On Wednesday, Rex W. Scouten died in a hospital near his home in Fairfax, Virginia, at the age of 88.
Although Mr. Scouten’s name may be familiar only to a smallish minority of America – which was the way he always preferred it – those who are familiar with the history of the American presidency, and the White House, from the late 1940s to the mid-1990s know that one person who was on the scene during all ten of those Administrations, from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton – and always in a highly significant capacity – was Rex Scouten.
Although his name, to the casual reader, might suggest the hero of a shoot-em-up pulp Western, that would be a misleading notion of Mr. Scouten’s personality. A man of action he was, but always intent on doing his work in the most inconspicuous and quietly meticulous manner possible – as described in Adam Bernstein’s obituary for him in the Washington Post.
This approach was one Mr. Scouten maintained from the start of his White House work, as a member of the Secret Service. He began serving as a member of President Truman’s detail in 1949, and in a conversation with this writer during a Nixon Center dinner some years ago, he vividly recalled the events of November 1, 1950. He was at work in the West Wing, in the days when the White House was undergoing renovations and the President was residing in Blair House across the street. Suddenly word came that two gunmen, militant Puerto Rican nationalists, had opened fire on Blair House with President Truman inside. Mr. Scouten was at Blair House within minutes, to find his colleague, White House policeman Leslie Coffelt, slain – though not before the heroic Coffelt had killed one of the gunmen. Mr. Scouten then went to work doing what he did best – maintaining order and restoring everyday procedure, just as President Truman wished as he proceeded to his scheduled round of events.
With the arrival at the Oval Office of President Eisenhower, Mr. Scouten was assigned to the first Secret Service detail in history created for a Vice-President – Richard Nixon – and in that capacity accompanied RN on many trips overseas, and playing an essential role in the organization and smooth performance of the innumerable details of these visits.
With the beginning of the 1960s, Mr. Scouten became assistant usher at the White House. In that capacity he was the man working behind the scenes to coordinate the celebrated social events of the Kennedy Administration, from the sumptuous state dinners to the awe-inspiring gathering of Nobel Prize winners in 1962.
But his most important service to President Kennedy came after the latter’s assassination, when, at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, he supervised the arrangements for overseas dignitaries to come to, and participate in, the funeral – the largest gathering of world leaders in American history. The unforgettable procession behind the casket – including kings and queens, Prince Philip, General De Gaulle, Emperor Haile Selassie – was put into motion by Mr. Scouten – though, as he preferred, his name was not in the papers in connection with it.
Mr. Scouten’s skills had made a strong impression on Richard Nixon as Vice President, and when upon his inauguration as President in 1969, one of his first moves was to make Mr. Scouten the White House’s Chief Usher.
This position was held by Mr. Scouten until 1986. During the first five and a half years of his work in it, he handled a myriad of complex and multifaceted responsibilities with surpassing efficiency and skill. As Nixon Foundation President Sandy Quinn points out in his statement on Mr. Scouten’s passing, he developed warm friendships with all the members of the First Family, consistently doing his utmost to make easier their involvement in sometimes taxing social and state occasions.
The pinnacle of Mr. Scouten’s work as Curator came in 1973, when he headed the organization and planning of what is still the largest social event ever seen at the White House – the dinner welcoming home America’s POWs from Vietnam, along with their families. Several clips at YouTube attest to the enormous effort and manpower that went into putting the dinner together – a dinner which, that afternoon and evening, went as elegantly and smoothly as could be imagined.
Such was the tradition Mr. Scouten maintained until his retirement as Chief Usher in 1986. At that time, he made the transition to being White House Curator, supervising the maintenance and acquisition of art, furniture, and other items to improve the Executive Mansion, and continued in this work until his retirement in 1997 under President Clinton.
During his retirement, Mr. Scouten maintained close ties with all the First Families he served – especially with the Nixon family. Rare was the Nixon Foundation or Nixon Center dinner that was not graced by his presence, and on several occasions he traveled to Yorba Linda to visit the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, notably in 2004 to see the recreation of the East Room after its completion.
Mr. Scouten always turned down inquiries from publishers about writing a memoir, and when interviewed in the press, always accentuated the positive of the White House and its occupants. His genial personality, encyclopedic knowledge of the White House and the Presidents and First Families with whom he worked, and his deep sense of continuity and history made an enormous impression on everyone who knew him. Our nation is a better one because of his readiness to serve and his splendid performance in doing so.