Adams was born in 1899 in East Dover, Vermont, but relocated with his parents to Providence, Rhode Island, at a young age. After a six-month stint in the Marine Corps during World War I, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1920. Adams began working in the lumber industry, taking a position as clerk and sealer with the Black River Lumber Company in Healdville, Vermont. Within a couple of years, however, he had advanced to logging foreman and company treasurer. In 1923, he was hired by Parker-Young Company, the parent group of Black River, and continued working there until 1944, eventually becoming general manager. The business was not without its share of adventure. In one incident, Adams' front teeth were knocked out when he was struck by a runaway skidder. On a wintry evening in January of 1942, a B-18 bomber returning from a patrol over the Atlantic Ocean crashed on Mt. Waternomee. Adams was among a crew of woodsmen and local residents who battled the elements to climb the peak and rescue the five survivors.
When Adams entered politics, it was at the request of his superiors at the company, who thought state legislators were not doing an adequate job. He served in the state house of representatives from 1941 to 1944, including two years as speaker. He left state politics in 1944, when he was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives. He gave up this seat in 1946 after launching a campaign for Governor of New Hampshire, and lost this contest by 157 votes.
Beginning in 1946, Adams represented the American Pulpwood Industry. He ended his association with them in 1948, when he tried for Governor again and was elected over Democrat and Dartmouth College professor Herbert W. Hill. While in office, Adams trimmed the state's administrative offices by nearly half, reducing them from 83 to 43. He was re-elected in 1950, but opted not to run again in 1952 due to his support of Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign for President.
Adams was one of six Governors endorsing Eisenhower for the Republican nomination for President in 1951. In September of that year, he announced that Eisenhower's name would be entered in the New Hampshire primary. Opting to support Eisenhower in a more direct way, Adams worked as the floor manager at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1952. After this experience, Adams became Eisenhower's campaign manager. Known for his stony demeanor, some nicknamed Adams after one of New Hampshire's more prominent features: "The Great Stone Face." Adams took the joke in stride, and accepted a modified moniker: "The Rock."
After Eisenhower was elected, he initially considered Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts for the position of Assistant to the President, but ultimately decided that Lodge would be better suited in representing the country in the United Nations. He offered the job to Herbert Brownwell, a New York lawyer, but Brownwell declined and suggested Adams. Eisenhower agreed, and in January of 1953 Adams came to the White House on a $22,500 annual salary.
In a profile written after his nomination in November of 1952, Martin S. Hayden said Adams would have more power than previous people in the Assistant's position, and would in fact serve as "a full-fledged assistant president with a hand in all operations." Eisenhower, the renowned World War II general, planned to carry something of the military structure into his Presidency. Along the lines of a military chief of staff, the Assistant would keep apprised of executive decisions and see that they were carried out, and also ensure that only the more important tasks were delegated to the President. Adams would later say that Eisenhower did the most important tasks, while he did the next most important ones.
The chief of staff metaphor was used during the campaign, and on the night before Election Day Adams introduced himself by saying, "I am Governor Sherman Adams of New Hampshire. In this campaign General Eisenhower likes to call me his chief of staff." Though the position itself later became known as Chief of Staff, Eisenhower later shied away from the comparison, saying "the politicians think it sounds too military."
As part of his duties, Adams attended Cabinet and National Security Council meetings, and also led White House staff meetings at least twice a week. Known for being curt and to the point, one of Adams' more notable quirks involved eschewing a "hello" or "good-bye" from his phone calls. It was not uncommon for the person on the other end of the line to hear a dial tone as Adams considered the conversation over and hung up without warning, and even Eisenhower was once cut off in such a way. Adams was also known for asking staffers, "What have you done for your country today?" as he passed them in the hallways. In a lengthy 1956 article in Time, he was described as "often inconsiderate, always demanding, possessed of the disposition of a grizzly with a barked shin," but also possessed of "loyalty, integrity, and selflessness."
Adams, like Eisenhower, was on the more moderate side of the Republican Party. He opposed Senator Joe McCarthy's hunt for latent Communists and helped form a White House strategy to put an end to it. He also supported civil rights and assisted in the appointment of Fred Morrow, the first black man to receive an executive position in the White House. While these positions earned Adams some grumbling from right-wing Republicans, he earned more criticism for rejecting access to the President except to those he felt had the most pressing issues. This behavior earned Adams another nickname: "The Abominable No-Man."
Yet another nickname of Adams, "The Boss," reflected another criticism: the perceived belief that Adams wielded an incredible amount of power when it came to Presidential decisions. Though the suggestion that Adams would be "Assistant President" rather than simply an assistant to Eisenhower went back at least as far as Hayden's profile, some grumbled that Adams was influencing the President by choosing which people saw him and what matters were most important. This perception gained momentum after Eisenhower suffered a heart attack and Adams was instrumental in guiding the White House staff in their actions during the President's recovery. Eisenhower was quoted as saying, "The only person who really understands what I'm trying to do is Sherman Adams." A 1957 Newsweek article deemed Adams the "second most powerful man in the White House." Despite the accusations, Adams said in a 1957 interview that he wouldn't want to be President. "You wouldn't have to be around here very long to see why I wouldn't want the job," he said.
