly of the tribe, he surrendered with dignity, uttering those poignant words, "I will fight no more forever."
I saw a bit of myself in Chief Joseph, the way I was preyed upon in fourth grade by the older Mark Rogers and his evil henchman, Weasel. In our confrontations, I would get in a couple of quick, precisely aimed punches and then dash off, spending the following couple weeks trying to evade the pair as they lay in ambush for me in the stairwell of the school or the toy aisle of the 5 & 10. I imagined coming to terms with the two, echoing Joseph's famous words. But I sensed, alas, that the line would have no effect on the insensitive twin clods.
When I first came to work at Eisenhower National Historic Site, I learned within the first month that Eisenhower's favorite movie was Angels in the Outfield. It's a b&w, 1951 film about this last place major league team - I think it was the Pirates - who start playing well when they are suddenly assisted by angels that only one fan, this little girl, can actually see. Neither the players nor the viewers ever see the angels. The manager is a gruff, disillusioned guy who only very slowly begins to believe in the presence of the angels. For some reason, during the World Series at the end of the movie, the angels leave and the team is forced to rely on themselves to win.
In 1994, Disney came up with a remake set in LA. It's nowhere as good as the original because the angels this time are clearly visible to the movie goer. That totally detracts from the enchantment of the film.
That "Angels" was Ike's favorite movie impressed me. Because that was always my favorite movie growing up. I loved Angels in the Outfield. I never saw it at the theater and, of course, there was no such thing as watching it on video back then. But I constantly scoured the three TV channels every Saturday and Sunday afternoon hoping to find it playing and was in absolute ecstasy when lucky enough to come upon it. I was passionate about baseball, was a devoted fan of the perennially last place Chicago Cubs, and always had a soft spot in my heart for the underdog.. So this movie was right up my alley.
I never knew anyone before who had even seen Angels in the Outfield let alone loved it. And then along came Ike.
Our mutual love of "Angels" has forged between Ike and me a cosmic connection. He may frustrate me in his reluctance to denounce McCarthy, in his hesitance to support school desegregation, in his resistance to endorse a moderate Republican candidate in 1964… But we will always have "Angels."
The statue isn't a bad likeness of Ike. He's leaning against a stone wall, fedora in hand, looking a bit taller and hairier than he was in real life.
This year's wreath laying is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, the day after Ike's birthday, at 11:00 a.m. It will be followed by a luncheon at 12:15 p.m. at the Dobbin House with author Peter Carlson as guest speaker.
Mr. Carlson is author of K Blows Top, an entertaining look at Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's visit to America in September of 1959. The book details Khrushchev's grand tour across America, his summit with Eisenhower at Camp David, and the day the two spent together at the President's Gettysburg farm.
The most memorable part of the visit was the Premier's grand tour. Mr. Carlson relates all of K's on-the-road adventures: his hobnobbing with bigwig capitalists at Averell Harriman's Manhattan penthouse, lunching with movie stars in Hollywood, meeting Marilyn Monroe, raging about being denied a visit to Disneyland, berating the press in San Francisco, touring an Iowa farm and Pittsburgh steel mill…
The visit aroused hope around the world that this was possibly the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Sadly though, it led only to bitter disappointment.
The wreath laying and luncheon are open to the public. Tickets for the luncheon are still available. Call (717) 334-2100 and ask for Chris for more information.
In our efforts to achieve historical accuracy, there are things that we of course have no control over. Most obviously lately, it's the weather. The past couple months we've endured weather in Gettysburg that is far beyond anything Ike would have experienced here in his time.
This spring we had an incredible amount of rain, so much that the farmers got their planting in several weeks late. Then we had a summer plagued by drought and record heat. This was indeed unfortunate, but nothing too much out of the ordinary.
But then with the end of August came the earthquake. To suddenly feel his house swaying while sitting on the sun porch sipping a highball is one experience surely forever denied the President….
I was sitting upstairs in our HQ building, a pre-Civil War farmhouse once occupied by Eisenhower's head herdsman, when the quake hit. I was just about to ask the ranger downstairs why he was screaming like a little girl, when I felt it. The house was rocking! And as it rocked I could see out the window forty crew members of the USS Eisenhower walking past a mere 10 feet away. Curiously, they were totally oblivious to the earth quaking at that very moment beneath their feet. And that's the way it was. If you were outside, chances are you didn't feel a thing. If you were inside though, WOW! Not so impressive if you're a Californian perhaps. But, if an easterner born and raised, it was an experience of a lifetime. Those I've talked to who were outside when it hit have all expressed disappointment for having missed out on the ride.
