February 12, 2007

Police Escorts: Now and Then

A recent headline in The Baltimore Sun, “Police Escorts at BWI to End for Celebrities,” prompted a recollection of a police-escorted ride, at breakneck speeds, from the airport to Homewood more than 40 years ago.

Students had invited candidates for the 1964 presidential nomination to speak on campus. One of them was Republican Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, an old friend of then JHU president Milton S. Eisenhower. Both had served in the 1930s and ’40s in various federal government positions in Washington, D.C., and each had been involved in Latin American diplomacy.

Rockefeller had accepted the students’ invitation, promising to arrive in time for a 4 p.m. speech at Shriver Hall. Eisenhower and his driver, Charles Morgan, went out to the airport to meet him, arriving early, as was Eisenhower’s custom. He never was late for an appointment and expected everyone around him to develop the same high regard for punctuality.

Rockefeller’s private plane arrived nearly an hour late.

Meanwhile, in a packed Shriver Hall, students, faculty and staff were growing restless. In a day before cell phones, no one knew what was causing the delay. The director of special events, John Synodinos, went on stage numerous times, urging patience.

Fortunately, Eisenhower’s office had arranged for a police escort — four helmeted and black-booted officers on gleaming white motorcycles — to lead the president and his guest to Shriver Hall.

It was rush hour in downtown Baltimore. With sirens screaming, the motorcycles led Eisenhower’s car through one red light after another. Eisenhower said later he was certain that they would be broadsided by a driver failing to heed the sirens. Rockefeller gave no indication that it was anything but a normal ride, conversing almost without interruption about the affairs of the day (though not about his recent divorce and remarriage, which had made headlines). Occasionally he would call Eisenhower “Milt,” a nickname Eisenhower detested. No one called Eisenhower “Milt.”

Arriving to a cheering crowd in Shriver Hall, Rockefeller immediately launched into a stump speech about nuclear energy, numbing the audience, most of whom had stayed long past their dinner hour.

Perhaps his inability to be on time for appointments and his poor choice of topics for lively university audiences helped contribute to his decline in popularity among Republicans. He eventually withdrew from the race, leaving the door open to Arizona’s Barry Goldwater, who lost to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Today we cannot count on a police escort from BWI for a tardy presidential candidate. Gone, too, are the romance and excitement of another time.