The first hint of real trouble involving Adams came in February of 1958. Dr. Bernard Schwartz, counsel for the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight during their investigation into Federal Communications Commission decisions, was fired and suggested that the subcommittee members were seeking to whitewash any sign of collusion between White House officials and high-ranking Republicans. Schwartz later told the subcommittee's members that Adams had intervened in at least one regulatory case. Adams, Schwartz charged, had talked with the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1953 about the future of the faltering North American Airlines. Soon after, the CAB postponed a decision to order the airline out of business. The subcommittee also read two letters from Sherman to Murray Chotiner, the airline's counsel, regarding Adams' discussions with Harmar D. Denny, who had been CAB chairman at the time. One letter concluded by asking, "Is there anything further in this case that I can do?"
The North American Airlines question fizzled out, though the subcommittee did begin looking into Adams' relationship with some businessmen that same month. One key witness was John Fox, who in 1952 had bought the Boston Post with help from a loan provided by Bernard Goldfine, a New England textile manufacturer as well as friend and political contributor to Adams. The relationship between Fox and Goldfine later soured, and the Post went bankrupt in 1956 after Goldfine called in his loan. Fox was more than happy to implicate Goldfine before the subcommittee. At one meeting between Adams, Goldfine, and Goldfine's son, Fox said that Goldfine had boasted that Adams would take care of a problem involving one of his sons, one of his mills, and the Federal Trade Commission. Fox also testified that Goldfine directly said he was financially supporting Adams and had given securities to public officials in return for favors. He said that one of Goldfine's contributions towards Adams was the purchase of a house in Washington, D.C. after Adams began working for Eisenhower.
Not much credence was later given to Fox's testimony. Oren Harris, a Democrat from Arkansas and chairman of the subcommittee, questioned how reliable Fox was. Adams denounced the insinuations at a press conference, saying, "It is incredible to me that any committee of the Congress would permit a completely irresponsible witness to use the committee as a forum for making such vicious accusations." But while Fox's volley of charges, especially regarding the house, may have proved untrue, the subcommittee found that the underlying accusation of an improper relationship between Goldfine and Adams had some truth to it.
The investigation determined that Goldfine had been in touch with Adams for his assistance regarding his problems with the Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1954, Adams called the FTC chairman to get a full report on charges that Goldfine was violating the Wool Labeling Act by producing textiles with more nylon than was advertised in the nylon-vicuña ratio on the tag. Adams provided the report to Goldfine, and the matter was closed a month later. In 1956, Adams asked Eisenhower's special counsel to look into the status of complaints against Goldfine, which accused his East Boston Company and a subsidiary of failing to file financial reports over the course of eight years.
The aspect of the scandal gaining the most attention, however, was the gifts that Goldfine sent to Adams. The most prominent was a vicuña coat, though Adams also accepted an expensive Oriental rug and a few mats. The subcommittee also determined that Goldfine paid about $3,000 worth of hotel expenses for Adams' trips to New England. The investigation looked into whether Adams had sought to influence $40,382 in penalty refund payments to the defunct Raylaine Worsteds Corporation, but that charge was dropped for lack of evidence.
When he testified before the subcommittee, Adams was unapologetic. He said that Goldfine did not receive any special treatment, and that the calls to the FTC and SEC were routine and only to ask questions. The rug was offered as a loaner replacement for a shabbier one in his New Hampshire home, but Adams said that he considered it impractical and asked Goldfine to take it back. Adams also testified that Goldfine had offered to put Adams up in a Boston hotel suite he owned if Adams was coming through, and that he did not consider anything wrong with that. Adams had less of an explanation for the coat, saying that it only cost Goldfine's mill $69 to make one and that it did not have any effect on his behavior. Adams even said he had discussed the issue of accepting gifts with his staff, and had advised them against doing anything that could be misconstrued. "I have no excuses to offer. I did not come up here to make apology to you or this committee. If there were any errors, as I have already stated, they were errors, perhaps of inexperience," he told the subcommittee. "I will say this: that if I had the decisions now before me to make, I believe I would have acted a little more prudently."
