Carrying the presidential football

Who will be the next U.S. president?

It’s too early to even make a guess. The next presidential election won’t be held for two-and-a-half years, and potential candidates galore are polishing their resumes and making nationwide appearances to burnish their images.

I was recently discussing with a friend Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories (he won Nevada in both contests) and our conversation turned to Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s vote-gathering trips to Carson City, Reno, Elko and Las Vegas before the 2012 election was held.

Nevada media, of course, thoroughly carried the pair’s visits to the state, and I remember watching a Reno TV news broadcast that showed Obama greeting dignitaries at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport with a uniformed military aide at his side carrying a rectangular black leather briefcase.

That briefcase is known as the “football,” and it contains the nation’s top-secret military codes and plans for nuclear war which must be available to the president 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The military aide and his ever-present “football” are never far from the president, whether he is traveling in an airplane, helicopter or car, delivering a speech, attending a reception or visiting with a foreign leader at home or abroad.

Other military aides assigned to the president and White House have a galaxy of further responsibilities, such as coordinating the president’s domestic and international travel arrangements by car, on helicopters and Air Force One, supervising a fleet of limousines, cars, trucks and vans, providing medical support for the president and his entourage, and directing White House food services.

A second group of aides, called social aides, which have served the president since Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House in 1902, helps greet guests at state dinners and lunches, mans the receiving lines at White House functions and shepherds dignitaries at inaugurations and other important events, for example.

Unlike the military aides, who are attached to the White House on two-year, full-time assignments, social aides are volunteers who have “day jobs” at various Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard installations in the Washington, DC area.

Both military and social aides work under the direction of the White House Military Office, and many former and current aides are members of the Society of White House Military Aides founded in 1991 by Kenn Riordan, Jr., a West Point graduate and former Army major, who continues to direct the Society’s activities from his office in Northern Virginia.

The Society today has more than 500 members, Kenn told me this week, and I am one of these.

Several of the group’s members, following their White House duty, have been promoted to generals and admirals. The membership also includes a married couple (she is a retired Navy rear admiral, he a retired Army brigadier general) who met when they were junior officers serving as military aides.

Probably the most prominent one-time military aide and active Society member is former Marine Capt. Charles “Chuck” Robb, who served under President Lyndon B. Johnson and married Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird, in a nationally-televised White House East Room ceremony in 1967.

Following his White House duty, Robb served two combat tours in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star. After leaving the Marine Corps, he received a law degree from the University of Virginia and eventually became governor and U.S. senator from Virginia. Today he is 75, Lynda Bird is 70 and they have three children.

I served as a White House social aide for short periods during both of Richard Nixon’s administrations.

My old friend, Herb Klein, a former Los Angeles newspaper colleague and fellow USC alum who went on to become Nixon’s press secretary and communications director, telephoned me after Nixon was first elected president in 1968 to ask if I would like to be a social aide before and during Nixon’ inauguration on Jan. 20, 1969.

Of course I answered “yes” and flew to Washington (at my own expense) in late December 1968, to take up my post. I was an Army Reserve captain at the time.

My responsibilities included meeting distinguished guests at Washington airports, transporting them to their hotels, and assisting with overall inaugural arrangements. I returned to Washington four years later to serve again as a Nixon social aide.

My wife, Ludie, joined me for the 1969 inaugural, and I made sure that we had good seats in the presidential grandstand in front of the White House.

As I helped Nixon’s guests to their seats, a forlorn-looking fellow approached me and said, “I don’t know where I’m supposed to sit. I don’t have an assigned seat.”

Thinking he may be a gate-crasher, I asked his name and demanded he show me his driver’s license.

He said, “I’m Arthur Nixon, one of the president’s brothers.” He then produced his driver’s license that identified him by name and photo as Arthur Nixon.

I gave the president’s brother my own seat next to Ludie, and they chatted throughout the ceremony and thoroughly enjoyed Richard Nixon’s swearing-in and the lengthy parade that followed.

Unable to find another seat for myself, I stood for the six-hour swearing-in and parade. My feet still hurt.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus.


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