UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine Penn State President Graham Spanier giving Barack Obama advice on what to wear at his inauguration as America’s 44th president.
Not likely? Yet a Penn State president did dispense such sartorial advice to an incoming U.S. president — who happened to be his brother.
In December 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower was preparing for his upcoming inauguration as president of the United States.
His younger brother, Milton S. Eisenhower, was beginning his third year as Penn State’s president.
The two men were very close, and Milton would go on to become one of the inner circle of advisors to Ike during the latter’s eight years in the presidency.
One of the first pieces of advice Milton gave his brother concerned what to wear at the upcoming inaugural ceremonies.
On Dec. 27, Milton wrote the president-elect, cautioning that it would be “a mistake” for Ike to disregard tradition and wear anything other than a high silk hat and cutaway coat at his swearing-in Jan. 20.
Most presidents since Lincoln had worn a top hat and formal morning dress at their inaugurals, and Milton maintained Americans “like what few formal traditions they have.”
He warned his brother departing from tradition could attract attention from the news media and thereby distract from more important matters surrounding the launching of the new presidency.
“The breaking of a tradition is news,” he insisted. “It places you in the position of attaching too much importance to a small thing.”
Ike’s detailed response to his brother is included in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
“I do not see how you can label a cutaway and a silk hat as ‘traditional,'” he said. “If that is the case, why should we not be wearing three-corner hats and knee britches?
“Man’s dress has continued to change down the ages, and in modern times has tended more and more toward the utilitarian,” he continued.
“I do see certain advantages in a rough uniformity for formal occasions, and so I think that striped trousers with either an Oxford-gray cutaway or an Oxford-gray short coat would be perfectly satisfactory.
“But I think that to make the modern automobile and the silk hat meet in any kind of a compromise that takes convenience and comfort into consideration, is a complete impossibility.
“So far as the outgoing president [Harry Truman] is concerned, he is entitled, of course, to wear whatever he pleases, and will, of course, do so,” he added.
“On the other hand, I have not had a single incoming Cabinet officer or any of the Senators or members of the Congress in Washington, disagree with the proposal, even by a lifted eyebrow, for simplifying man’s formal dress.”
Left the door ajar
Ike’s mix of determination and humor seemed to settle the issue, but he did leave the door ajar for Milton to continue making his case.
“In spite of all the above,” Ike wrote, “if you want to continue the argument, give me a ring when you get this note…. Love to Helen [Mrs. Milton Eisenhower] and a Happy New Year to you and the entire family!”
Milton was right
Milton may have lost the argument, but events proved him right. His brother’s decision on what to wear for his inauguration did make news.
The New York Times published a Jan. 15, 1953, story by James Reston, headlined, “Eisenhower Lowers Boom on Top Hat, Elects a Homburg.” He wore a club coat with his homburg hat.
Ike valued Milton’s advice, whether or not he heeded it.
As Penn State president, Milton made many weekend trips from State College to Washington to serve as one of his brother’s most trusted confidants, presumably on matters that did not include the presidential wardrobe.
Ike returned the favor, visiting Penn State four times while he was the nation’s chief executive.
Milton resigned his Penn State post in 1956, accepting the presidency of The John Hopkins University in Baltimore, a post that made it more convenient for him to remain in service as a presidential counselor.