Some Republicans began calling for Adams' resignation as the investigation continued, believing that the scandal would hurt the party in the 1958 elections and contributions towards the campaigns. In response, both Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard Nixon publicly supported him. Nixon, in a sense, was returning a favor; Adams had defended Nixon against efforts to oust him from the 1952 ticket due to questions over his expenses, a controversy that culminated in Nixon's "Checkers" speech. "The trouble with Republicans is that when they get in trouble they start acting like a bunch of cannibals," Nixon said. In June, Eisenhower said Adams was "an invaluable public servant doing a difficult job efficiently, honestly, and tirelessly." He also listed a series of points, saying that he believed Adams was telling the truth when he denied wrongdoing, personally liked him, admired his abilities, and respected his integrity. What gained the most attention, certainly for those who thought Adams had too much power over the Presidency, was his concluding point: "I need him."
The pressure against Adams increased. Eisenhower's support was seen as a double standard, since he had promised that he would not tolerate unethical behavior in his Administration. In an early election in Maine in September, Democratic Governor Edmund Muskie defeated Republican Senator Frederick Payne for Payne's seat. Payne had also accepted gifts from Goldfine, namely a $3,500 loan that hadn't been repaid, and the result was seen as a reaction to the Adams scandal and a possible preview of the November elections.
Not long after the Maine upset, Eisenhower reluctantly asked Adams to resign. During his outgoing speech, which was televised and broadcast on on the radio, Adams said he was the victim of a "campaign of vilification" and that the efforts of those seeking to remove him from the White House "have been intended to destroy me and in so doing embarrass the Administration of the President of the United States." Any further civil rights actions of the Administration were hindered, as Adams was replaced by pro-segregationalist Wilton "Jerry" Persons. Eisenhower described his decision to let Adams go as "the most hurtful, the hardest, the most heartbreaking decision" of his Presidency. He also sent Adams off with a sterling silver bowl inscribed with the message, "To Sherman Adams...from his devoted friend, Dwight D. Eisenhower."
Later analysts questioned how unusual Adams' actions were. Goldfine was found to have paid hotel bills for at least three congressmen. Even Eisenhower received some vicuña cloth from Goldfine in 1956, if not a full coat. Others questioned how the Adams scandal compared with Eisenhower accepting several gifts to adorn his Gettysburg farm.
Goldfine refused to answer questions before the subcommittee, and was charged with contempt of Congress. He received a suspended year in prison, as well as a suspended $1,000 fine that was replaced by two years of probation. He was later convicted of tax evasion.
Adams dropped from the public eye in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, but also did writing and lecturing. In 1961, he wrote a book entitled First Hand Report, consisting mostly of anecdotes from his time in the Eisenhower Administration but also some pages defending his actions in the scandal. He founded a ski resort on Loon Mountain, a peak visible from his New Hampshire home, in 1966. Adams also championed the effort to change the name of Mount Pleasant in the Presidential Range to Mount Eisenhower, a switch that occurred in 1972. The summit building on nearby Mount Washington is named for Adams.
Adams died in Hanover, New Hampshire, in October 1986 from respiratory arrest and renal failure after being hospitalized for a month. Not long after his death, William Safire published a column saying the Internal Revenue Service had been after Adams for years, investigating approximately $300,000 in unreported income. Even if true, however, it was too late to do anything about it.
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Voters in 7 States Name Candidates in Primaries" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Sept. 15 1948, "Adams Will Have Greater Authority Than Any Prior President's Assistant" in the Toledo Blade on Nov. 25 1952, "The New Administration: Assistant To The President" in Time on Dec. 1 1952, "The Administration: O.K., S.A." in Time on Jan. 9 1956, "Ike Assistant Wouldn't Be U.S. President" in the Deseret News on May 10 1957, "Eisenhower Aide Adams Is Accused" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Feb. 18 1958, "Ike Says 'I Need Him' About Sherman Adams" in the Free-Lance Star on Jun. 18 1958, "The Administration: Man In The Storm" in Time on Jun. 30 1958, "Up From South Boston: The Rise & Fall Of John Fox" in Time on Jul. 7 1958, "Investigations: Tales Of The Wild Hare" in Time on Jul. 7 1958, "Adams Resigns Under Pressure As Ike's Assistant" in the Daily Collegian on Sept. 23 1958, "The Administration: Exit Adams" in Time on Sept. 29 1958, "Goldfine Gets Suspended Term, Fine" in the Eugene Register-Guard on Jul. 24 1959, "Sherman Adams Drops From Public View, Lives Quiet Life In New Hampshire Town" in the Ocala Star-Banner on Jul. 27 1959, "Sherman Adams Repleads His Case" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jun. 5 1961, "Sherman Adams, Was Top Assistant For Eisenhower" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Oct. 28 1986, "The Great Sherman Adams Cover-Up" in the Toledo Blade on Nov. 4 1986, Eisenhower & Landrum-Griffin: A Study in Labor-Management Politics by R. Alton Lee, The New Hampshire Century edited by Felice Belman and Mike Pride, Eisenhower by Geoffrey Perret, Eisenhower and the American Crusades by Herbert S. Parmet, logginginlincoln.com, mountwashington.org