The USS Eisenhower crew was here at the site to do volunteer work. However, they had to rush back to Norfolk the following day to get their ship out of the path of Hurricane Irene. So just a few days after the earthquake, the hurricane blew through. And then a week later, it was Tropical Storm Lee with more intense rains and floods.
Gettysburg didn't fare too badly during both those water logging episodes, but then another week later on a Wednesday night there was a severe thunderstorm with an incredible night-long lightening display that brought down trees everywhere including a huge catalpa along the trail from the Eisenhower home to Farm 2.
Our biggest event of the year was scheduled for that upcoming Saturday and Sunday - World War II Weekend. We were to have 450 living historians portraying WWII troops encamped in the pasture behind the Eisenhower home. The tremendous amount of rain of the previous couple weeks had us concerned about the condition of the fields, but by Wed. afternoon we thought we were going to make out okay. The grounds had sufficiently dried enough to proceed according to plan. But then came that Wednesday night storm.
So much for visitor parking in the fields - they all had to come out via shuttle buses. The reenactors still bravely set up their encampments, but the pasture quickly transformed into a big mud hole - reenactor vehicles getting stuck time and time again. Fortunately, one of the units had a WWII half track which they used to pull everyone out of the ever thickening muck. Visitors came nevertheless, pouring off the buses and happily trudging through the mud to experience the Second World War.
A week and a half later there was the big Friday flood. Roads and buildings were flooded throughout town. Water was knee deep around the college. Eisenhower HQ was surrounded by rising water making access in or out impossible. Fences washed away. The Eisenhower home basement and employee break room were flooded. The big stockpile of posts maintenance had sitting by the skeet range in preparation for upcoming fence replacement were spotted floating down the driveway never to be seen again.
There was flooding again the following Tuesday.
Drought, floods, hurricane, and earthquake - cumulatively, far beyond anything Ike experienced. Yet, you never could quite lose sight of how fortunate we've been compared to other parts of the country where they've suffered such a devastating array of tornadoes, tropical storms, epic droughts, flooding, and wildfires…
You can't help but complain. All in all though, here in Gettysburg we've been luckier than many. And we've had five days of sunshine in a row now. However, more bad weather may be on the way. Self professed, well-informed sources have confided in me that weather experts anticipate record snow fall in Gettysburg. In October.
This Sputnik came as a big surprise to Ike and the entire country. But what also caught Ike by surprise was America's reaction. He totally miscalculated the intensity of the nation's concern. The American press, public and politicians responded to the Russian's small ball with near hysteria.
Sputnik put into question all of the nation's assumptions - that the USA was the best educated, most powerful and advanced country in the world. It was apparent now we were no longer NO.1 in science and missiles and technology. Sputnik was a humiliation for the US and a victory for communism. America's prestige was now irreparably damaged throughout the world.
It was suddenly clear to most Americans that the Soviets now possessed the ability to deliver nuclear warhead bearing missiles anywhere in the world. In no time, they would be capable of arming satellites with nuclear weapons. Sputnik was probably loaded with sophisticated spying equipment that was, at that very moment, monitoring and measuring how far the US had fallen behind in missile and weapons development.
For three months, Sputnik passed continually over the US. Americans could stand in their back yards and watch it speed across the night sky. NBC televised its passing. For 23 days it sent out radio signals, the beeps picked up by amateur radio operators around the world.
But Ike remained composed and seemed almost cavalier when addressing the country's concerns. Sputnik weighed less than 200 pounds. He assured the country it posed no threat to America's security or prestige. It didn't carry scientific equipment or military weapons. Americans could rest assured that Russia did not now nor would in the near future come close to possessing the capability of hurling missiles into America's backyard. And, American scientists were in the midst of preparing America's own satellite launch.
His composure was a miscalculation however - a misreading of the nation's mood. His Gallup poll ratings tumbled as the public demanded of him a concerted and all encompassing response including an increase in defense spending, additional funding for science education, and, of course, redemption -a prompt launching of our own satellite.
