Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

I Want YOU to Get Me a New Shower Head!


Many stars are (in)famous for the lists of must-have items that are to be stocked backstage or in their hotel rooms. During one tour in London, Barbra Streisand demanded rose petals in the toilet and 120 peach-colored towels. Mariah Carey wants gold faucets and new toilet seats installed in her room before she checks in. (We won’t even go into Van Halen’s reputed liquor requirements.) But such demands aren’t limited to those in the entertainment business. Many Foreign Service officers have had to endure visits by high-level officials who have a seemingly endless list of incredible requests. Tom Stern served as Administrative Counselor in Bonn in the mid-1960’s and had to deal with one of the political rock stars of the era, President Lyndon Johnson.

A Shower for Those in Power

While in Germany I had my first experiences with presidential visits. The first visit was President Johnson’s, who came for Chancellor Adenauer’s funeral in 1967, I believe. His visit was sandwiched in between two visits from Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey left one day; two days later Johnson arrived. Johnson left after three days and Humphrey came back a couple of days later. It was ten days of continuous circus. When we planned for Humphrey’s visits, we of course did not know that Adenauer would die and that Johnson would come to his funeral. When we found out the totality of our challenges, I thought we’d never make it. In fact, in retrospect, I now know that it is much easier for a president to visit a country with little or less time for preparations.

Johnson, of course, arrived without being scheduled for any appearance except at the funeral. That was the only thing he was supposed to do. Any other events at that time, at least, would have been entirely inappropriate. He brought with him George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, and a few of his immediate staff. The entourage was of modest proportions because of the nature of the visit and we had no great difficulties accommodating them. Johnson’s private secretary and his two stewards (a man and wife) stayed with him in the DCM’s [Deputy Chief of Mission] house. The rest of the staff we scattered around. There were very few trappings that normally go with presidential visits, except that his bed and his car were shipped ahead.

We did have a small advance team which came a couple of days before Johnson’s arrival. It decided that Johnson would have to stay in the DCM’s house. So overnight, we moved the Hillenbrands out much to their unhappiness. We stored all their valuables. The advance team instructed us on two requirements: a) that the president’s bedroom had to be completely dark when the president slept (there couldn’t be a ray of light coming through) and b) the shower head had to be 11’6″ high (not an inch higher or an inch lower). The shower head that was there was only 9′ or 9’5″ high.

So first of all, we blackened the room with new shades and some special material on the panes to insure that no light would come through. It was pitch black dark. That left the shower. This was a much greater problem. The house was approximately fifteen years old and the plumbing consisted of pipes that were made in Germany right after the war and therefore very brittle by this time. We told the advance team that by raising the shower head, we were running the risk of demanding such an increase in water pressure that the pipes might well break. We could just foresee the house being flooded when the pipes finally burst. That would have been bad enough, but to have it happen while a president was occupying the premises would have been catastrophic.

The advance team was not swayed; the shower head had to be raised to the required level. So we did, and presumably the president was happy. Two hours after the president’s departure after three days, the pipes in fact did burst, flooding the bathroom and the room below. By that time, we didn’t care that much; we were worn out from worrying about the event during the president’s stay.

Let Me Eat Cake

I will never forget those three days. As I said, Johnson had nothing scheduled except his attendance at the funeral. Most presidents have trouble relaxing and must be doing something all the time. Johnson was very much like that. We had established a control room in our guesthouse, where I spent most of the three days.

One evening, at around 11 p.m., we received a call from one of Johnson’s staff members: “The president wants to hold a birthday party now for the pilot of his plane. Please send us a cake right now!” In Bad Godesberg, or even in Bonn, nothing is open at 11 p.m. The Germans rolled up their sidewalks early. No stores would be open; there wouldn’t have been anyone on the streets even. The staffer would not or could not be swayed. He kept repeating that the president wanted a cake and he wanted it right then. We knew that the handwriting was on the wall and so we called the chef of the American Club and told him to come in to make a cake. Of course, even if he had had all the ingredients, he couldn’t have done it that quickly, but he had a brilliant idea: an ice cream birthday cake. He had enough ice cream in the freezer so that by midnight we were able to deliver a cake with candles. It was a pure coup, never recorded for history.

A Real Classic, Painted Yesterday

We lived through another episode, which history has also never recorded. Johnson decided on his second day in Germany that he wanted to take some German art back to the U.S. as gifts for his Texas friends. Some USIA staff members went out to some galleries in Bonn and brought back the best they could find. It was not great, but at least it could have passed for art. Johnson looked at these paintings and said: “No, no, no, I want real German art!”

We finally figured out that he was referring to paintings of old farmers with their pipes in their mouths, people in lederhosen, women in peasant costumes, etc. Real junk! That was no problem. Those were available for tourists by the hundreds. USIA went down to the Cologne bazaar and cleaned it out.

Johnson was delighted; he picked out 30 or 40 of them; they were just what he wanted. Then he wanted to know something about each artist, because he was convinced that this was valuable artwork done by well-known painters. He insisted that on the back of each picture a short biography be attached so that his friends would recognize the great value of these paintings.

Of course, no one knew anything about the artists. These paintings were thrown together overnight by unknowns and were sold primarily as souvenirs, not as art. So Fred Fischer, who was McGhee’s special assistant, and I spent the night dreaming up names and biographies for the alleged artists. On the back of each painting we placed a small typewritten note with the name and history of each artist. I am sure that somewhere in Texas there are a number of paintings, if they haven’t been thrown away by now, by artists from the “Stern School of Hamburg” or the “Fischer School of Bremen.” We made up as many fictitious biographies as needed and Johnson took the paintings with the notations home, as happy as he could be. The costs, of course, came out of State Department confidential funds, but that was probably the greatest scam I ever participated in.

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