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Roamin' in the Gloamin'
CHAPTER XIX - MY FRIENDS THE PRESIDENTS


As I have told you somewhere within the last few paragraphs I had a long talk with President Woodrow Wilson during my '17 tour. He and Mrs. Wilson had attended the theatre in Washington when I was playing there and the two of them had joined enthusiastically in singing the chorus of my song "Marching With the President." It was arranged that I should go and have tea with them at the White House before my tour ended. This I was very pleased to do. As a matter of fact I have been a pretty constant visitor to the White House for twenty years. I have met all the Presidents during that period and have had unique opportunities for forming first-hand impressions of the illustrious American statesmen who have ruled the destinies of the States from Theodore Roosevelt down to the present occupant of the presidential chair. With more than one of these remarkable men I am proud to say I have been on terms of friendship. It may not be considered presumptious on my part, therefore, if I attempt a few very brief pen-pictures of the various Presidents whom it has been my privilege and honour to meet. I offer them in all humility and sincerity.

At the moment I have been referring to Woodrow Wilson. For this extraordinarily gifted man I conceived an almost perfervid admiration after the publication of his world-message marking the entry of the United States into the war. Like all Scotsmen I react very quickly either to oratory on the platform or eloquence in the written word. And I still remember the thrill which went through my being on reading this noble example of brilliant prose composition, backed as it was by lofty ideals and full of the most sublime moral thoughts. I almost worshipped President Wilson as a result of that, to me, immortal Note. If, perhaps, I had rea son in after years slightly to alter my opinion of President Wilson's claim to world greatness let me say at once that I still regard him as an amazingly able man who just missed the chances given him of achieving deathless fame, I write as I feel. I am no master of the art of literary analysis; this requires gifts which I do not possess and learning which I have never acquired. But I do think my many and constant years of travel have enabled me to form rather shrewd, even if casual, judgments of the really prominent people with whom I have been brought in contact.

Woodrow Wilson looked to me exactly what he was—a schoolmaster. That long, clean-shaven face, the cold logic in his eyes, the lines about his mouth, in fact every outward aspect of the man savoured of the university class-room. If you had put on his head a mortar-cap, underneath his arm a couple of books, and in his right hand a cane you would have got the perfect dominie. I am told that few people ever warmed to him. He certainly over-awed me When I met him. When he shook hands with me I thought he did it coldly and perfunctorily but he allowed a beam of genuine enthusiasm to creep into his eyes as he thanked me for what I had done in the way of entertaining the American troops. While he spoke I thought what a remarkably well- groomed man he was. He was as neat and "kenspeckle" (Scots for dainty) as a new pin. He appeared to me to have devoted a good deal of attention to his personal adornment before leaving his bedroom that morning.

We are too close to him to estimate Mr. Wilson's real worth either as an American or as a world statesman. It may be that he will only properly be appraised many years hence. Be that as it may it seems to me that we can attribute to him some work that must live, some dreams of his that may come true. Should the League of Nations ever grow strongas I, for one, sincerely hope it will—and become what Wilson thought it might, he will go down into history as the Father of the League. He will be remembered as a coiner of great phrases, many of them electrifying as they were beautiful. He will be remembered as one of the most aloof, stern, stubborn men that ever occupied the White House, yet the possessor of one of the greatest brains America has produced. He will be remembered as the President who went abroad, animated by high principles and with only good in his heart, and came a sad purler when he pitted his abilities against the astuteness and the finesse of men like Clemenceau and David Lloyd George and other politicians trained in the wiles and subtleties of European intrigue. I often wish that Woodrow Wilson had stayed in America at the end of the war. Many and many a time when I am ruminating on my wandering career and the famous men I have met my mind goes back to Woodrow Wilson and somehow or other I heave a sigh. I still think he was a very, very great man. And I know hundreds of Americans who think as I do.

What a difference between Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt! I had the joy of meeting "Teddy" more than once during his Presidency. He looked for all the world what you would expect a man to look who wielded the "Big Stick" with crushing effect against all corners, whether these opponents chanced to be Spaniards in the block-houses of San Juan Hill, an untameable broncho 'way out West, a lion in the African jungle, poisonous snakes in the fever- infested swamps along the River of Doubt—or a political opponent anywhere. Roosevelt would clench his fist (this was my very first impression of him) and penetrate with his keen eye until there was left no glimmer of doubt as to the man's intense earnestness and his fixed purpose to see right through whatever job he undertook. His massive shoulders, his prominent teeth, the half squint in his eye, his rather unkempt moustache, all contributed to make him a formidable personality. But often there came into his face the light of full enjoyment of a humorous remark or situation. He could laugh as heartily as he fought doggedly. And whenever I shook hands with him I decided that here was a man of broad and kindly humanity. I loved him from the outset.

