The vicuna coat scandal


WASHINGTON -- The Republicans regained the White House in 1952 with a general at the helm, and determined to fashion an image based on morality, honesty, thriftiness, and character. Sherman Adams filled the bill -- and more.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was, of course, a war hero -- the kind that inspires statues, but GOP campaigners also made much of the fact that he was unsullied by the 'you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours' political morality that embarrassed the Truman administration so often immediately after World War II.


Eisenhower brought Adams, the former governor of New Hampshire, to Washington, and the austere, almost grim Yankee symbolized a new no-nonsense atmosphere in the White House -- where not long before, Truman's cronies, including military aide Gen. Harry Vaughn, had dealt in influence-peddling and cheerfully trafficked in gifts of mink coats and food freezers.

As White House chief of staff, Adams ran the show with the kind of military precision that a five-star general who commanded a gigantic war effort would expect from his chief aide.

He also was the very picture of the frugal public servant, eating ham and cheese sandwiches at his desk, rather than accepting pricey meals in what came to be known as the Washington 'power lunch' restaurants.


Adams appeared so powerful in setting the White House agenda and deflecting favor-seekers and other pests from the Oval Office that Democrats and some Republicans wondered aloud who really was in charge down there at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He could have given Donald Regan lessons in unsympathetic listening and cold dismissal.

That ended with the arrival in Washington in 1958 of Bernard Goldfine, a New England businessman intent on getting some under-the-counter assistance with problems he was having with the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities & Exchange Commission.

To lubricate the process, Goldfine sent some of the people he thought could help him some nice presents, such as coats made of vicuna (most Americans never had heard of the valuable fabric woven from the fur of the rare South American beast) and oriental rugs.

Congress, which by that time had been recaptured by the Democrats, investigated the Goldfine affair with zest, and with the Washington press in full cry (one reporter was discovered trying to wiretap the Boston magnate's hotel suite), it was soon disclosed that Sherman Adams, of all people, had accepted gifts from his old friend Bernie.

Adams indignantly denied wrongdoing, contending he had once given Goldfine a gold watch and the goodies he got from the Boston magnate were no more than reciprocal tokens of esteem.


A lot of people believed him, including the president, who told a news conference that gifts 'are not necesarily a bribe' and that he trusted and would keep Adams 'because I need him.'

But under pressure from frightened GOP candidates in the 1958 elections, Ike finally let Adams resign with a letter glowing with high praise for his devotion to duty.

So Eisenhower said goodbye to Sherman Adams, his administration said goodbye to its aura of moral superiority and Washington marked up another victim of the axiom that 'power corrupts.'

Latest Headlines


Follow Us