In stark contrast to the increasingly wild mendacity streaming out of Trump’s beleaguered White House, it’s a comfort to recall a time when US diplomats still had skills, tact and the provenance to behave in the best interest of their country but without the need for dishonest bombast. Quartet published a memoir in 1992 by ‘Lucky’ Roosevelt, who proved to be skilled in the art of the charm offensive.
She promoted Keeper of the Gate with such gusto as to make us all feel like novices. This book of memoirs was truly fascinating and attracted a great deal of attention. Her many friends were spread around the world and her popularity was so strong as to be virtually unassailable. She was chief of protocol to the US State Department and the White House during the Reagan years, a key insider and the most famous of the ‘power brokers’. Her task was to promote America on the international scene and help its leaders and spokesmen to avoid the sort of gaffes and disasters that could provide fodder for the front pages of the daily papers and television news. In this she reported directly to Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr and George Schultz with tremendous style and verve. She had arrived at this position from being the Tennessee-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants who had won a scholarship to Vassar and rejected the arranged marriage to a suitor she called ‘the sheikh’ her family had planned for her. Instead she married Archibald Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, a prominent CIA operative and a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Her career took her from being a reporter and journalist, CIA wife and world traveller, to the position she occupied at the heart of the world’s most powerful government.
Her tenure of seven years in the post of chief of protocol was quite unprecedented. It was unusual for anyone to stay in that position for more than two years. She presided over state visits, including those of Mikhail Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II; she travelled to summits, oversaw the diplomatic corps and accompanied presidents and potentates, prime ministers and princes when they visited the USA. From her viewpoint she observed the world’s high and mighty at their best and worst. She witnessed the friction between Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev, the warm friendship between the Schultzes and the Shevardnadzes and the inside battles between members of the White House staff.
The party to launch Keeper of the Gate was held in Regent Street at Garrard. It was attended by a host of politicians, writers, diplomats and journalists along with many personal friends of the author, who flocked to pay her tribute. Reporting the party for the Daily Express, Alice Freeman remarked that during her seven years as chief of protocol, she had supervised ‘some 30,000 diplomats along the way’, which meant that ‘a throng of champagne-sipping party-goers were no match for her well-honed skills’. While the rest of us indulged in chit-chat, ‘Mrs Roosevelt was relaxed enough to muse on gambling’, saying, ‘That’s how I got my nickname. I was always lucky at poker – and, of course, no one could pronounce my first name.’ Despite this she had never played cards at the White House. ‘Not once in all those years. I don’t think I even asked Nancy whether she played bridge – but of course I never had a day off.’ As everyone minded their etiquette,
Lady Menuhin opted to play a different tune – introducing her husband, legendary violinist Sir Yehudi, with the memorable line: ‘Have you met my old fiddler?’ Sir Yehudi was unabashed. ‘Everywhere I go, I am the oldest person,’ he confessed. ‘In fact I even once met President Roosevelt.’
The book was hailed as a great success in the UK, receiving favourable reviews from leading newspapers and periodicals, many of which touched on her warm-heartedness and good humour – as well as her resourcefulness. Dean Godson in the Spectator singled out her remark that her job was ‘rather like being the mayor of a small town with an incredibly demanding constituency’.
Predictably, representatives of Third World dictatorships turned out to be the most demanding of the lot. Thus, the Zaireans in President Mobutu’s entourage complained that the breasts of Roosevelt’s junior protocol officers were too small, and chastised their hosts for not providing call girls (they declared that such matters were much better handled on their trips to France).
King Hassan of Morocco also created his share of problems by dispatching some unconventional advance men – namely, the royal teamakers. To the consternation of the Secret Service, they arrived at the White House dressed in pantaloons, red fezzes and pointy slippers, carrying silver teapots, bunsen burners and picnic hampers; to the even greater horror of the White House curator, they proceeded to settle down on the red-carpeted floor of the main hall, portable stoves ablaze. Only the timely intervention of the protocol office averted a major diplomatic incident.