In November, the Soviets launched a second Sputnik. This one 1118 pounds and occupied by a female Samoyed terrier named Laika. A month later, to great fanfare, the US finally launched its first satellite aboard a Vanguard rocket. It rose two feet, exploded into a fireball, and toppled over. It wasn't until January 31, 1958 that the US managed to successfully send the 31 pound Explorer I into orbit.
Ultimately, Ike did successfully combat the relentless pressure to exorbitantly raise defense spending. But Sputnik did prompt him to appoint the first presidential science advisor, to sign the National Defense Education Act mandating federal funding for science and math education, and to establish a civilian space agency - NASA.
By the time Eisenhower left office, the Soviets were already landing probes on the moon. And the country was plagued by a rash of UFO sightings.
While Ike remained calm and collected in his response to the space race, President Kennedy saw it as an issue with which to rile up and inspire the country. He proclaimed a race to land a man on the moon and expressed complete confidence that America was up to the challenge.
Ike didn't approve. He saw the grand pronouncement as merely an expensive - a very expensive - publicity stunt.
America won that race on July 20, 1969. The press didn't have the chance to solicit Ike for his reaction. Sadly, he had died just four months before.
On September 24, 1955, President Eisenhower suffered his first heart attack. It came about during a visit to the in-laws.
The President and First Lady were paying a visit to Mamie's parents in Denver, CO. The day before, Ike had played a round of golf. At 1:30 am on the 24th, he awoke with chest pains. It wasn't until he reawakened at noon, that the pains were diagnosed as a heart attack. The President was rushed to Fitzsimons Army Hospital where he would remain for the next seven weeks.
The President was initially put in an oxygen tent. He was in pain, but conscious and cogent. Still, he was surrounded by panic and turmoil and in the midst of it felt he must come to a decision. How much in the way of details about his heart attack should be revealed to the public? Ike vied for full disclosure. That day and on a regular basis thereafter press conferences were conducted to keep the media abreast of Ike's condition and progress.
A fascinating documentation of Ike's heart attack and long recovery is provided by the medical diary of the President's doctor, Howard Snyder. It details Eisenhower's daily activities from heart attack to the end of his presidency. If you want to determine where Ike was on a particular day, what he was doing, who he was meeting with, what he ate, how many scotches he downed, what his mood was, what movie he watched, how many rounds of golf he played, you can consult the medical diaries.
The heart attack was the source of great consternation among Americans. First of all, they were concerned for Ike's personal well being. But they were also worried about the country. Now that the President was out of commission and the country was seemingly rudderless, might this not be an ideal opportunity for our enemies to attack us? Fortunately for the nation, it worked out to be a very opportune time for the President to suffer a heart attack. We were conveniently in between Cold War crises. The Korean War had ended, the Chinese had stopped bombing the Formosan islands and the Hungarian revolution, the Suez crisis, the Berlin crisis, the U-2 crisis hadn't erupted yet. It was fortunate timing for the President as well - it was too early to be worried about hitting the campaign trail for the 56 election.
Many Americans were also troubled by the consequences that would likely result from the President's death. For one, Vice President Nixon would become President. Some found the prospect disconcerting. Many had little confidence in the young Nixon's ability to lead the country.
The White House staff had a further concern. So what do we do if the President survives, yet remains incapacitated? There was no legislation or amendment dictating that the vice president would take over under such a circumstance. The 25th amendment which finally addressed the issue wouldn't be ratified until 1967.
After his long stint at Fitzsimons, Ike finally made his way in November to his Gettysburg home to continue his recovery. He returned to the White House during the holidays.
Throughout his recuperation, Ike was proud of how well the White House ran without him. The Vice President and Cabinet ran it as a committee with Chief of Staff Sherman Adams serving as liaison between Ike and his staff. Ike saw its undisrupted efficiency as a testament to how well he had organized the White House. The press saw it differently, however - as an illustration of how superfluous Ike was to White House operations.
Upon his return to Washington, one question remained unanswered for months to come. Would Ike be well enough to run for reelection? Of course he would be, and clobbered Democrat Adlai Stevenson once again in 56.