Roosevelt was a magnificent figure in American life for many years. I read in a London newspaper the other day that a very eminent German biographer, Emil Ludwig, had made the pointed statement that "Bismarck and Roosevelt are the two outstanding figures of the past hundred years." I do not propose to examine this observation in any way and only quote it to show how powerfully the redoubtable Teddy impressed himself upon the world. Surely he was the most many-sided President America has ever had. When I first went to the States I simply could not understand why he was either madly loved or violently hated. It was a complete enigma to me until I began to realize some of the forces the bull-dog President was up against. His enemies openly cursed and slandered him. I was tremendously interested (and as keenly shocked) to come across some printed villifications of the President the like of which we would never have tolerated in the press of Britain. I cut out some of these published tirades at the time and put them away beside my American "souvenirs" from among which I have just retrieved them. They struck me then as being so terrible, applied to the President of the country, and yet so picturesque in phraseology that I decided to keep them as curios. One political opponent referred to him as "this roaring, ring- tailed, buck-jumping prophet," while the other applied the tar and feathers in this language—"Had the President been dammed by Sycorax (who this lady was I haven't the foggiest idea but she can't have been nice to know), sired by the Devil, and born in Hell he would disgrace his parents and dishonour his country no more!" Of course I don't know what Teddy had said about the fellows who made these delicate come-backs at him; probably he had stirred 'em up considerable!

Roosevelt told me once that the one word he hated most was "Can't." He taught his sons to hate it too. When they were wee lads their father used to construct what seemed the most impassable obstacles and tell them they must get through. They generally did get through and the result is that these sons today are truly of the lion's brood. Teddy hit hard but he hit square. I am doubtless partial in all that I have said about him because I liked him so much, but I am convinced that his old enemies will today concede that "the elements were so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world—this was a man!"

When I first met Big Bill Taft I thought he was the finest tonic against the blues in all broad America. We had a great game of golf together at Augusta, Georgia, and I took the liberty of beating the President by two holes. We must have cut a pretty comic figure on the links together, he with his tremendous bulk and me with my small stature. He may have improved his golf game since these days but when we had our famous match he was most erratic. If he connected with the ball he swiped it a long distance but my recollection is that oftener than not he shifted a large part of the links without propelling the pill very far. But he smiled all the time; in fact I don't think I have ever met a man with so dominating a smile. He simply exuded geniality. As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court he may have settled down to a more sombre bearing and in that case I shall not visit him while he is on duty "on the bench" because I would not like my memories of him to be other than those of a great big fat laughing boy making the best of everything in this best of possible worlds.

A special friend of mine in London knew "Bill" well when he was Governor General of the Philippine Islands after the Spanish American war. He assures me that without doubt Mr. Taft was the most unpopular man in the islands among his own people but the most popular with the Philippinos—whom he persisted in calling his "Little Brown Brothers." At that time the Americans in the islands had not much use for the natives on account of certain little traits in their character—since, I am told, happily eradi cated—and a song which the former were wont to sing lustily in Manila finished up with these two lines—.They may be brothers of William H. Taft But they ain't no kin to me!

Well, I can't imagine Big Bill being anything else to anybody—.with the exception, perhaps, of those whom he has to decide against in his official capacity as judge—but a jolly big brother. Here is a story about the ex-president which I am assured is true and if it's not true it ought to be. It made me smile when I heard it from one of Bill's own old friends. Away back in the early nineties Mr. Roosevelt sent Taft to Rome to confer with the existing Pope regarding some important religious question affecting the Philippine Islands. He was invited to attend some big function at St. Peter's Cathedral and, to his dismay, found upon arrival that everybody was in evening dress—a strict rule observed for certain Roman ceremonies even at high noon. The American envoy was politely told that he could not enter unless he was suitably attired in orthodox fashion. Mr. Taft realized that he would not have time to go to his hotel and change so he walked into the street and rolled heavily into the nearest restaurant with the idea of borrowing a dress suit from one of the waiters. Finding a waiter of anything like Bill's majestic proportions must have seemed rather a forlorn hope. But the gods of chance were this day stoutly backing the stout one. There was a monstrous waiter in the restaurant. Out came a fat "wad" and a deal was made on the spot. The waiter and the future President retired for a few minutes and before the function at St. Peter's had progressed very far Mr. Taft arrived back and was duly "passed in." The fact that the sleeves were a few inches too short, that the waistcoat showed signs here and there of "ministroné," and that a serious and imminent strain was on the buttons of the commandeered trousers mattered not one little bit to the genial William Howard; he had been faced with a sudden problem and had overcome it with as sudden action. I would like to see "Bill" in one of my kilts!

The late Warren G. Harding was one of the most handsome Americans it has been my pleasure to meet. I had breakfast with him on one occasion at the White House. The reception he gave me was cordial in the extreme. We spoke about many things over our eggs and bacon but principally about the war and the condition in which it would leave Europe for many, many years to come. Mr. Harding was a homely man and a rare good booster for his native Ohio. When I told him that I knew Ohio very well, including his own town of Marion, he was as pleased as Punch, to quote an English phrase, and, looking across the table he remarked, "Say, Harry, ain't Marion just one swell little town?" I agreed and added that it would now be much more famous since his elevation to the Presidency. After breakfast we motored out to the Congressional Golf Course and the President and I played two other fellows, one of whom was Mr. Eddie McLean the proprietor of the Washington Post. We licked them by three up and two to go. On the course Mr. Harding was like a schoolboy and he was, to use his own words, just "tickled to death" by the good form we displayed. Our caddies were overjoyed at the success of our side because I think they had a gamble on with the other pair. At the finish I asked my boy what he had won and he told me two dollars. "Then," said I, "you should hand over a buck to me for I won most of the holes!" I suppose this story is told against me at the Congressional Course to this day.

