Summer News Coverage: Usual Fare for First Families

The White House

Here are just a few of the news stories involving the president and his family over the course of the summer:
• In June the president assured the American public that the vaccination schedule would be resumed for the youngsters who needed to be top priority.
• Later that month the press picked up on a stray comment the president made and queried him about whether he planned to run for another term.
• In July he and his family relished a weekend away from Washington.
• In August the president was looking forward to a fishing trip to Colorado. Once there, national events pulled him away; he interrupted his vacation for an emergency visit to six northeastern states that had suffered massive flooding.
• In late August the Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether the president should be on vacation “given the state of the country.” And if he did deserve some time off, had he selected an appropriate spot for his vacation?

But these stories were not about President Barack Obama. They were about President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the summer of 1955.

The vaccination program of the time was a life-altering one: Eisenhower was announcing the resumption of the program dispensing the polio vaccine. The campaign to vaccinate 9 million youngsters that spring was organized single-handed by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes), without government aid. The program was halted temporarily when one of the three laboratories approved to prepare the vaccine had not followed protocol, causing a problem with the vaccine.

The Democrats attacked the Republican administration for inadequate testing of the vaccine, but of course, the irony of this can be understood in hindsight. The vaccine program halted a devastating and previously unstoppable epidemic that was leaving mostly children but also some adults temporarily or permanently paralyzed. The problem with the vaccine was eventually traced to a single source, Cutter Laboratories, which had deviated from the manufacturing methods originally used for the clinical trials.

Ike to Run Again?
The press pounced on an isolated comment Eisenhower made when visiting New Hampshire in June. This set the press on the trail of whether he intended to leave office at the end of his first term. A reporter trying to pry information out of him noted that the people of New England seemed to like him and would want him to run for a second term. Eisenhower replied: “Of course, you possibly saw my friends along the roads, and we don’t know who was behind in the alleys.”

While Barack Obama has been permitted to keep his Blackberry if he agreed to limit those who had his contact information, Dwight Eisenhower was permitted a small plane. On the July weekend he spent away from Washington, he was at his farm in Gettysburg and proudly showed his wife, Mamie, his new two-engine craft, an Aero Commander, which brought him from Washington to Gettysburg. “The craft carries only the President and a Secret Service agent, together with the pilot and co-pilot.” (NYT, 7-9-55)

Eisenhower’s visit to Colorado began with a stay at his mother-in-law’s house in Denver. While there, he golfed at the Cherry Hills Country Club, where it was noted that he was wearing a “Truman” shirt: “a gaudy blue and watermelon-red sports shirt reminiscent of former President Truman’s summer styles…” wrote Russell Baker for the New York Times (8-16-55). “…the shirt’s red and blue glowed in an irregular, liquid pattern as if the two colors had run badly at the laundry.” While this kind of comment seems highly unnecessary, one has to think about the amount of television time and printer’s ink that has been given to President Obama when the press caught him body-surfing in the ocean, shirtless, in only his swimming trunks.

On August 22, reporter Baker notes that Eisenhower had called for the public to pitch in and donate aid to those affected by a devastating storm. Eisenhower was going to be flown to inspect the flooded areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

On August 19th the press was invited to a “ranch hideaway” in Colorado for a photo opportunity. Young David Eisenhower, age 7, was vacation with his grandparents and stole the show… Baker, the reporter on assignment for the Times, wrote that cute grandson photos far outweighed press interest in photographing Ike.

The Parties Spar Over Presidential Vacation Time
And lest we think that this was normal for a president’s schedule in the 1950s, the two parties were sparring over Eisenhower’s vacation time. Senator James E. Murray, Democrat of Montana, said yesterday it was “unfortunate” that the President “has found it necessary to devote so much time to his golf game and his Gettysburg farm.”

Senator Homer E. Capehart, Republican of Indiana denounced Democratic criticism of the president. He noted the president “can run his office as well from Gettysburg or Denver as from the White House…The American people ought to be delighted that we have a President who has learned to handle the job without ruining his health.” (8-18-55)

Like Vice President Joe Biden and his family, the Nixons receive a lot less press coverage as to their summer plans. In a short article, it was noted that on day one of his vacation, Vice President Richard M. Nixon participated in a flag raising ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and played golf at the Los Angeles Country Club. He was to be the dinner guest of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at a bachelor dinner in La Jolla, and he planned to take his two daughters to the newly-opened Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.

This article brought me full circle to the reason I was reading the news of 1955. And I concluded that if one could substitute names in the stories concerning the president and vice president, the same could not be said for Disneyland then and now.

Americans today think of Disneyland and DisneyWorld as places where very little ever goes wrong. (Or if it does, the magic people in the press department are very good at helping those stories go away). That same impression did not exist in 1955. When Disneyland first opened that summer, Walt and company were very busy staving off disaster after disaster. Americans should take heart…even a wonderland like the Magic Kingdom began with a bumpy start, which they beautifully overcame.

If you’d like to read about what I learned, it’s in American Snapshots, my free monthly e-letter.  You can sign up to receive the newsletter on the Home Page.

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