But it wasn't only because of Ike's heart attack that Sept. 24 was viewed as such a fateful day by the Eisenhowers. Sept. 24 was the eve of the stroke that would lead to Mamie's death in 1979. But most significantly, it was the date Ike and Mamie's first son was born. A joyous event, but one soon associated with tragedy when "Ikky" died at the age of three of scarlet fever during the Christmas holidays of 1920-21.
It was on Sept. 24 every year that Ike would give Mamie a bouquet of yellow roses. Because yellow had been Ikky's favorite color.
Ike Blog: Mike, why don't we start by having you give us a rundown of your NPS career to this point.
M. Florer: My first NPS position was as a museum tech at Bent's Old Fort NHS in La Junta, Colorado and from there I went on to work as a museum specialist at Longfellow NHS in Cambridge, MA. I have been curator at Eisenhower NHS since 1998.
Where did you get your degree?
University of Nebraska - a masters in museum studies.
Of your curatorial duties here at the Eisenhower Farm, what are your least favorite?
Conducting the annual inventory of museum property. That's why I delegate it to the interns. The more valuable items in the collection are inspected every year. Random samples are taken of the rest of the collection.
And what is your favorite aspect of the job?
The variety of the work. No two days are the same. And the diversity of the collection, from Mamie's make-up to farm implements. You're delving into agriculture, decorative arts, WWI, WWII and Cold War history…
Of all your duties, what is the most time consuming?
The physical organization of the collection in storage, and the documentation - maintaining all the catalog records.
Anything about the job you find exceptionally frustrating?
There's not enough good, quality storage for items not on exhibit. We have larger artifacts, like vehicles, in three different barns and in each we have problems with pigeons, raccoons, groundhogs, and mice.
What sort of undesirable projects have you felt guilty assigning to interns?
Emptying and cleaning out wine bottles in the wine cellar. Corks had dried out on many of the bottles and the wine had gone bad and was pretty foul smelling. Then there was cleaning out some of the food containers in the Eisenhowers' kitchen cabinets. Some were still full of pickled watermelon rind and sandwich spread… One summer we had an intern marking catalog numbers on box loads of clay pigeons that had been stockpiled for the President's skeet range. He sat up in the second floor of the show barn and marked each clay pigeon individually. And there were hundreds and hundreds.
If you had an unlimited budget, how would you like to spend it?
Build more storage and construct our own visitor center and museum. And have the entire collection cataloged, photographed and made available on the internet. Then I can retire.
How many items are there in the collection?
What are some of your favorite pieces?
The Persian carpet from the Shah of Iran. A handmade end table in the guest house made from ten different varieties of wood. A kid's Ford Regence pedal car with operational headlights we found on top of the meat locker in the garage. And the Chrysler Imperial Presidential limousine donated this year.
What are the most unusual pieces in the collection?
Two x-rays of Mamie's chest showing an enlarged heart and a previously broken rib, Ike's t-shirt with blood on the collar, a prescription bottle of tri-biotic powder to be applied to the forehead, and a big boat anchor found in the barn.
What are some of the more interesting items that aren't on exhibit and visitors don't get to see?
Mamie' raincoat with the same toile pattern that the drapes in the sitting room are made from.
Are there some intriguing pieces in the home that visitors typically overlook?
The two big curio cabinets in the living room that were gifts from the White House carpenters. Visitors only notice what's inside the cabinets.
Working with the Eisenhowers' belongings on a daily basis as you do, what is it they reflect about the Eisenhowers that particularly impresses you?
That the Eisenhowers were very typical of their time and embraced all the latest fads of the 50s -60s. That they had a sense of humor. And that the President's paintings, especially his landscapes, were pretty good even though he was always very modest about his artistic talents.
Ideally, where would you like to work next?
I have no plans to leave, but: the Biltmore or Vanderbilt Mansion, Yellowstone NP - they have the Museum of the National Park Ranger and an extensive and varied collection, any Frank Lloyd Wright House, or Sagamore Hill - I like Teddy Roosevelt.
You recently got married. Has that affected how you view your role as curator or how you see the Eisenhowers?
I have a better sense of the Eisenhowers as a couple.
Mrs. Eisenhower once commented about her husband that "there was going to be one star in the heavens and he (Ike) was to be it." Do you ever find yourself quoting those lines to your wife and marveling to her how sensible the First Lady seemed to be?
