FIRST PERSON: Saving a president

Robert Gray, a powerful lobbyist and public relations expert for the Republican Party, helped save the life of a U.S. president. He recently died in Miami Beach.
Robert Gray, a powerful lobbyist and public relations expert for the Republican Party, helped save the life of a U.S. president. He recently died in Miami Beach.

Miami Beach resident Robert Gray passed away last week. Big deal you say.

Well, he kind of was a big deal in a little-known way.

I interviewed Gray three years ago, at age 89, for a Bay of Pigs 50th anniversary project the Miami Herald was publishing.

I had been looking for someone in the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. Even though John F. Kennedy takes the blame for the failed 1961 invasion, the roots of it actually began with Eisenhower. I wanted to get a sense of what the president had in mind when he decided to finance an invasion led by Cuban exiles to invade the island and overthrow a young Fidel Castro.

I learned through a friend that Gray, who had been Eisenhower’s secretary, lived on North Bay Road. Gray was believed to be the last surviving member of the Eisenhower’s administration.

I called him and asked for an interview and he graciously invited me and a videographer to his home. A big Republican Party supporter, lobbyist and fixer, Gray’s upstairs office was full of black and white framed photographs of himself and famous Republicans – Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole.

I interviewed Gray about the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he had little information we could use, but he did tell me a fascinating story related to Eisenhower – and how he felt he had helped safe the life of America’s 34th president.

As the appointments secretary, he was responsible for Eisenhower’s calendar. Gray was one of the White House staffers who worked closest with the president. Gray was the guy who would say, “Mr. President, in 10 minutes you have a cabinet meeting; In 30 minute, you’ll have lunch with two senators in the garden.

On the morning of November 23, 1957, Gray told me he entered the Oval office where Eisenhower was sitting behind his famous desk. By then Eisenhower was 67 and had suffered a heart attack two years earlier.

“I began to tell the president about the day’s schedule and he answered me in language I could not understand; he didn’t make sense but he seemed normal,” Gray told me.

“I addressed him again and the same thing happened. I said Mr. President, are you OK?”

Eisenhower again spoke in garbled gibberish.

Gray told me even though he knew the health of a president was a delicate national matter that called for the highest discretion, he ran to alert Eisenhower’s physician, who rushed to the president’s side.

It turns out Eisenhower had suffered a mild stroke.

For the next three day, the President of the United States went into hiding to recover. The American people never knew what had happened until after his Eisenhower’s administration. In 1962, Gray wrote a book called, “Eighteen Acres Under Glass,” an account of the last four years of the Eisenhower administration, but he kept the incident out of the book and did not speak of it publicly until Eisenhower’s death in 1969.

But when he told to me the story, he did it with pride. I felt he considered it one of the highlights of his long life – having helped a President at such a crucial moment.

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