Honeymoon with the president - 21 August 1966
I suppose there will be general rejoicing, that the newly-wed Mr and Mrs Meyer Sugarman, of Glencoe, Illinois were able, last Friday night, to share their honeymoon in upstate New York with President Johnson, his accompanying regiment of aides, the White House press corps and the secret service.
I don’t believe I put that very well but you must know the story. The bride and groom had come a thousand miles to the rolling Catskill mountains in New York state and they expected, as every couple should, to have their bridal suite uninvaded when they came to shake the rice out of their shoulder blades.
They did not know that on his trip into New York, New England, and up into Canada to meet Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the President of the United States would decide to stay overnight at their very motel. Few people know ahead of time these days where the president will stay, when he’s on the hop and when he will arrive and I surely don’t need to remind you of the sad necessity for this extra secrecy.
Anyway, the Sugarman’s had heard of the Catskills, a favourite and delectable landscape for lovers and golfers, they had had their reservation confirmed. Then the White House moved in and made its discreet but all-embracing arrangements. It pre-empted, as it does, the rooms in any hotel that the president and his party mean to stay in.
Imagine the scene in rural Illinois when Mr Sugarman got a telegram from the hotel manager regretting that, because of the visit of the presidential party, his honeymoon room had been cancelled. Mr Sugarman is no trembling bachelor. He is 49, twice married, and he was very sore. He in turn, sent a telegram to the President of the United States and – imagine that scene, the president, up to his eyes in cables from Vietnam and the diplomatic pouch and aides trotting in with the latest information about the Canadian trip and calls from businessmen and his economic advisors about the federal reserve, tightening up credit, and an old friend, a senator, telling him he was going to have to have the nerve to ask for an increase in income taxes – and then somebody comes in with a special telegram. From General Westmoreland in Saigon, no doubt? No, from Myer Sugarman, of Glencoe, Illinois. It read, "My honeymoon reservation cancelled Friday, for convenience of your party. Very disturbed, please correct."
Ha! Now the president, as we lately heard at great and moving length, is very tender towards honeymoon couples. He never heard of Meyer Sugarman, but the president’s own daughter did not have her honeymoon cottage pre-empted by any roving Caribbean dictator. A ridiculous episode, maybe, but this is an election year. Moreover, Mr Sugarman took the precaution of adding the warning note, "I am a former Democratic committee man in two counties". The president was, as they say, in abeyance.
Now imagine the triumph of Meyer Sugarman. He was fondly rehearsing on the telephone the details of the wedding, with his third bride-to-be and suddenly there was click and an operator cut in with – a likely story – that there was an urgent call from the White House.
While the couple caught their breath, a White House secretary came on with the wild, the improbable, remark, "The president wants you to have your room. You will receive a telegram confirming this."
So the hotel manager reinstated the Sugarmans in their room but the 99 others, who were not at one and the same time newlyweds and Democratic committee men in two counties, were thrown out. The president, who never rushes in where angels fear to tread, must have figured he may well have avoided the fast poll that he would win more votes by bowing to Mr and Mrs Sugarman than the 99 he stands to lose from the outcasts.
I imagine that this story has been reprinted in Edinburgh and Essen, in Berlin and Bangkok. And surely the president's confirming wire to the couple will be preserved in amber, along with their marriage certificate. Although in the last century or so in this country, and more recently, in other self-governing countries, the word democracy has been used to extinction, this little incident reminds us again that the word democracy has entered into such hallowed company as Santa Claus and Mother. It cannot be knocked, and in its name, anything goes. All it took to halt the President of the United States in his tracks was the gall of Meyer Sugarman in deciding to send that first telegram; it's something, I think, quite new in the relations between the rulers and the ruled.
Course, we all have our favourite anecdotes that demonstrate the humanity of the great. A hundred and two years ago, a totally obscure lady in Boston received this letter. "Dear Madam I have been shown in the files of the war department, a statement of the adjutant general of Massachusetts... that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously, on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save, Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln."
Mrs Bixby’s letter is part of the national treasury, almost you might say, of American literature. It is a sad undertone to the gay note of another letter written in reply to a small girl, a very small girl, about seven I think, also from Illinois, who wrote to Lincoln and suggested that he’d look better with whiskers. He looked at the letter, pondered it, he thought so too, and he grew them.
