"Our high school reunion," someone called it. Nearly 200 men and women who had served on the White House staff during the Eisenhower Administration gathered on Saturday to tell the old stories and laugh at the quaint photographs and to declare, over and over, that there has never been a White House staff since to match theirs for warmth and efficiency.
Their nametags had been meticulously done by the White House calligrapher of that era, Myra Boland. Their 25-year-old IKE buttons were newly polished.
"There're a few more gray hairs on Stephen Hess," observed Maxwell Rabb as the former special assistant passed by. Rabb, who was secretary to the Cabinet, is by now also the father of a White House alumnus, his daughter Sheila Weidenfield having been press secretary to Mrs. Ford.
Harold Stassen showed up with lots more hair than he had had when he was special assistant to the president. In the souvenir yearbook given to staffers before they left in 1961, he is nearly bald. For the reunion, he was covered with brown hair.
The gathering was for staff only - no cabinet or sub-cabinet - so Arthur S. Flemming got in on the basis of the jobs he held before becoming secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. And then there was a receptionist who was surprised that anyone had remembered her enough to invite her - "I was only a typist, but I was a damn good typist." It was Nancy Hanks, later head of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The alumni, as many noted, have done well. In their 40s or 50s when they were in the White House, "many are on their second or third careers" as business executives or lawyers, said Betty Snyder, whose late husband was an assistant press secretary. Many are still in Washington; others flew in from around the country for the reunion.
One of those most startled by appearances was Ruby Youngs, a White House telephone operator, who knew everyone by voice but had never seen many of them. "When you hear voices, you form and idea of what people look like, and it's not always right," she said.
The group met for luncheon in the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, as the L'Enfant developer, Elwood R. Quesada, was one of them when he served as special one of them when he served as special assistant for aviation. Later, they went for a tour of the White House, many times altered since their day. "I had an office like a basketball court, and I loved it," said Bernard Shanley, who was appointments secretary. "They've ripped the whole place up."
"We walked in expecting to see that very large lobby with the marble floors, and it's gone," said Natalie Wilson, who was a secretary in the West Wing, which she hardly recognied. "It's quite a shock."
The reunion was planned by "some of us who met on the sidewalk," said Bradley Patterson, who was assistant secretary to the cabinet and is now at the Brookings Institution "We went through Christmas lists, Who's Who, our attics. We were all good friends with each other. Anybody who was there has this sense about it - it's like a track man who ran a very hard race. It was the golden time of your life, the time when you gave everything you had, and you never forget it."
"I think we can all agree on one thing - they were good years, said Arthur Burns, who was recently replaced as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, but who was Eisenhower's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1953 to 1956.
Rabb and Shanley and many others spoke of the "orderliness" and the absence of fierce competition, and credited President Eisenhower with setting that tone. "There was a definite sense of discipline and organization," said Rocco Siciliano, who was special assistant to the President for personnel management. "He really didn't tolerate backbiting in his staff. Everybody knew his job, and we weren't supposed to cross lines. We all knew where we fit, and that does a lot to escape rivalry."
Siciliano contrasted this with the Nixon administration, which he also served, and with what he had observed of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as a Washington lawyer who had turned down jobs from both Democratic presidents. Asked if competition kept people on their toes, he replied. "Look, I'm chairman of the board of a corporation of stockbrokers); I have 9,000 employees, and I am familiar with that theory I don't believe it."
"I don't recall over being chewed out by anyone," said Edward Beach, who was Eisenhower's naval aide and is now working on a novel about submarines, "Cold Is the Sea." "I could ." "I could always express my differences in a jocular way. And the meals at the White House mess - boy, what a barrel of fun we had."
Not everyone felt that way. "I didn't like it," said Adrienne Masterson, who had been a secretary in the Truman administration, stayed on for a year in the Eisenhower administration and then left, even though she was offered a raise if she wouldn't resign. She returned to Capitol Hill then, and is now in the real estate business.
"I found I couldn't take it. There was an openness in the Truman administration that was lacking in the Eisenhower. They were so up-tight. Maybe I was acclimated to the Democratic way of doing things, but I felt there was less of a concern for humanity in the Eisenhower time, and more concern for just getting the job done.
"It manifested itself in different ways. Like I asked my boss (Special Counsel and Appointments Secretary Thomas Stephens) about the president going to church every Sunday, and he said, 'He has to. It's expected of him. If you're president, you have to go to church.' But Truman would never have done something like that just because it was expected of him."
After the informal speeches of high ranking officials - Deputy Assistant to the President Bryce Harlow, now of Procter and Gamble; Staff Secretary Andrew Goodpaster, now commandant of West Point - Patty Herman went to the microphone.
"There's a table over there of us gals from the press office," she said. "We were the ones who typed your letter, who ran your errands, who made your phone calls. I know you'll say you couldn't have done it without us, but we're saying, and not sotto voce, YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT."
Before her story Arthur Burns reminisced about how Eisenhower had taken time out from the U-2 incident and negotiations with Khrushchev to recommend Burns for a private club. Harlow told how he had kept Eisenhower on "hold" when the former president telephoned Harlow while the current president Johnson had Harlow on the telephone and the President-elect, Nixon wanted to see him in another room.
Herman's story was about how Press Secretary James Hagerty demanded that news be torn off the ticker machine immediately when a bell rang to signify a bulletin, "but the ticker machines were located in Jim Hagerty's bathroom."
However, she went on, the press office women did as they were told, even the one who rushed to the machine, tore off the copy, and politely added to the Secertary of State. "That's all right, Mr. Dulles. Don't stand up."