Reflections on American Presidents

Monday, 08 Mar 2010 05:14 PM

By Phil Brennan

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A couple of things keep reminding me that I am as old as the hills, an artifact of things long past. One is watching previews of the upcoming series "The Pacific," which shows actual combat films of United States Marines hitting beaches at places such as Iwo Jima and Tarawa.

As I watch, it dawns on me that I knew and served in non-combat assignments with some of those fresh-faced kids, and that was more than 60 years ago.

Medal of Honor winner John Basilone, hero of Guadalcanal and beautifully portrayed in the series was in my 5th division when he was killed in the beach of Iwo Jima.

Another wake-up call involves presidents of the United States. I either stood close to, knew, or served some of them who are now mere names from U.S. history to most of my fellow Americans.

How many present day Americans were around when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president? How many of those ever saw him in person? Most who could answer those questions in the affirmative are long gone.

I stood within feet of FDR in 1944 when he sat in his car and watched my regiment stage a practice landing on Aliso Beach outside of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

I was unimpressed — to my family he was always "that man" despite the fact that as governor of New York he had shown the intelligence to appoint my great uncle Phil to the state Supreme Court.

When Harry Truman once came to the Washington Navy Yard shortly after the end of World War II to board the then-presidential yacht Williamsburg, I was one of the Marine guards who escorted him to the ship.

Before boarding he smiled and nodded to us. I passed him years later when the ex-president was taking his daily walk outside the Hotel Mayflower. I saw him, but I doubt he saw me.

I did a few chores for Eisenhower when he was president, and once got royally chewed out by him because, through no fault of my own, a member of Congress who I had escorted to Gettysburg for a meeting with Ike had brought a tape recorder with him.

Ike told me in no uncertain terms that he would not go into the meeting room as long as that blankety-blank tape recorder was in the room.

That was just a few weeks after the failed attempt by Cuban refugees to take back their country from Fidel Castro and Ike was contemptuous of JFK's action during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, happily quoting Charles de Gaulle's description of JFK as "l'enfant Jacques."

I knew and worked for Dick Nixon when he was Ike's vice president and when he ran for president in 1960 and I met with him in his New York apartment on at least one occasion when he was out of office.

When a friend visiting him in New York mentioned to Nixon that I was considering a run for Congress from the Annapolis area, Nixon said that while I was "a very attractive guy," I had no chance of winning in that heavily Democratic district.

After his defeat in 1960 he came up to the Hill to visit House Republicans. During a press conference, I witnessed one instance of how things tended to go awry with Richard Nixon. I was standing behind him as he spoke from a lecturn, on the flat top of which was a glass of water.

When he gestured, he spilled the water, which ran down along the flat surface of the lecturn until it spouted off and into a sheaf of papers sticking out of his pocket and acted like a funnel. Nixon's luck!

On another occasion, I was sitting almost knee-to-knee with Nixon during a visit to his New York law office. I could not take my eyes off his nose, out of the tip of which a lone hair spouted like the horn on a rhinoceros. He must have been aware of it yet allowed it to remain. Strange man!

I first met Ronald Reagan when he was visiting Washington in 1968 on the very day of the notorious racial riots when much of downtown was ablaze. He advised me and my companions to get out of town as fast as we could. I did and I'll never forget crossing the 14th Street bridge and seeing in my car's rear view mirror Washington in flames.

His daughter, the late Maureen Reagan worked for me in Washington when her dad was California governor, and years later, when I met with him during a national governor's conference in Palm Beach, he apologized to me for taking her away from me after she caused a problem for him during a primary in a southern state.

My kids have never forgotten when Maureen came to visit us in Annapolis and sang "Danny Boy" while I accompanied her on the organ. She had the voice of an angel. My relations with the family continued when for three years, I wrote a column with Maureen's brother Michael.

I met George H.W. Bush at an Orlando, Florida GOP conference when he was running for the GOP nomination in 1980. I never met or even saw his son in person.

Needless to say, I never met, or even wanted to meet, President Barack Obama. And I may not be around when Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin beats him to a pulp in 2012.

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