Putting out brush fires, at least figuratively, is among the duties of the White House press secretary. But in the case of Minneapolis native George Akerson — the nation’s first presidential press secretary — fire suppression became a real part of his job on Christmas Eve, 1929.
His boss, President Herbert Hoover, was throwing a holiday party for children of staffers and friends — complete with the U.S. Marine Band playing carols. About 8 p.m., smoke started pouring out of the West Wing executive offices. The blaze began in an attic, igniting 200,000 government pamphlets left from the Teddy Roosevelt era 20 years earlier.
The loft was “going up like brush wood,” according to accounts, when 41-year-old Akerson crawled through a window and rescued desk drawers, file cabinets and priceless flags.
Six feet tall, square-jawed and built like an oak tree, Akerson’s nimble action during the fire didn’t surprise those who knew him at Minneapolis Central High School and the University of Minnesota.
“His bulk attains an even 200 pounds, but it is carried easily because it is set on a powerful frame that moves quickly and readily,” according to a 1929 profile in the Shield of Phi Kappa Psi, his fraternity’s newsletter. “Indeed his college classmates knew him as ‘Breeze,’ though that is due not alone to his physical prowess but to his swift and well-directed mentality as well.”
Akerson (pronounced AYE-ker-son) was the oldest child of a Swedish-born sash and door salesman. Finding the U too agriculturally focused, he headed east to study political science at Allegheny College— offsetting tuition with a job playing organ at a small Catholic church in Meadville, Pa.
By 1910, he was studying government at Harvard and wooing a Wellesley College coed named Harriet Blake. They married after she earned her degree, raising three sons. Akerson worked for the Minneapolis Tribune from 1912 to 1925, serving as Washington correspondent in 1921.
Hoover was President Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of commerce when he befriended Akerson — plucking the newspaperman to serve as the secretary of the prestigious panel putting on the nation’s Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926. Hoover and Akerson were fishing together in California when Coolidge surprised everyone by announcing he wouldn’t run for re-election in 1928.
“It is reported that the trout were biting good and that both Mr. Hoover and Akerson were lazily enjoying their luck and a much deserved rest when their peace was broken,” the Shield reported. “Lines were reeled in, tackle packed, tents taken down and the trail to Palo Alto was hit.”
Akerson became the newspaper liaison for the winning Hoover campaign. Among the brush fires in that race against Democrat Al Smith: an accusation from Mississippi’s governor that Hoover had danced with a black woman on a flood visit in 1927. Showing the indignation that would become common for those in his job, Akerson said the claim was “the most indecent and unworthy statement in the whole of a bitter campaign.”
It didn’t slow Hoover, who won the 1928 election easily with 444 electoral votes compared with Smith’s 87. And before Hoover even named his cabinet, he tapped Akerson to carry on the press secretary role in the White House — something that hadn’t been officially done before.
“Akerson’s [role] is that of contact man between the President on the one hand and the press and the public on the other,” Washington correspondent L.W. Moffett wrote in the Shield, noting the new job required juggling diplomacy and protecting the president from annoyances.
“And as for contact with the press with its many views and opinions, temperaments and demands,” Moffett wrote, “it must be reckoned with carefully and even one trained in the newspaper field finds this to be a formidable job in itself.”
Just ask Sean Spicer. Akerson would meet with reporters daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. — serving as the White House spokesman as news unfolded, although not for quotation. With the nation plummeting into the Great Depression, the spin doctoring was difficult work. But Akerson made Hoover available for news conferences twice a week, screening the written questions that had to be submitted in advance.
When Akerson left the White House in 1931 to become a film executive with Paramount Pictures, Hoover said: “Someone has offered him two or three times the pay the Government can afford, and he has responsibilities to his family that I cannot deny. I do greatly regret to lose an old friend out of my personal service.”
Akerson was living in New York when he died from kidney failure at age 49 in 1937. There’s no telling whether his stint as the first press secretary affected his health. But it clearly caused some gray hair, according to Moffett’s story written eight months into Akerson’s White House gig.
“Like so many of his race, Scandinavian, this subject had blond hair in his more youthful days,” the 1929 profile said, “but closely following national and international politics and keeping pace with the tireless Herbert Hoover has exacted a transformation in this respect and capped a well shaped head with the color which passing years so persistently insist upon.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.