Trump Repeats: Nixon, Nazis, Gurney’s and the Origin of ‘Hail to the Chief’

Presidential podiums cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Presidential podiums cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

In Donald Trump’s first 10 days as president, he’s issued more edicts, tweets, directions complaints, work-arounds, threats, encouragements and executive orders than anyone who has ever held this office. For many people, myself included, this off-the-cuff kind of governing is frightening and potentially dangerous. But there it is. He won. Everybody else lost. There it is.

I did discover, however, from my local perspective here on the East End, that some of the things he has done have had local echoes from the past.

For instance, he fired Sally Yates, Attorney General, after she ordered her department not to defend Trump’s edict about travel and immigration. This has roots in several incidents here.

Back in the 1960s, Richard Nixon, when he was vice president, loved to come to Gurney’s Inn in Montauk with his wife and family. He came many times. He wrote the acceptance speech for his first presidential nomination on the beach at Gurney’s. After each visit, Richard and Pat wrote effusive thank you notes to Nick Monte, the owner of Gurney’s. There were half a dozen of them.

Later, when Nixon was trying to cover up his role in sending men into the Watergate building to plant bugs to eavesdrop on his opponent’s campaign headquarters in that election, he asked his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor on the case. Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused and then resigned.

Attorneys general are empowered to defend the Constitution of the United States on behalf of the president. But they serve at the pleasure of the president.

Nixon’s new acting attorney general agreed to help and dismissed the special prosecutor. But the investigation went ahead anyway and, in the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace.

As for the letters to Gurney’s from Nixon, they had been etched into brass plates and attached to wooden plaques that hung in the lobby for all to see. But now Nixon was disgraced. What to do? It was decided to take them down, and they did.

I wonder where they are today?

There is also an earlier East End connection to Donald Trump’s firing of Sally Yates.

On a June night in 1942, four Nazi saboteurs were rowed ashore in a rubber boat from a German submarine onto the beach in Amagansett. The men buried boxes of explosives they’d carried in, then took the 6:30 a.m. train to New York where one soon turned the others in to the FBI before any of them could do any harm. (He also turned in four others who’d landed on the beach in Florida.)

When the FBI went public about this “capture,” the public demanded all the saboteurs be put to death. Among those making this demand was President Roosevelt. We were at war with Germany. But he also knew, as a lawyer, that constitutionally these men—particularly two who were nationalized American citizens who had gone back to Germany to join that country’s war effort—deserved a fair trial.

“It would have been best,” he told an aide, “if they had been shot on the beach.” But they hadn’t been.

A trial might take two years, and then what were they guilty of? Plotting to do something they never carried out? Roosevelt wanted none of it. He wanted them killed, and quickly. His attorney general, the defender of the Constitution, was attorney Francis Biddle, and President Roosevelt called him into his office.

He told Biddle he wanted them killed, within weeks, if possible. He famously said to Biddle, “I want one thing made perfectly clear. I will never hand these men over to you with a demand for habeas corpus.”

Roosevelt ordered Biddle to find a way to “legally” allow him to kill these people within weeks. Biddle knew there wasn’t any way. He might have resigned.

But he didn’t. Since it was wartime, Biddle crafted a speech in which Roosevelt could, by executive order, create a “Presidential Commission” that would gather facts, then after two weeks, give Roosevelt, as president and commander in chief, a recommendation on what they thought ought to be done with them. (For example, kill them.)

That happened. And guess who Roosevelt ordered to be prosecutor at these hearings? Biddle. This would turn the Constitution upside down. Nevertheless Biddle did it. Just six weeks after the landings, six saboteurs (including one of the U.S. citizens) went to the electric chair. As for the other two, Biddle had asked they be spared. Roosevelt did so. They got long prison terms.

* * *

Did you ever think that this man, Donald Trump, would, whenever he went off on official business, be greeted by a small Marine Corps band that went on ahead of him and upon his arrival would play “Hail to the Chief” as he entered a room? Quite a thought, that. Can’t Donald Trump finally realize he’s President of the United States and not just a deserving (or undeserving) wannabe? A “Hail to the Chief” might just settle him down. Maybe.

Did you know that “Hail to the Chief” gets played because a first lady in the 1840s decided it should be? This was Julia Gardiner Tyler, who was raised in East Hampton,
attended the Clinton Academy and lived in a stone house on Main Street before getting married to John Tyler, the sitting president.

Julia Gardiner, her maiden name, was a stunning 20-year-old woman when she was introduced to John Tyler. The introduction occurred at a White House reception, when her father, a prominent New York lawyer, presented his wife and children to President Tyler. Tyler was married at the time, and his wife, Leticia, was in the White House but upstairs, very sick. Tyler was struck by the beauty of Julia, and six months after his wife’s death he called upon her for a date. He was 52. She was 22. Love bloomed. And the East Hampton Gardiners were shocked. They resisted. Even if Tyler was president. As a result, Julia and John eloped, and got married in New York with six people present.

Now Julia Gardiner, this beautiful young woman, was First Lady of the Land.

So here’s how Julia Tyler came to order “Hail to the Chief” played every time a president enters a room.

John Tyler had made a mess of his presidency. In the election of 1840, he was the Whig Party’s nominee for vice president. For president, they’d nominated William Henry Harrison, a Virginia tobacco planter who was a popular general in the Indian Wars. He’d won the battle of Tippecanoe against the Indians. The election slogan for the Whigs was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Tyler, had a tobacco plantation down the road. The two were good friends. And they won.

The inauguration was held on a very cold day and William Henry Harrison gave his powerful inaugural address from the steps of the White House without wearing an overcoat, apparently to show the world what a man he was. He caught pneumonia, and eight days later he died.

No president had ever died so fast in office before. And nobody knew quite what to do. Harrison’s cabinet declared they would rule temporarily until a new president could be elected, but Tyler told them forget it. He was vice president and now he was president, and he prevailed.

Tyler then did took political positions in his presidency that the Whigs hated. He was in favor of slavery. He was in favor of states’ rights. The Whigs wanted a strong federal government. With that, they ejected Tyler, a sitting president, from the Whig party. Thus he could never serve a second term.

Into this, after the death of the first Mrs. Tyler, came beautiful Julia. She held great parties in the White House. She had a team of white horses led by a coachman drive her around Washington in a grand royal carriage. Everybody loved her.

When her husband, the president comes in, she announced, a band should play “Hail to the Chief.” And so they did. Every time. And so they have done ever since.

Somehow I see Trump scowling and waving the band off when he goes anywhere. Anybody know if he’s keeping up with this tradition?

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