Gettysburg College History Prof. Michael Birkner authored the following opinion piece that appeared in the Bergen Record on Jan. 16.
TWO DAYS AFTER delivering his famous farewell address to the nation, Dwight Eisenhower prepared to meet incoming President John F. Kennedy for a briefing about the deteriorating situation in Laos.
But immediately preceding that meeting, on the morning of Jan. 19, 1961, Eisenhower paused to ask about an old gambling scandal that had roiled politics and criminal justice in Bergen County.
This unusual sidelight to the final days of a consequential presidency had its origins in the request of former New Jersey Gov. Alfred E. Driscoll for an autograph, as conveyed by Driscoll's former assistant - and Ike's then associate counsel - H. Roemer McPhee. Ike's query stemmed from something etched in the president's memory, his exciting run for the White House in 1952.
At the time, Driscoll was viewed as a kingmaker for the Republican presidential nomination. New Jersey's senior senator, H. Alexander Smith, was certain Driscoll would endorse Eisenhower's main opponent, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft, and thereby tilt the New Jersey delegation, creating a snowball effect on his behalf. Smith conveyed this information, based on a conversation with Driscoll that Driscoll later denied he had ever had, to Taft.
Documentary evidence and oral history testimony support Driscoll's view that he had made no commitment to support Taft for the presidency. As the New Jersey presidential primary approached, Driscoll warmly endorsed Eisenhower and threw his political machine behind Ike's candidacy.
Angered by an alleged betrayal, Taft blasted Driscoll and pulled out of the primary. The way was clear for Eisenhower to capture the lion's share of New Jersey delegates, en route to a first ballot nomination victory over Taft in Chicago.
For several reasons, Driscoll immediately became part of the conversation about Ike's vice presidential choice. He represented a swing state, he had a reputation as an effective administrator and he was relatively young - age 49 at the time of the 1952 campaign.
Perhaps most important, Driscoll had governed from the middle of the road, which squared with Eisenhower's own outlook.
An Eisenhower-Driscoll ticket would have strong appeal to independents and urban voters who ordinarily tilted to the Democrats.
The vice presidency for Alfred Driscoll, however, was not to be. Ike's inner circle concluded that an even more youthful candidate, the anti-communist senator from California, Richard M. Nixon, would balance the ticket better.
Once elected, Ike did not forget Driscoll, offering him at least three choice positions (Labor Secretary, head of the Civil Service Commission and an ambassadorship), all of which Driscoll turned down, to Eisenhower's surprise and chagrin.
Driscoll preferred to make money in the private sector as president of the New Jersey-based Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Co.
As Eisenhower was taking leave of the White House in January 1961, Driscoll did seek one favor from the president: a signed copy of Eisenhower's World War II memoir, "Crusade in Europe." When Driscoll called his former assistant McPhee, the latter cleared space on Ike's calendar, bought the book, prepared an inscription and duly entered the Oval Office. When McPhee explained why he was there, Eisenhower pushed back in his chair and said, "Roemer, tell me. What was all that about what happened to Alfred Driscoll with the Bergen County thing?"
McPhee thereupon gave Eisenhower a synopsis of the gambling scandal in Bergen that had sullied Driscoll's reputation (unfairly, in McPhee's view) and contributed to his leave-taking from the governorship in 1953 on a less-than-triumphant note.
Payoffs to Bergen County officials
The gambling story stemmed from the payoffs New York gamblers made to Bergen County officials, whom prosecutors believed included the county prosecutor, Walter Winne, who was indicted but never convicted of bribery charges.
Winne's prosecution foundered in part because of Driscoll's run-in with a special prosecutor, Nelson Stamler, whom he had appointed to clean up the scandal and eradicate the political odor it left on the GOP.
Dozens of smalltime gamblers were indicted, as were bigger names, notably Joe Adonis. Dozens of local officials, including police officers, either resigned under pressure or were indicted for being on the take.
When the special prosecutor, Stamler, seemed to be at least as interested in headlines as convictions, Driscoll removed him, provoking a brouhaha statewide that ran for months. What Roemer McPhee has described as a "great cloud" fell on the heads of Driscoll and his attorney general, Theodore Parsons.
McPhee maintains they were right to fire Stamler for insubordination. Stamler rejected the notion and charged cover-up.
To this day no scholar has convincingly demonstrated which side was right. Perhaps both were.
Personal note from Ike
Satisfied with McPhee's explanation of events in Bergen County, Eisenhower discarded McPhee's canned inscription to Driscoll and wrote his own - a long and personal one - McPhee has recalled.
A few days later, McPhee saw Driscoll in Trenton and gave him the book Ike had inscribed to him. He mentioned Sen. Smith in the conversation, and Driscoll "went white as a sheet." He said to his former aide, "Roemer, Alex Smith never talked to me, never."
According to McPhee, Driscoll "realized how much had hung on Smith's unfounded report to Taft," since it was his impression that Taft had vetoed a Driscoll candidacy for the vice presidency on the grounds that Driscoll was two-face. "I think he also knew how much that had adversely affected his own political career, really ending it," McPhee has recalled.
It is more plausible that the gambling scandal, which continued through Driscoll's final year in office, and beyond, ended his political career.
Robert Taft had little influence on Ike's choice for the vice presidency.
Either way, the Driscoll story became an intriguing Bergen County connection to Eisenhower's final day in office, and a reminder that New Jersey governors have, for good or ill, often claimed national attention.