Warren Harding did not impress me as being in any way of the calibre of Roosevelt or Wilson. He was a plain honest man and was pleased to be known as such. The biggest thing he did, in my opinion, during his term was to deliver that very fine speech at the Washington Peace Conference. It sank deep into the hearts of the delegates from all over the world and made easier the solutions of the intricate problems dealt with by the Conference. I was sorry indeed to learn of the President's untimely end through pneumonia.

Calvin Coolidge I met first when he was Governor of Massachusetts. It was either before or after the famous Police Strike—I forget now—but I was immensely interested in the man who gave this dictum to the United States and to the world—"There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, anytime." This remark, I have often since been told, had more to do than anything else with his being made Vice-President as the nominee of the Republican Party. The death of President Harding gave "Cal" his chance and in my opinion he not only accepted it with both hands but stepped right into the foreground of Great Presidents.

Accident may have made him first citizen at the time but ability has kept him there. I met him again soon after he took office and he gave me a very pleasant hour or two at the White House. Calvin Coolidge looks precisely as he ought to. He is a close-mouthed, close-fisted Yankee from Granite Lands and his personal appearance bears it out. He can speak all right when he feels inclined to; of that fact Lady Lauder and I had ample and charming proof. But there is no denying that the tight lines of his mouth give him an aspect of stony silence—almost of deep mystery. You can never tell what Mr. Coolidge is thinking. But my impression of him is that no matter what he is thinking he is always thinking right. If I wrote—or tried to write—a column about America's present President I am certain that I couldn't improve upon the last sentence!

I heard a very good story about "Cal" just as I was leaving New York a few months ago. It may have been published before but it is worth repeating. A visitor to the White House with whom the Coolidges were on friendly terms took the liberty of a little jest with Mrs. Coolidge in her husband's presence. "Say, Mrs. Coolidge," remarked the visitor, "you look talked to death!" The President did not wait for his wife to reply but suddenly flashed out "Mr.—I have always noticed that the remarks I don't make cause me the least trouble!" Wasn't that a "beaut"?

Another yarn I like about the President runs as follows: Some time ago he gave a palpable propagandist an interview. This guy was a very fine talker, the sort that could sway big audiences off their feet and set them cheering. With Mr. Coolidge he put forth his best and most convincing efforts in the way of facts and phrasing. He felt sure that he was making good. When he had finished and was all alert to note the effect of his oratory the President pointed to one of the White House pussycats which was in the room and remarked, "See that cat? She has walked round the table three times since you began talking!" And that was all. The interview ended.

I like stories about men like Calvin Coolidge and here is another one which may be new to many people. During an official visit to the White House a certain gentleman said to the President that he would greatly appreciate the gift of a cigar from the President, not for himself but for a friend who had the eccentricity of collecting cigar-bands from famous smokers all over the world. The President thought the matter out for a few seconds, then rose and stepped over to a table on which rested a box of cigars. Taking one out he carefully removed the band, replaced the cigar in the box and handed the band to his visitor. Economy raised to the nth degree! Speaking about cigars (and economy!) reminds me of a story they tell in Glasgow against myself. The tale goes that I once got a box of cigars presented to me by an admirer, that I thanked him very much for his kindness and casually asked the name of the shop-keeper from whom he had purchased them thus enabling me to slip down next morning and exchange the cigars for a pound or two of thick black!

In spite of all that they say about "Silent Cal" and the difficulty of getting him to open his mouth I have the idea that a notable change is coming over him. If I were asked to explain what I mean I would say that success is going to his heart and not to his head. The hard lines about his mouth seem to be getting a wee bit softer. The sorrow of losing a son and a father are, after all, taking some of the coldness from that inscrutable face and putting a look of concern, even tenderness, into his eyes. For Mr. Coolidge has a fine soul. There is something great and there is some- thing noble in a man who, immediately he is sworn in as President of the United States in an old Vermont farmhouse, does not dash on to Washington accompanied by a swarm of newspaper men, but walks out alone in the grey dawn to his mother's grave. I think I know what prayers he said there; what guidance he implored from God and from his mother.

I am afraid I have rather digressed from the purely personal side of my memoirs to indulge in these humble reflections on the American Presidents whom it has been my privilege to meet. Next to the Prime Minister of my own country I have always regarded the ruling President of the United States as by far the most important personage in world politics and influence. His powers for good or evil are incalculable and it says much for the inherent commonsense of the people of the United States that they have selected so many brilliant figures to adorn their Presidential Chair and add lustre to the history of their nation. If I were an American father I would, as a solemn duty, insist on my children reading the life story of every President from Washington downwards. Perhaps, of course, every child in the States does so today—but I "hae ma doots."


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