Let's just say times have changed.
They and others will be sharing their World War II experiences this Saturday and Sunday, September 17 and 18, at the 18th annual World War II Weekend at Eisenhower National Historic Site. Every third weekend in September, veterans and victims come to the General's farm to recall the despair, the glory, the horror, and the heroism of the Second World War.
Roscoe Mulvey will be there this weekend to recall how he fought with the 53rd Armored Infantry Battalion in France, Belgium, and Germany. As well as Carl Constein who piloted US Army cargo planes over the "Hump" of the Himalayas. And Walter Mattson, a B-24 pilot who flew 35 combat missions. And William Kuhn, wounded while advancing through Germany just 12 days before the war in Europe ended.
These men follow in the footsteps of many others: tail gunners, US Navy submarine officers, Army nurses, Luftwaffe pilots, marines who fought on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, medics who landed on Omaha Beach, members of the Band of Brothers, and men who served with the Greek underground, survived the Bataan Death March, and made daring escapes from POW camps. All have volunteered in years past to come out to the home of the Allied Supreme Commander in order to relive not only their own experiences but to share those of their good friends and fellow soldiers, many of whom did not survive the war.
World War II living history units will be encamped at the President's farm each day, demonstrating their knowledge and expertise of weapons, equipment, communications, military vehicles, and life of the common soldier. American, British, Canadian, and German units will be represented as well as two Soviet Army infantry divisions, the 1st Polish Armored Division (who fought under Ike's command and played a crucial role in the battle of the Falaise Pocket), and the Belgian SAS (who were involved in covert operations).
Visitors will have the opportunity to inspect a field hospital operation, join in on an Army Air Force bomber squadron mission briefing, and get a taste of life on the home front viewing a 1940s fashion show. Free guided walks of the Soldier's National Cemetery will be offered, highlighting the stories of some of the 400 WWII soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen laid to rest there.
Join us this weekend, Sept. 17th and 18th, in remembering the men and women who endured the sacrifices, suffered the horrors, and served with courage in the Second World War.
And in remembering as well, the Gettysburg farmer who as Supreme Commander led the Allies to victory.
See the WWII Weekend Press Release for more information.
MacArthur initiated the idea of having Philippine President Quezon "crown" him Field Marshal of the Philippine Army and designed for himself a shark skin uniform for the grand ceremony. Then a year or so later, Mac planned to bring all the Philippine's military units into Manila from every corner of the islands for a four day grand encampment accumulating in a magnificent parade through the city. Eisenhower and even the Filipino president were aghast at how much the affair would cost and how virtually unaffordable it would be. Both incidents were a source of major contention between the two, Eisenhower arguing that both were crass and rather ludicrous exercises in excess. MacArthur in turn expressing confidence that both were great PR opportunities for the soon to be independent nation and its new army, not to mention himself
"Probably no one has had more tougher fights with a senior than I had with MacArthur. I told him time and again, 'Why don't you just fire me!'
By 1941, Ike had been sent to Washington again to be put in charge of the Philippines and Far East Section of the War Plans Division. His job was to get supplies and reinforcements to MacArthur and save the Philippines. But rapid Japanese advances through the Pacific made defending the islands virtually impossible. MacArthur would have to hold on as long as possible with what few troops and supplies he had. MacArthur blamed Eisenhower in part for what he interpreted as an egregious lack of support and continually demanded that the Navy be ordered to break the Japanese blockade.
After the war, the two clashed again. Ike by now was Chief of Staff, MacArthur Supreme Allied Commander of Japan overseeing the occupation. Eisenhower was trying to slow down demobilization - a very unpopular policy among the troops as well as the folks back home. But President Truman along with Eisenhower feared that rapid downsizing of the Army would make occupation efforts difficult and would find us ill prepared to face the growing threat of the Soviet Union. MacArthur undermined those efforts by announcing he was stepping up the pace of discharges in the Pacific Theatre. He promised Eisenhower, however, that he would make a public statement supporting a continuation of the draft and a unification of the armed services. He never did. To do so wasn't politically expedient. He was concerned with courting favor with the American public. Seemingly, he was grooming himself to be a presidential candidate.
