When Presidents and Prime Ministers Would Walk Among Us

When Presidents and Prime Ministers Would Walk Among Us

There was a time, in a long-ago and inno­cent age, when nation­al lead­ers would walk about unac­com­pa­nied by secu­ri­ty. Some­times, they would even walk alone.

Four such episodes came to mind last week which exem­pli­fy this van­ished era. Ques­tions arrived from col­leagues about Churchill: his encoun­ters with Cana­di­an sol­diers and his North Car­oli­na con­nec­tions. Then The New York Times pub­lished a ret­ro­spec­tive on Woodrow Wil­son, dur­ing the 1918 Paris Peace Con­fer­ence. This was remind­ful of a fourth episode, involv­ing Har­ry Tru­man. The sad­ness is that none of these could have hap­pened in, the last fifty years. Maybe longer.

Walk in Paris: Woodrow Wilson, 1918

The Munic­i­pal Coun­cil of Paris gave Pres­i­dent Wil­son the keys to the City, but they neglect­ed to present him with what is far more essen­tial, a good map book, with which to find his way about the city’s intri­cate streets. And so he enjoyed the priv­i­leges of his new cit­i­zen­ship by get­ting lost.

Anx­ious friends of the Pres­i­dent need not be wor­ried, how­ev­er, for he was found by two small boys who point­ed out the way for him. The Pres­i­dent and Mrs. Wil­son start­ed out unac­com­pa­nied one morn­ing for a walk. From the time they left the Hôtel Murat until they returned, they were rec­og­nized by no one but the two young Paris urchins.

They were enjoy­ing their incog­ni­to walk so much that they neglect­ed to take note of the wan­der­ings of Paris streets. Not sure where they were, they stopped to ask the French boys the right direc­tion. The response was very prompt and cour­te­ous. Then, to the sur­prise of the Pres­i­dent and Mrs. Wil­son, who did not think they were rec­og­nized, two small hands came out under the capes the boys were wear­ing: “And now, Mr. Pres­i­dent, won’t you shake hands with us?”

The hand-shak­ing was cor­dial on both sides, and Pierre and Jean went away with some­thing to tell their grand­chil­dren.

—Report­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Her­ald Tri­bune, reprint­ed 2018 

Walk in Kent: Winston Churchill, 1941

Ken­neth B. Smith, past pres­i­dent of the Hast­ings and Prince Edward Reg­i­men­tal Offi­cers Asso­ci­a­tion, told a humor­ous anec­dote: Robert Mor­ri­son of B Com­pa­ny was on rov­ing duty one evening at Chartwell in the sum­mer of 1941 when he saw Churchill, who had got­ten away from Lon­don for one of those rare week­ends at his coun­try home. Mor­ri­son salut­ed.

“Why didn’t you chal­lenge me, Cana­da?” Churchill growled.

“I know who you are, sir,” replied Mor­ri­son.

“Oh, how do you know me?,” asked the Prime Min­is­ter.

“By your cig­ar, bald head, dou­ble chin, short neck and fat bel­ly, sir,” answered Mor­ri­son.

“But don’t for­get, the Ger­mans have bald men with short necks and fat bel­lies who smoke cig­ars,” said Churchill.

“You’re right sir,” answered Mor­ri­son, “but they would do up the bot­tom but­ton on the vest.”

Morrison’s log­ic “delight­ed the Prime Min­is­ter, who went chuck­ling into the twi­light.”

Morrison’s last line was explained by Col. Strome Gal­loway of Ottawa: “The young Cana­di­an sol­dier was very per­cep­tive to real­ize that Eng­lish­men, but not Ger­mans, leave undone the bot­tom but­ton of their waist­coats (not ‘vests,’ which in Eng­land means under­shirts.) When King Edward VII became so paunchy he could not do up the bot­tom but­ton of his waist­coat, and had to appear in pub­lic before his tai­lor could make the nec­es­sary adjust­ments, his entourage imme­di­ate­ly undid theirs so as to fol­low the new Roy­al fash­ion.”

—Report­ed by the Globe and Mail (1984)

Walk in Casablanca: Winston Churchill, 1943

At Casablan­ca, where they shared sev­er­al din­ners, the Prime Min­is­ter kept Gen­er­al George Pat­ton up very late telling sto­ries before Churchill returned alone to his quar­ters near the Anfa Hotel. He had insist­ed nobody accom­pa­ny him as it was only 3am and he wished to walk.

Near the hotel he was halt­ed by an Amer­i­can sen­try, a farm boy from North Car­oli­na, who chal­lenged the Prime Min­is­ter and then called: “Cor­po­ral of the Guard! I have a fel­low down here who claims he’s the Prime Min­is­ter of Great Britain. I think he is a god­dam liar.”

The Cor­po­ral of the Guard arrived and rec­og­nized Mr. Churchill. The inci­dent pleased the Prime Min­is­ter great­ly, for he told it after­wards on many occa­sions.

—Har­ry H. Semmes, Por­trait of Pat­ton (1955).

Walk in Washington: Harry Truman, ca. 1950

As Pres­i­dent, Tru­man felt more than ever a need to see and make con­tact with what he called the every­day Amer­i­can. And always he felt bet­ter for it.

On an evening in Wash­ing­ton, on one of his walks, he had decid­ed to take a look at the mech­a­nism that raised and low­ered the mid­dle span of the Memo­r­i­al Bridge over the Potomac. Descend­ing some iron steps, he came upon the bridge ten­der, eat­ing his evening sup­per out of a tin buck­et.

Show­ing no sur­prise that the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States had climbed down the cat­walk and sud­den­ly appeared before him, the man said, “You know, Mr. Pres­i­dent, I was just think­ing about you.” It was a greet­ing Tru­man adored and nev­er for­got.

—David McCul­louch, Tru­man (2003).

One wonders….

….most of all about what must have been the incan­des­cent con­ver­sa­tion between Churchill and Pat­ton. Did Pat­ton explain that he had been present, in anoth­er life, at the Bat­tle of Carthage in 149 B.C.? What did Pat­ton think of Churchill’s part in the Bat­tle of Omdur­man, 1,749 years lat­er? We are only remind­ed once again, of how much of the Churchill canon was nev­er record­ed.

See also

“Churchill’s Com­mon Touch,” in five parts, begin­ning here.

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