President Nixon's Ill-Fated White House Palace Uniforms
Richard Nixon celebrating his presidential victory in Paoli, PA. (Wikimedia Commons).
When Richard Nixon took the Oval Office in 1969, he decided the White House uniformed Guard desperately needed a makeover. The 37th President came to this conclusion after making diplomatic trips to the UK, Indonesia, India, and Iran among others. In his estimation, the White House Secret Service uniformed division looked “slovenly,” in comparison to other countries.
Therefore, Nixon ordered fresh uniforms based on the outfits of the West German police officers. So what was the reaction to these palace guard uniforms and how do Alice Cooper and a high school marching band in Iowa figure into this trivial tale?
A Frosty Reception
For context, we aren’t talking about the average Secret Service agent we all see in the movies. The White House also retains a uniformed division that performs basic duties like waving metal detectors, working with bomb-sniffing dogs, and other likely classified tasks.
Nixon decided to bust out his fresh gear for the arrival of United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Unfortunately, Nixon did not receive the rave reviews he undoubtedly had anticipated. Here were a smattering of the not so glowing quotes when the uniforms first debuted: "they look like extras from a Lithuanian movie,” "like a palace guard of toy soldiers," "they look like old-time movie ushers," "will they be goose-stepping, or what?"
The Unanimous Media Reaction
As Chicago Tribune columnist Walter Trohan bemoaned, they looked like "borrowing from decadent European monarchies, which is abhorrent to this country’s democratic tradition." The uniforms featured a white double-breasted tunic with golden shoulder trim and a ridiculous shako hat that resembled the Nazis from Indiana Jones! To top it off matching black shoes, belts, and black leather holsters completed the cartoonish ensemble.
Apparently, the reaction within the White House was about the same as the media. One official told the Washington Post, “When they first appeared, the guards were greeted with gales of laughter. They were pitiful and looked European and out of place.” The poor guards suffered the humiliation but not for long. Not long after the uniforms became a laughing stock, a rebellion began to brew.
After less than a month even the guards began revealing their distaste of the extravagant attire. They described the uniforms as overly theatrical and lamented the irritating discomfort of the absurd hats. So, the hats disappeared after about a month.
The white showy jackets with their ceremonial gold shoulder braid lasted slightly longer but not by much. Eventually, the entire costume departed without any fanfare or regret by anyone other than President Nixon. As he found out, pomp and circumstance have no place within the Secret Service. Funnily, enough that wasn’t the end of the road for the 32 preposterous get-ups.
Alice Cooper vs. Meriden-Cleghorn High School Marching Band
As it turned out, Nixon wasn’t the only one who found the uniforms as nifty. Famed musician Alice Cooper wanted five tunics for his band but lost out to a high school marching band in Iowa of all places! For less than $100 the school outfitted themselves with the most outlandish government uniforms that money could buy. Who knows if the school still proudly exhibits their catastrophic White House garments.
Tags: President Nixon | White House
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