But it was to be Eisenhower that was courted by both parties to seek a presidential nomination. Stephen Ambrose and others have pointed out the irony. MacArthur, "the most political of generals" who desperately wanted to be president, never came close to securing a nomination. Eisenhower, who never had any interest in pursuing politics, won two presidential elections in landslides.
Mac and Ike were a contrast in personalities and such a sharp contrast couldn't help but incite differences between the two. Despite disparate styles, they were both incredibly effective and successful military leaders. But It was to be the straight forward, down-to-earth Kansan that the voting public favored over the blustery, melodramatic patrician.
MacArthur was the antithesis of Eisenhower, everything Eisenhower was not and had no desire to be: flamboyant, politically ambitious, theatrical, self aggrandizing. He was a man who, Ike noted, referred to himself in the third person, conversed in monologues, and "spoke and wrote in purple splendor." "I studied dramatics with MacArthur," Ike once commented.
MacArthur in turn said that Ike was a good clerk and the apotheosis of mediocrity.
What especially drove Eisenhower crazy was MacArthur's vanity. It was clearly evident to Ike that MacArthur's underlying motive for every action was self promotion.
But Ike also acknowledged that MacArthur was a fine general and that he learned a great deal serving under him. "He did have a hell of an intellect. My God, but he was smart!" Ike once exclaimed in an interview. "Decisive, personable, amazingly comprehensive in his knowledge…"
Eisenhower worked closely and/or butted heads with MacArthur at several stages throughout his military career. And each of those experiences remained vividly etched In Eisenhower's memory.
Ike and Mac's first commingling came about in Washington in the fall of 1930. Ike was already assigned to the office of the Assistant Secretary of War when MacArthur arrived in Washington having been appointed the new chief of staff. Mac soon became impressed with Eisenhower's work and began to utilize him as a personal assistant. Ike's most unforgettable experience with Mac in Washington occurred the night of July 28, 1932 when the army routed the Bonus Marchers.
The Bonus Marchers were made up of mostly unemployed WWI veterans who had descended upon Washington to demand the bonuses they were promised for their war time service. They were a rag tag, ill fed bunch who had occupied abandoned Treasury Dept. buildings on Pennsylvania Ave. and erected a shanty town on Anacostia Flats. President Hoover wanted the veterans evicted and finally ordered the army to do so on July 28. To Eisenhower's dismay, MacArthur insisted on showing up adorned in dress coat and medals, riding breeches and spurs to lead his troops. And he ordered Ike to accompany him in uniform.
While MacArthur saw it as a grand opportunity to display himself at the head of his army saving the nation's capital from a revolutionary, communist-led mob, Eisenhower saw it as a shameful, embarrassing and blustering overreaction, too demeaning for a chief of staff's personal involvement.
The Army routed the veterans and the public saw it as Eisenhower did - unwarranted and heartless. It was a public relations fiasco for MacArthur and the Army. But Eisenhower never blamed nor criticized his boss publicly. (To be continued)
When you portray a Secret Service agent at Eisenhower NHS, many visitors presume you are an actual agent currently assigned to the Farm. That presumption leads some to inquire why the government is wasting money assigning an agent to the President's farm when the President has been dead for 40 years.
Ideally, to alleviate any potential confusion, it's good to have a uniformed employee or even the shuttle bus driver available to warn visitors prior to your appearance that you are actually an actor portraying an agent in the year 1959. Staffing seldom allows for that luxury, so it's up to you to somehow set the stage for yourself while remaining in character:
"Good afternoon, folks. The President welcomes you to his Gettysburg Farm. I am Special Agent, James Olsen, U.S. Secret Service. The President and First Lady apologize for being unavailable at the moment, but I have been assigned to provide you with a tour of the grounds and to escort you to the house. Be advised, from this point on while in my presence the year is 1959, Oct 1, 1959. The President is in his final two years of his second term, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev just visited the farm several days ago, those darn NY Yankees for once didn't win the pennant, and all you kids are most likely big Elvis fans. It's 1959, so please humor me and don't try to confuse me by insisting otherwise."
