Women’s History Month – The Executive Assistant in Government

In the photo above, President John F. Kennedy and personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln

In her book, Be the Ultimate Assistant, Bonnie Low-Kramen writes, “Here’s a fast-paced profession which is highly demanding — requiring intelligence, resourcefulness, discretion, initiative, computer skills, and last, but not least, consummate people skills. Oh yes, it’s also helpful to be clairvoyant!” (p. 32)

Ms. Low-Kramen was referring to celebrity assistants, of which she was one for 25 years to Academy-Award winning actress Olympia Dukakis. Presidents of the United States would certainly fall into the celebrity category. This handbook, therefore, is essential as well for those aspiring to be or who already are assistants to high-powered government officials. Included would be those secretaries and assistants in the Executive Branch, aides to elected and appointed officials in Congress, clerks to Supreme Court Justices and those who support the multitude of elected officials throughout our state and local governments.

As this year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government,” I would like to devote this entry to a bit of general historical background on Presidential personal secretaries as well as take a look at some doyennes of the Oval Office who made their marks in history.

Presidential Secretaries throughout History

In the early days, American Presidents had few human resources in the federal budget to assist them with their many duties. As a result they usually recruited family members to serve in this position and paid them personally. The name for such an assistant in that era was “amanuensis,” which in later generations was called a stenographer. Some Presidents employed multiple clerks as well.

It wasn’t until the Buchanan Administration (1857-61) that the position of Private Secretary at the White House was created for a salary of $2,500; this first official, government-paid position of its kind was filled by the President’s nephew. Within just a few years the position was renamed “Secretary to the President,” and the responsibilities were expanded to include dealing with the press. The White House staff also expanded to include approximately a dozen administrative positions.

Under President Harding (1921-23) the White House staff greatly expanded and included three Secretaries to the President; subsequently the secretaries were assigned different responsibilities. Under President Franklin Roosevelt a further expansion and reorganization of the White House staff occurred in response at least in part to current events and availability of qualified staff; the result was an organization that looked more like today’s White House. But during this process the position of Secretary to the President was reduced in importance as there were many other staff members to take over the position’s responsibilities. Thus, the role of Personal Secretary to the President was created that was similar to today’s concept of an Administrative or Executive Assistant. While up to this time the powerful roles of Secretary to the President and Appointments Secretary were filled by men, the new role of Personal Secretary was filled by women, the first of which was Missy LeHand.

Missy LeHand

Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand was the Personal Secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1920 to 1941 when a stroke left her disabled. According to historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, she was “”the most celebrated private secretary in the country.” In Ms. Goodwin’s book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Front In World War II, she quotes Ms. LeHand’s explanation of her approach to her profession: “The first thing for a private secretary to do is to study her employer. After I went to work for Mr. Roosevelt, for months I read carefully all the letters he dictated … I learned what letters he wanted to see and which ones it was not necessary to show him … I came to know exactly how Mr. Roosevelt would answer some of his letters, how he would couch his thoughts. When he discovered that I had learned these things it took a load off his shoulders, for instead of having to dictate the answers to many letters he could just say yes or no and I knew what to say and how to say it.”

When Mrs. Roosevelt was away on one of her many trips acting as surrogate to her husband, Ms. LeHand often served as Roosevelt’s hostess, physical therapist and companion — even to the point of learning to play poker to keep him company during his down time. But working for someone both as dynamic and physically challenged as FDR, as well as keeping a breathtakingly full schedule, left Ms. LeHand with two breakdowns. But she persevered and became an indispensible and influential asset to the world’s most powerful public figure. FDR showed his deep appreciation of Missy LeHand by including her in his will.

Evelyn Lincoln

In 1952, Eight years before John F. Kennedy ran for President, Congressional aide Evelyn Maurine Norton Lincoln told her husband that her next job would be working for the next President of the United States. Shortly thereafter she volunteered for the Senate campaign of the Congressman from Massachusetts. After the election, the new Senator offered her a job. Mrs. Lincoln wanted to work for a U.S. President and she was savvy enough to recognize the potential in JFK.

Evelyn Lincoln was fiercely supportive of and loyal to her boss. Her New York Times obit said, “And when he hired her, Mr. Kennedy, then a 35-year-old bachelor, got the secretary every politician longs for: an efficient, savvy confidante whose devotion to him and his ambitions knew no bounds.” Evelyn Lincoln traveled extensively with her boss and his entourage around the world to Ireland, Germany and England, and throughout the U.S. Her last trip with him was to Dallas, Texas. After JFK’s assassination, Evelyn Lincoln was an invaluable resource during the investigation as well as to the Kennedy Presidential Library. A St. Petersburg Times article quotes Megan Floyd Denoyers, acting chief archivist at the JFK Library, as saying, “She was able to read her former boss’ illegible handwriting and to verify his signature.” For the right arm to the 35th President of the United States that was the very least of Evelyn Lincoln’s knowledge and abilities.

