Sherman Adams, a grocer’s son turned log driver, catapulted into the White House after a dozen years in politics. He served as President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, perhaps his most trusted advisor and the second most powerful person in Washington.
Some people, especially members of Congress, hated him for his abrupt manner. Others, including Eisenhower, were devoted to him.
Eisenhower called him “My right hand man, the only person who really understands what I am trying to do.”
Described as spare, steely-eyed, 140 pounds, Adams had such a horror of wasting time that he didn’t say hello when he answered the telephone. He simply expected the person on the other end to start talking right away.
He was viewed as so powerful that a standing joke went, “What if Adams should die and Eisenhower becomes President of the United States?”
And then in 1958 he lost it all because of a coat.
He was born Jan. 8, 1899, in his grandfather’s Baptist parsonage in East Dover, Vt. His father, a grocer, moved the family to Providence, R.I., where Adams grew up. He went to Dartmouth College, where he headed the Outing Club.
“Some fierce, moody New Hampshire demon burned in Adams in his youth,” wrote Richard Strout for the New York Times in 1956. Strout noted Adams was so driven he once hiked 83 miles in 24 hours.
When the U.S. entered World War I. he left college to join the Marines. He then returned to Hanover and earned a degree in economics.
Adams then got a job as a walking boss, supervising far-flung logging camps in the northern woods. But he also helped out on river drives. “Being a little guy, he’d be right up to his belly in that cold water,” an old woodsman told Time.
He rose through the rugged lumber business to treasurer of the Parker-Young Co., in Lincoln, N.H. Parker-Young understood the value of political connections, and encouraged Adams to run for office. In 1940 he won the first of two terms as a state representative, serving as Speaker of the House in his second term. Adams then ran for and won a seat in Congress in 1944.
After just one term he ran for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor and lost. He tried again in 1948 with a happier outcome.
As governor, he earned a reputation for frugality. He brought his lunch to work. On disappointing days in the corner office he might come home at night, stomp by the dinner his wife had made and retire to his room without a word.
A New Era
A seemingly minor change ushered in a new political era. New Hampshire House Speaker Robert Upton was peeved the 1948 New Hampshire primary had gone unnoticed in the recent presidential election. He sponsored a bill to replace the name of delegates to the presidential convention with candidates’ names. Adams grumbled that it wouldn’t make any difference, but he signed it anyway.
It made a difference.
New Hampshire always held its primary early, at Town Meeting time. The reason? Towns didn’t see any reason to heat the meeting house twice in winter.
That first- in-the-nation presidential primary became a bellwether for the election. It was said for decades that no one could win the party’s nomination without winning New Hampshire. The primary also gave obscure New Hampshire politicians like Sherman Adams a career opportunity. As a liberal Republican he liked Ike more than the conservative senator from Ohio, Bob Taft. And so he campaigned for Eisenhower, who won the primary and put his trust in Sherman Adams.
Eisenhower himself changed something else when he won election. He created the chief of staff job. He’d had great success with his military chiefs of staff, and intended to replicate it as president. He ran his administration, unlike his democratic predecessors, by delegating responsibility through clear channels of authority. Sherman Adams stood at the top of that channel.
As Chief of Staff
Reporters described Adams as having the dedication of a vestal virgin and the temperament of a grizzly with a barked shin.
Adams rubbed many people the wrong way. He often replied to requests with one word, “No.” Thus he got the nickname, “The Abominable No Man.”
Part of his job was to iron out differences within the administration. He brought together department and agency heads to negotiate a solution. If they didn’t come up with one, he would write it himself. “And his is the one that goes to President Eisenhower marked with the all-important scrawl: “O.K., S.A.,” reported Time.
He fiercely protected the president’s time. Strout, in his New York Times profile of Adams, described how one day Nestor Hill of Hyannis, Mass., caught a 100-pound halibut. He decided to bring it to President Eisenhower. Accompanied by his congressman, Hill brought the fish to the West Wing in a wooden crate filled with ice. Adams interceded, telling him to get the damn thing out of the crate. Then he posed for a picture with the fish so Eisenhower wouldn’t have to.
Sometimes he was too fierce. He once emerged from his office to find two secretaries crying. He retreated into his office, where his assistant told him he had been abrupt and somewhat rude. Adams asked what he should do. “I think you ought to say something to them,” the assistant said. So Adams went out again and said, “Hiya, honey,” according to a 1956 story in Time magazine. That brought on another avalanche of tears.
The Vicuna Coat
Sherman Adams had another side, as well. He was passionately loved classical music. He also showed up at the White House on weekends in suede shoes and a sport coat and drove a sporty roadster convertible.
Bernard Goldfine, a Massachusetts textile manufacturer, had been having problems with the Federal Trade Commission. He asked Adams to intercede, and gave Adams a valuable rug and a vicuna coat. Made with the fine, silky wool of the delicate camel-like animal in the Andes, it was a luxury item that cost $895 in 1958.
Washington columnist Jack Anderson broke the story of the vicuna coat in 1958. It happened at a bad time for Adams. During the Truman presidency, Republicans in Congress had attacked the Democratic administration for influence-peddling. Now that a Republican sat in the White House, Democrats smelled blood. A House subcommittee looked into the affair.
Adams, who later admitted “mistakes in judgment,” said he never intended to do anything to help the friend who gave him the coat. Goldfine eventually went to jail for tax evasion and was fined $110,000.
At first, Eisenhower defended him. In a televised statement, he called Adams “imprudent.”
“But I like him and I need him,” Eisenhower said.
It wasn’t enough. The press went into a feeding frenzy, bringing pressure on the White House to fire Adams. Time magazine reported,
Privately, bitterly. Dwight Eisenhower described it as “the most hurtful, the hardest, the most heartbreaking decision” of his 5½ years in office. The decision: to ask for the resignation of hard-bitten little Sherman Adams, Assistant to the President, next to Ike the most powerful man in the Administration, and the only person of whom Dwight Eisenhower had ever said, “I need him.”
Sherman Adams Goes Back to the Slopes
Adams returned to New Hampshire and began building Loon Mountain Ski Resort. He had skied avidly since he was 17, and the demise of the logging industry was hurting his hometown of Lincoln. Adams put on snowshoes and identified ski trails, then supervised construction of 12, along with two lifts and a toilet. He served as president and general manager of Loon Mountain for nearly 20 years.
Well into his 70s, Adams would show up at the office at 6 a.m. and, in the winter, make two-mile ski runs, according to his New York Times obituary. He died of renal failure on Oct. 27, 1986, at the age of 87.
Images: White House By Ad Meskens – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12211575; construction of Loon Mountain By Ericshawwhite – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33190299.