• U.S.

The Presidency: Standing by Eight Presidents

3 minute read
Hugh Sidey

The coldest day in Rex Scouten’s life may also have been his best. He came to the capital as a Secret Service agent out of Detroit to help in Harry Truman’s 1949 Inauguration. He shivered as he stood by the Inaugural stand. Yet the great celebration awed the Michigan farm boy, who recalled last week, “I never thought I would ever get to Washington.” He has been there, at the very center, ever since.

Later in 1949 he was assigned to Truman’s White House detail. He relished Truman’s early-morning walks, but he worried about the President’s crawling around the girders during the reconstruction of the White House. Recalls Scouten: “His eyesight wasn’t very good.” Scouten soon found himself on Wake Island in the Secret Service advance team for the Korean War meeting between Truman and his independent-minded general, Douglas MacArthur. He was in the White House’s West Wing when the flash came about the assassination attempt against Truman by two Puerto Rican nationalists at Blair House across the street. In a couple of minutes he was on the scene.

In 1957 Scouten moved from the Secret Service to the White House staff as deputy to the chief usher, who is in charge of running the physical White House. Scouten was on duty when Ike had his slight stroke that year and aides gently persuaded him not to go to the state dinner that night. Scouten helped execute Jackie Kennedy’s dinner on Mount Vernon’s lawn for Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan, a logistics marvel that involved preparing the food in field kitchens and transporting guests down the Potomac. “Thank goodness the weather was good,” he recalled, an all-time understatement. Scouten was supervising the redecoration of the Oval Office when one of J.F.K.’s staff came in weeping and shouting, “The President’s been shot!” He immediately put the office back in order. He helped get arrangements for dozens of visiting world leaders and did not get home for five days.

Scouten moved to the chief usher’s job in 1969. The most elaborate White House dinner of modern times was given by the Nixons on the South Lawn for almost 1,400 people when the Viet Nam POWs returned in 1973. Scouten’s crews laid out 37,000 items for the table settings alone. When Jimmy Carter restricted his public appearances in 1980 because of the American hostages held in Iran, Scouten helped bring the country to Carter. There were 377 public events in the White House that year, the most in history.

After the Reagans arrived, Scouten was in the solarium with Nancy when a Secret Service agent hurried in. His heart froze as he heard the dreaded words for the second time: “The President’s been shot.” Happily, that crisis was limited.

When, a few weeks ago, Scouten, 61, decided it was time to retire, there was genuine regret in the White House. But Scouten will hardly pass into oblivion. Mrs. Reagan named her new King Charles spaniel Rex, a reminder of someone who served loyally, long and well.

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