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Megan McArdle

Richard Nixon's Palace Guard

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It’s a Friday in the middle of August, and we could all use a break. So let’s go back in time to January 1970, when President Richard Nixon was preparing for a visit from Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Nixon, who thought his White House uniform guards looked “slovenly,” had them outfitted in new uniforms, based on the honor guards he had seen, and been impressed by, in Europe.

My husband, upon seeing this, immediately said “Oh my God, those look like marching band uniforms!” You can kind of picture them sticking a flute in those holsters, can’t you? If an enemy charged the White House, they could quick-draw and start fifing away. “Give ‘em the old Yankee Doodle Dandy, boys!”

The public reaction to the new uniforms was not good. Here’s how Richard Reeves describes it in President Nixon, Alone in the White House:

A couple of days after the State of the Union address, Democrats and the press finally got a chance to mock Nixon. The occasion was a state visit by Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain -- and the official unveiling of new White House police uniforms, inspired by the honor guards Nixon had seen in Europe. The cops were wearing double-breasted white tunics with starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high black plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest. “They look like old-time movie ushers,” said the Buffalo News. “The Student Prince” said the Chicago Daily News. In the Chicago Tribune, a Nixon friend, columnist Walter Trohan, was more serious, saying the uniforms belonged onstage, calling them “frank borrowing from decadent European monarchies, which is abhorrent to this country’s democratic tradition.”

The uniforms didn’t last long. The black hats were the first to go, and by the mid-1970s, the whole uniform had been abandoned. In 1980, the barely-used uniforms were repurposed as…yes, you guessed it, the uniforms for the Southern Utah State marching band. Apparently, the college beat out rock singer Alice Cooper, who had wanted five of the tunics for his band. The marching band paid the General Services Administration $90 for shipping, plus a charge for cleaning and pressing.

There’s no larger point to this -- except, I guess, that we democracy-loving Americans don’t want any movie ushers or fife-and-drum corpsmen on the steps of our White House. I just figured we could all use an afternoon laugh.

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