Letitia Baldrige

Letitia Baldrige responded to a call from her friend, Jacqueline Kennedy, upon the latter’s becoming First Lady of the United States. The two women were former classmates and Mrs. Kennedy needed someone she could trust on all levels to help her navigate her new White House social duties. “Tish,” as she was known to her friends and family was not without experience and resources, having worked for two ambassadors, one in France and one in Italy, as well as managing the public relations for Tiffany & Co. Working for Jackie Kennedy at a time of expanded TV coverage in the early 1960s, Letitia Baldrige soon became a household name. But while the recognition and fame were well deserved, her single purpose was to make the President and First Lady look good.

But even the best of us can make mistakes, and Letitia Baldrige proved that on two occasions that she recalled with grace and humor. When she was working for the ambassador to France in the late 1940s, at a dinner she unknowingly seated a guest next to his wife’s lover. Major oopsies. And, when she was working for the First Lady she had to deal with a Presidential uproar that she caused when she broke precedent and served hard liquor at a Sunday evening event. As a result, she was said to have often mentioned “the value of heartfelt, repeated apologies.”

After her White House Days, Ms. Baldrige became an etiquette authority who published several books that are valuable references to executive assistants, etiquette trainers like me and for anyone who wants to know how to conduct herself in a socially and professionally acceptable manner. Ms. Baldrige also established and operated her own public relations and marketing firm. But Letitia Baldrige never quite let go of her White House days and remained a strong presence there, returning several times to visit and making herself available to her successors should they need help or advice. I suspect she also was passionate about preserving as much of the Kennedy Camelot legacy for as long as possible.

Jerri Whittington 

Geraldine Whittington was working for one of President Lyndon Johnson’s assistants when the President observed her. President Johnson had been sworn in as the 36th President of the United States following the assassination of President Kennedy. The major domestic issue of the era was civil rights, and Ms. Whittington was a black woman. President Johnson called her at home, and reportedly the conversation went like this:

“Gerri?(sic) Where are you?
I’m at home. Who’s this?
This is the president.
Oh, I think someone’s playing with me.”

The President hired Ms. Whittington, the first black Secretary to work for the Commander In Chief. She not only made news by appearing on one of the most popular TV shows of the era, What’s My Line, but she also made history by being the guest of the President on New Year’s Eve 1963 at a strictly segregated Texas club. On the latter occasion, with the help of the most powerful man in the free world, Jerri Whittington–at least for one night–desegregated a restricted club in Austin and landed a blow for civil rights. But, the proudest moment of Ms. Whittington’s career was on the day when President Johnson introduced her to Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, the former attorney who won the Brown Vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools. The President had decided to appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court; he would be the first black Justice, and Jerri Whittington was the first person to be informed of the appointment.

Jerri Whittington worked for President Johnson until his last day in office in 1969, the day Richard Nixon succeeded him.

Rose Mary Woods

After holding several government posts Rose Mary Woods met Senator Richard Nixon in 1951; he was so impressed with her that he offered her a job. She accepted, and worked for him for 23 years. Rose, as she was often called, became very close to the Nixon family. The following year, Senator Nixon ran as Vice President of the U.S. on the 1952 ticket with General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After serving for two terms, VP Nixon ran for President but was defeated by Senator John F. Kennedy; in 1968 he ran again and was elected President.

In 1971 Rose Mary Woods was named one of the 75 most important women in the United States by one of the most influential magazines of the 20th century, Ladies Home JournalMs. Woods traveled extensively with the Presidential entourage, including to China when President Nixon made his historic visit in 1972. President Nixon was quoted as saying that his secretary had “that rare and unique characteristic that marks the difference between a good secretary and a great one – she is always at her best when the pressures are greatest.”

Rose Mary Woods needed to be at her best when she found herself in the middle of a political firestorm during the Watergate crisis, front and center over the infamous 18 1/2 minute gap in the Presidential tapes that ultimately destroyed Nixon’s Presidency. Ms. Woods said that she had accidentally erased approximately five minutes of the gap. When she was asked to replicate how the mishap occurred, her demonstration prompted the term, “the Rose Mary stretch.” As a result of the scandal and Ms. Woods’s prominent role, she wound up on the cover of Time. When President Nixon made his decision to resign, Rose Mary Woods was the first person he told. And she was the one who broke the news to his family.

The Right Place At The Right Time 

These and other women who have achieved enviable, demanding and glamorous positions working for exciting, powerful and famous people have possessed top-notch technical, leadership and networking skills. Such skills–as well as experience, high energy, keen interest and deep commitment–were necessary to be ready to hit the ground running when they found themselves at the right place at the right time as opportunity knocked.

Like most executive or personal assistants, being Secretary or Assistant to the President or First Lady of the United States involves ongoing potential catastrophes to avoid — only as we’ve learned from the preceding stories such catastrophes at that level can be monumental. Successful damage control requires quick thinking and grace under pressure, essential characteristics for someone who holds these jobs.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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