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Sherman Adams Dies at 87 in N.H. : Forced Out as Top Eisenhower Aide in Vicuna Coat Scandal

October 28, 1986|From a Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sherman Adams, who resigned under fire as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief White House aide in 1958 after accepting a vicuna coat and other gifts from an old friend who was having problems with the government, died Monday.

He was 87 and died in Hanover, N.H., of respiratory ailments and renal complications, a nurse said.

Powerful Figure

Until his resignation, Adams, a former Republican governor of New Hampshire, was the second most powerful figure in the executive branch of the government. He was a skilled and hard-working administrator--a quality prized by Eisenhower, who, as a career military man, put a high premium on staff work and who disliked being bothered by details.

But Adams, by nature a taciturn New Englander, was also imperious, abrupt, aloof and a zealous guardian of access to the President. Except for Cabinet officers and a select few other top officials, almost no one saw Eisenhower unless the appointment had been cleared through Adams.

"Adams is the man you want to see if you want to see Eisenhower," was a cliche of the times. And, because Adams said "no" far more often than "yes," he became known as "the abominable no man."

Ran Government

When Eisenhower was hospitalized with a heart attack in 1955, a committee of top-ranking officials ran the country with Adams in charge, President in everything but name.

Adams was not liked by Republicans in Congress, who felt ignored and short-changed by the first GOP administration since 1932.

Thus, except for Eisenhower, Adams had few powerful political figures to rush to his defense when he got in trouble. Compared to the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, Adams' problems appear in retrospect to have been minimal. But, at the time, they were scandalous enough to bring him down. Here is what happened:

Early in 1958, a House Commerce subcommittee investigating the functioning of federal regulatory agencies discovered that Adams had contacted some of those agencies regarding the business problems of a friend, millionaire industrialist Bernard Goldfine of Boston.

Received Coat

Furthermore, the Democratic-controlled subcommittee learned that Goldfine had given Adams a full-length vicuna coat, lent him an expensive Oriental rug and paid some hotel bills for him, including one at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

Adams acknowledged making the calls for Goldfine and accepting the gifts, but he insisted that there had been no influence-peddling. He said the gifts were merely acts of generosity by an old friend who owned two textile mills in New Hampshire and whom he had known since his days as governor of the state from 1949 to 1953.

In a dramatic appearance before the House subcommittee on June 17, 1958, Adams swore under oath that he had a "clear conscience." He said none of his actions had "resulted in any benefit to Bernard Goldfine that he could not have received had he gone directly to the agency involved and he and I had been complete strangers."

As for the vicuna coat, which some said was worth $700, Adams said it was manufactured at one of Goldfine's mills at a cost of about $69. "I accepted this gift in the same spirit in which he accepted, many years ago, a gold watch from me," Adams said.

Major Political Issue

Although no evidence of wrongdoing was produced, the Democrats quickly built the Adams-Goldfine case into a major political issue. Fearful of the consequences and seeing an opportunity to retaliate against Adams, congressional Republicans warned Eisenhower that unless Adams was fired the party would be in danger of losing many seats in elections that November.

Eisenhower, who relied heavily on Adams, initially expressed complete confidence in his top aide and said somewhat plaintively: "I need him."

But the pressure mounted, and, finally, on Sept. 22, 1958, Adams resigned, reportedly at the request of Eisenhower, delivered through an intermediary. In a brief broadcast address, Adams said he was quitting to spare Eisenhower any embarrassment but insisted that his pride and honor were intact.

Eisenhower accepted the resignation "with sadness" and reiterated that Adams had "my complete trust, confidence and respect."

Friend Lost Fortune

Goldfine was convicted of income tax evasion, served eight months in prison, lost his fortune and died in 1967.

Adams, a slightly built man with white hair, was descended from Henry Adams, who established the famous Quincy, Mass., branch of the family in early colonial days.

Sherman Adams, whose father operated groceries, was born in East Dover, Vt., on Jan. 8, 1899, and grew up in Providence, R.I.

After World War I service with the Marine Corps, he was graduated from Dartmouth College in 1920, went into the lumber business and later into politics.

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