But these incidents are precious precisely because of their rarity, everybody wants to lay some claim, however passing, to acquaintanceship with the great. It takes a mere Sugarman to demand it.
It is not conceivable, I think, that any Englishman or woman at the time, let us say, of the coronation jubilee of King George V, would have written to Buckingham Palace and objected that the route of the royal procession passed by the bedroom of an ailing mother.
If it happened today in any democracy there is a strong chance that the ruler, the leader, would have to acknowledge the protest, if not bow to it. All this is part of the trend, amounting to a tidal wave, which floods our rulers with the simple reminder that we put them there.
It is difficult to imagine the late Lord Balfour proclaiming that the spirit of the men at, I don’t know, Mafeking was wonderfully symbolised at home by the spirit of Marie Lloyd or George Robey, or little Titch, yet, he would be a bold brave politician, who dared, in Britain, express a strong dislike of the Beatles.
It’s nothing new, not since Patrick Henry asked for a choice of liberty or death, it’s nothing new for people to challenge their leaders for legislative proof of the democracy they profess.
But while the last few generations protested in the name of liberty and justice, there is now a generation, perhaps two, that thinks of democracy not at all as a system of government but as the government's guarantee that every citizen is as good as the president and the prime minister, and probably better.
I once had a long and harrowing conversation with the late Dag Hammarskjold about his ideas of what had been the most significant changes since the First World War, and the following peace, in the practice of diplomacy. He said that the most persistent thing and the most worrisome and, to him the most depressing, was the now universal assumption that diplomacy should be practiced in the open, the strong suspicion of the people that anything their leaders did in private was probably something underhand.
He bemoaned, as surprisingly few statesmen have done in the past 40 years, the famous phrase of Woodrow Wilson, "Open covenants openly arrived at." Hammarskjold said it was an absurd prescription for any useful agreements between nations.
Let the agreement be an open and public thing, but arriving at it required time, secrecy, tact, the uncovering of confidences and problems that could not, that ought not, to be advertised to hundreds of millions of people involved. He thought that the process of making agreements between nations had been fatally damaged by Wilson’s wholly insistence on open covenants openly arrived at. Hammarskjold recipe was open covenants secretly arrived at.
To anybody who has ever been close to dealings between governments I think that Hammarskjold’s point cannot be denied, but the whole impulse of democracy, in our time, is to deny it. The people want to know what is being done in their name and if they don’t like it they will say so.
For every Mrs Bixby who endures the death of a son, let alone five sons in battle, and is unheard of, the President of the United States now hears from 100 mothers, some of them proud, many of them furious. For every conscientious objector in other wars, there are now five or ten young man of draft age, who don’t even cite their conscience, they simply don’t see why anybody should send them to a war that they don't approve of.
The energy, the power, of this impulse has increased enormously in the United States, certainly in the last decade or so. It explains a good deal in America of what, from the outside, looks so often like an orgy of chaos and confusion.
When I was a small boy, the idea of knowing your place was about as obvious and unchallengeable as the Ten Commandments. The children knew their place, so did the policemen, so did the cab driver, so did the soldier and the student and the wife. And the voter.
Now, as the famous American liberal remarked the other day, and he was an unlikely source for this remark, nobody knows its place, everybody acts on the assumption not only that all men are created equal, but that all men stay equal in rights and in knowledge.
I must say, this statesman added, since it throws the social discipline entirely on the individual, it makes governing a whole lot tougher than it used to be. He is right. JP Morgan could say the public be damned but Lyndon Johnson, at his peril, can deny Mr and Mrs Meyer Sugarman their motel reservation, because Mr Sugarman did what nobody 30 years ago would have dreamed of doing – he challenged the privilege of a President of the United States without a reservation to take the room of a plain citizen with a reservation.
There are times when the heart bleeds for Lyndon Baines Johnson. We can say, I think, that in the last decade, we have played down the duties of democracy, and had a ball with its privileges. The government may stumble, but democracy is a swinging thing.
The Statue of Liberty wears Grecian folds and the posture of a queen, but today, the mini skirt, has come to democracy.
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