For more than two decades, from 1952 to 1977, Ann Whitman worked in Washington among the most powerful national political leaders of the time. She held no elected office and was invisible to the general public — but government insiders were fully aware of her presence and her clout.
Whitman was President Dwight Eisenhower’s confidential secretary (read: executive assistant) during his two terms in the White House. Following that, she accepted a similar position with the then Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.
When Rockefeller became Vice President, Whitman was named his Chief of Staff, the first woman to ever serve in that capacity at that level.
Titles aside, she had complete access to Eisenhower, the leader of the western world, and to Rockefeller, a towering figure in his own right.
This was an era when women were struggling to maintain any place at the governing table. By the early 1950’s, only seven women had served in the United States Senate. The House of Representatives had better numbers, but women had never constituted more than 3 percent of the entire body.
Whitman was in a unique position: she could speak her mind, which she did, and she could influence policy because both Eisenhower and Rockefeller respected her.
On paper, Whitman didn’t appear to be a good match for either of her bosses. Prior to joining the Eisenhower team, she was a liberal Democrat who had voted for FDR. On a personal level, she was a staunch feminist who belonged to the advocacy group, the Lucy Stone League.
But Eisenhower was not intimidated by strong personalities, he surrounded himself with them. Rockefeller had a history of promoting women. Plus, they both deeply admired the central feature of Whitman’s personality — a resolute work ethic, twelve hour days, seven day weeks and a perfectionism that had no limits.
“I only worked for two men, really,” she recalled later. “And with both of them I took the initiative… knowing what it was that had to be done and doing it.”
Whitman originally came to Eisenhower by pure accident in June of 1952. Ike’s regular secretary was out on sick leave, so Whitman was just pinch hitting — the two immediately bonded, and Whitman remained for the duration.
Born on a farm in Perry, Ohio, Whitman was raised in a middle class environment that was leavened by physical challenges: her grandmother, who lived with the family, was blind. Her mother was severely crippled by arthritis, leaving her in a wheelchair. Not carefree circumstances.
Whitman excelled in academics, dreamed of going to a private school, but wound up in a Cleveland stenographer training program. She also attended Antioch College on a work/study curriculum.
By the time she was 25, Whitman was living in New York, working as a private secretary for Adele Levy, the daughter of the founder of Sears, Roebuck & Company. This position required that she function in a worldly setting where guests like Eleanor Roosevelt were part of the daily landscape.
The combination of a flinty childhood, stenographer training, and exposure to celebrated personalities shaped her into an ideal candidate for managing the unpredictable and demanding White House office.
Over his two terms, Eisenhower developed a complete trust in what he called her “competency” and “devotion.” He declared that Whitman was “the most important person in the life of this office.”
In “Confidential Secretary,” Whitman’s biography, Robert Donovan wrote: “Officially, Ann’s was not a policy-making role. Sherman Adams (Ike’s Chief of Staff) said…it would be ‘something of an oversimplification’ to say that she had nothing to do with policy…she would throw out little suggestions to the President.”
Whitman said that she always told the President what was on her mind: “I felt no restraint in saying anything to him. He argued with me sometimes… I talked to the President a lot. I was with him more than anyone else. We must have talked 20 times a day. If he absorbed any of my thinking, then I had influence.”
Next to his family, Eisenhower most frequently turned to Whitman with his confidences. She was one of the few who knew he buried a time capsule in the fireplace of his farm in Gettysburg, Pa.
After Eisenhower retired, Whitman stayed on for a short while but eventually went to work with Rockefeller – the Governor said he hired her “because she ran the White House for Ike.”
Rockefeller never achieved his ambition to become President, so Whitman did not have the opportunity to return to the White House to work with another chief executive.
She retired in 1977 and passed away in October of 1991.
In his exhaustive, two-volume biography of Eisenhower, Stephen Ambrose wrote: “That Eisenhower could not have gotten through his task without her (Whitman) goes without saying.” Undoubtedly, Ike would have agreed with that statement.
RIP, Ann Whitman