‘“Mr Heren,” the White House guard told my father, “you just drive right up to the house”’
Whenever I read a complaint about the excessive security with which the American state protects its senior officials, I recall two episodes from the autumn of 1963. I was 10 years old and my father, Louis Heren, was the Washington correspondent for The Times. Although by no means an uncritical admirer of President John F Kennedy, he was a member of the inner circle of perhaps 20 White House correspondents with regular access to the chief executive and his staff.
In November of that year, the pipes and drums of the Black Watch were invited to play a tattoo on the White House lawn. No doubt they were on a tour of the United States. Nearly 2,000 guests were invited to the tattoo, including many disabled children from institutions in the DC area. As I walked on sticks, the result of a bout of polio on Times service in Delhi some years earlier, my father applied for tickets for us as well.
Thus it was that one Sunday afternoon we climbed into the old Ford Country Squire station wagon and, leaving my mother and sisters behind, drove down Massachusetts Avenue to the White House. Pulling up at the front gate, my father explained to a genial White House policeman that I was, as he put it, “lame”. “Mr Heren,” replied the guard, who evidently knew him well, “you just drive right up to the house.”
We were met by a functionary in plain clothes, perhaps a secret serviceman, with whom I waited while my father took the car down to the underground staff car park. He knew the way, and was not accompanied. On Dad’s return, we were led through a number of grand rooms and emerged through French windows on to the south terrace.As we passed through the windows I became aware of a crowd of photographers facing the building. Glancing to my left, I saw gliding through the next set of windows the glacially poised, queenly figure of Jackie Kennedy – an impressive early lesson in how a celebrity faces her public.
The Black Watch did their stuff on the South Lawn with the expected gusto and precision. My clearest sight of the President came at the conclusion of the tattoo, when the regiment’s colonel presented him with a sgian dubh, the dagger that Highlanders carry in their socks.
A few days later, JFK was dead and Lyndon Johnson was president. LBJ had been a congressman and senator in Washington for more than 30 years before becoming Kennedy’s vice-president. He had continued to live in his Washington house as vice-president – after all, the Kennedy gang didn’t want him around – and in the first week or so of his own presidency he did not even move his toothbrush into the White House, presumably out of consideration for Jackie’s feelings.
As it happened, LBJ’s house was near ours, in the DC suburb of Spring Valley, but a few blocks further out towards the Maryland line. During those fraught days between the assassination and the state funeral, a presidential convoy used to roar down Upton Street towards Massachusetts Avenue at about 8 o’clock each morning. This was the time that we children would leave the house for the walk to the school bus stop, and we were strictly enjoined not to wave baseball bats, throw balls or otherwise make gestures that might be construed as threatening.The sight of the convoy would have been comic if the mood had not been so serious, so utterly changed. There would be a couple of motorcycle outriders, followed by three or four black armoured limousines. At first sight we thought the windows were blackened, but then we saw the firearms sticking out of them. The windows appeared black because the vehicles were crammed with armed men in dark suits. And, as my father later ascertained from the White House, lying on the floor of one of those cars, covered by men in black, was the enormous frame of the 36th president of the United States.
Anyone who was conscious then can recall the shock of Kennedy’s murder. Younger readers understand the impact of 9/11. But the 1963 trauma was perhaps even greater: it had a profound effect on the American psyche and on the lengths to which the US went to protect its leaders. It was the end of Washington’s existence as a small southern town, and of a relaxed, rather agreeable innocence.
The Highlanders’ visit to the White House lingered in many memories. Jackie Kennedy asked the Black Watch to march and play at her husband’s state funeral – an extraordinary honour for a British regiment. And, in his cups during the depths of America’s torment over Vietnam, Dean Rusk, Johnson’s Secretary of State – another Spring Valley neighbour – asked my father why the British hadn’t provided at least token military support.
“All we needed was one regiment. The Black Watch would have done. Just one regiment, but you wouldn’t. Well, don’t expect us to save you again. They can invade Sussex, and we wouldn’t do a damned thing about it.”
Tony Blair did of course send the Black Watch to help the Americans in Iraq four decades later, before rewarding the regiment by disbanding it. But that’s another story.
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