Starling of the White House

I’ve had a hard time this year finding books that seem interesting to me. I’m not sure why… says more about me than about the books…

But recently I’ve found a delightful read: Starling of the White House: The Story of the Man Whose Secret Service Detail Guarded Five Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s the memoir of Colonel Edmund W. Starling, a Kentucky law enforcement official who ended up in the Secret Service and became a confidant of presidents. Though he kept no diary, he wrote his mother faithfully—one letter every day—and these 11,000 letters became a record on which the book is based.

It’s filled with the most unexpected and comical scenes from behind closed doors, with personal glimpses at how the presidents dealt with the pressures of their offices as well as with the crises of the time, like World War I and the Great Depression.

Starling wote that when When Woodrow Wilson was running for a second term, he faced a formidable challenge in his Republican opponent, Charles Hughes. Wilson’s chief-of-staff, J.P. Tumulty, was “worried and morose. “And the President would have been worried too,” wrote Starling, “had he not been trained, as I was, in the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination. He was completely calm, having decided that he had done his best to fill the job and his future in it was in the hands of God and the people” (p. 75).

Wilson did win reelection, and some time afterward was staying in New York at the Waldorf Astoria. Starling wrote that in the late afternoon the President appeared at the door and said, “Starling, I want to slip out and stretch myself. Can I sneak out the back way? I am tired of policemen and preparations. I want to take a walk like an ordinary citizen.”

“All right, Mr. President, go to it. I don’t blame you. I can take care of you, but you know that more than one Secret Service man is supposed to accompany you.”

Starling later recounted: “Well, we walked, talked, and laughed. He was like a kid, and he ran out in the middle of Madison Avenue ahead of a big (truck), I right after him. An automobile was headed straight toward him. I grabbed his arm and jerked him back. One other Secret Service man finally caught up with us. We got back in about an hour, and then lost our way to the hotel” (p. 110).

One day when Calvin Coolidge was President, as he and Starling were walking, they came across the stand of the White House peanut vendor. Coolidge sniffed at the roasting chestnuts, stopped, and put his hand into his pocket. It came out empty.

“Colonel,” he said, “can you lend me ten?”

“Ten dollars?” I said, reaching for my wallet.

“No,” he said, “Ten cents.”

I gave him a dime and he bought the chestnuts. Some time after our return to the White House the elevator operator brought me an envelope. Inside was a dime.”

Here’s one last story (and a great sermon illustration) about Coolidge, whose presidency was marred by the tragic death of his young son who was injured on the White House tennis court. Starling wrote:

Very early one morning when I came to the White House I saw a small boy standing at the fence, his face pressed against the iron railings. I asked him what he was doing up so early. He looked up at me, his eyes large and round and said.

“I thought I might see the President,” he said. “I heard that he gets up early and takes a walk. I wanted to tell him how sorry I am that his little boy died.”

“Come with me, I’ll take you to the President,” I said.

He took my hand and we walked into the grounds. In a few minutes the President came out and I presented the boy to him. The youngster was overwhelmed with awe and could not deliver his message, so I did it for him.

The President had a difficult time controlling his emotions. When the lad had gone and we were walking through Lafayette Park he said to me, “Colonel, whenever a boy wants to see me always bring him in. Never turn one away or make him wait.”