The highlight of doing Secret Service living history is the opportunity it provides to regale the public with stories about "your" experiences and those of your fellow agents. Even more entertaining are the exchanges you occasionally have with actual retired agents. They enjoy seeing themselves portrayed and are surprised at how much interest their old job generates among visitors. They willingly offer tips for a more authentic portrayal and sometimes even share some of their own stories. My favorite was one shared by an agent who went on to work on Nixon's retirement detail:
The retired agent recalled that he was with the former president in a restaurant one evening when a lady walked up to Nixon and commented, "You look just like Richard Nixon!" Nixon's response was, "Madam, I don't look anything like that son of a gun." Although he didn't say "gun." The lady's eyes grew wide, but then she realized it really was Richard Nixon and she and the former president had a good laugh. The agent said Nixon had one wicked sense of humor. But unfortunately, no one knew that about him. He certainly would have fared much better with the public had they been aware he possessed a lighter side and didn't always take himself so seriously.
There are equally as revealing stories about Eisenhower shared by agents in the NPS interviews. When researching your role, the stories are at your disposal. In my portrayal as James Olsen, most of them became part of my repertoire. There was one in particular I was fond of for it revealed both how endearingly normal the Eisenhowers were and how well the agents got to know them:
An agent was with the Eisenhowers one evening as they waited in front of their house for the limousine to pick them up. The President reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple mints. He always had a pile of mints in his pocket. He gave one to the agent, unwrapped the other, and popped it in his mouth. The agent then noticed the President glance over at the First Lady… When he seemed to have assured himself that his wife was looking off in the other direction, he promptly tossed his wrapper under the bushes beside the front door.
The agent almost choked on his mint trying to keep from laughing. The President was like a little kid trying to get away with doing something when his Mom's back was turned.
That agent's recollection became one of several that Special Agent James Olsen adopted as his own.
I miss being Agent James Olsen. Except for the haircut. And except for those weeks in July when the temperature soared into the 100s. Better a gray and green polyester uniform and straw hat than a dark suit coat and tie with a shoulder holster creating a big brown sweat stain across a white dress shirt.
Years back when funding was available, I was assigned a living history role - to portray a Secret Service agent. I was dressed in typical 1950s Secret Service attire - dark suit coat and tie, sunglasses, and equipped with a 38 in a shoulder holster, a clunky radio, and a Special Agent ID. Throughout the day I would interact with visitors on site as James Olsen, special agent assigned to the Eisenhower presidential detail. James Olsen was a fictitious character but was based on an amalgam of several agents who actually worked on the Eisenhower detail.
I had a lot of great material to work with. Over the years, the NPS has conducted quite a few interviews with retired agents who worked on the Eisenhower detail. The interviews provide the staff here with a wealth of information about operations on the farm and of anecdotes detailing the agents' relationship with the Eisenhower family. I conducted grounds tours in character, interacted with kids doing the Junior Secret Service program, and gave several talks each day about the Secret Service protection services on the Farm during the presidential and retirement years. And I never came close to running out of stories and info to share.
There are certainly disadvantages to doing living history, however. One typically is discomfort. Sporting a dark suit coat, tie, and shoulder holster through the course of an 8 hour day in the middle of summer is fairly sweat-inducing. But hey, if civil war reenactors can put up with carrying all that gear while in a heavy wool uniform, a Secret Service reenactor should be able to man up and endure as well.
For me, the most unfortunate aspect inherent in portraying an agent was the haircut. My hair is normally long, but when portraying a 50s agent I obviously had to keep it cut short - a sacrifice I dutifully suffered for my art. My hair did not adapt well to shortness and tended to sprout from the crown of my head like porcupine quills that required a thick swath of hair grease to keep plastered in place.
Then there's the challenge faced by all living historians when doing a first person portrayal - how do you persistently remain in character? It's not easy when you're supposed to be an agent protecting the president in 1959 and visitors pose questions like, "What year did the President die?" One way I might respond to such an inquiry without totally compromising my role would be something like: "The President's dead? That's not possible, ma'am. I just saw him taking a few putts on the green 30 minutes ago. If he were to die at some point though, I'd speculate, considering the present condition of his health and barring any unfortunate accidents, that it might be around March 28, 1969."
Your character learns to become uncannily prescient.
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Did You Know?
President Eisenhower considered the establishment of the Interstate Highway system to be one of his proudest accomplishments. He had advocated the building of an interstate system ever since spending two months driving coast to coast in a US Army truck convoy in 1919.