Bricks were just as likely to be dropped on the American side, though it was disappointing to discover that a story about Yitzhak Shamir being served spinach sprinkled with bacon was apocryphal. It was true, however, that the US Air Forces’ Singing Sergeants serenaded the Israeli prime minister with, ‘Soon I’ll be done with the troubles of the world, I want to meet my Jesus.’ Dean Godson felt Lucky might have said more about the more unfortunate and perplexing side-effects that could follow at times from over-enthusiastic diplomacy, as in the case of Nicolae Ceausescu, who ‘used his public receptions in the West to legitimize his rule in the eyes of ordinary Romanians’. There were also hundreds of American pronouncements, including a speech of praise by Mrs Roosevelt herself to President Li Peng, that ‘emboldened the Chinese regime to launch its brutal crackdown at Tienanmen Square’; but then, ‘as she observed in the middle of a flap over a dinner menu, “apple pie is much more complex than arms control”’.
Paul Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph felt her memoirs gave ‘an unvarnished picture of White House infighting’, and that she was ‘particularly good on the destruction of General “Al” Haig’. Sue Crewe in the Literary Review considered that:
Her relationship with the First Lady [Nancy Reagan] throughout the Reagan presidency is one of the more intriguing threads of the memoir. In an effort to be fair, the author bends over backwards so far that one fears for her lumbar muscles, but she doesn’t manage to disguise the fact that she loathed Nancy and despised her philistinism and insensitivity. ‘Lucky’ was particularly incensed when Mrs Reagan insulted the serious and literary President Alfonsin of Argentina by putting athletes and popular entertainers at his table. The chief of protocol felt obliged to apologize to his ambassador, concluding sourly, ‘I did not add that Mrs Reagan had forbidden her staff to show the seating to anyone until immediately before the dinner.’
The seating at official banquets was one of Lucky’s constant worries, she told Andrew Stephen in an interview for the Observer magazine:
‘You’d be amazed at the kind of things that heads of state get ruffled about. Have I made a mistake? Do these two people have a language in common? Did so-and-so get the food they wanted because they’re allergic to the thing they’re serving. There’s a million little details to be preoccupied with. Once one of these events began, you sort of held your breath and hoped it would go off flawlessly.
Getting flags and national anthems right was another pitfall, especially at the time of the break-up of the old Soviet Union. Giving gifts to Arabs that depicted owls was forbidden, since they are regarded as birds of ill-omen in the Middle East; and blue and white had to be avoided for more pragmatic reasons when Arabs were in town, those being the colours of the Israeli national flag. Prince Philip once took umbrage at being asked to turn off a light in his car for security reasons, since he was making himself into a better target, and slammed the door in Lucky’s face in a fury.
But he later apologized. ‘There are few men in the world more attractive than Prince Philip,’ she now says diplomatically. And ‘the Queen is far lovelier than her photos’. She cannot speak too highly of that other heroine to Americans, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, either: ‘It was a pleasure working with her. She was a joy – no fuss, very unfussy, very undemanding. Very appreciative of everything. She has more humour than I think she’s given credit for by your press.’
In summary, as she looked back at her career, she said:
‘You know, it’s interesting. Looking back, you see things before they actually become apparent to the public – and that’s one of the great joys of the job. You have insights into what’s coming. I realized that with the visit of the first Hungarian into Washington just at the end of the Reagan administration: already he was talking about capitalism, a market economy, freedom of speech. And all of a sudden, I thought: “My God! what am I hearing?” And then I realized we were moving into a New World. The whole thing was a wonderful experience.’
Douglas Fairbanks Jr said her account was, ‘A generous and unique glimpse into Lucky Roosevelt’s fascinating life’; while in Nicholas Cage’s opinion, ‘Of all the books that have come out of the Reagan administration, Lucky Roosevelt’s is the most fun. [It is] by far the most fascinating behind-the-scenes view.’