By Thomas F. Schwartz
Royal visits to the United States are always complicated affairs, especially when things do not go according to plans. Such was the case in 1919 when the King and Queen of Belgium were invited by Congressional invitation, the first extended since Lafayette came in 1825 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution. Trouble began when President Wilson became ill and had to cancel events with the King and Queen. Their itinerary was adjusted to allow more time in California to visit with Herbert and Lou Hoover as well as visit other venues on the West Coast. According to Hoover, he reached out to Harry Webb, an engineering colleague in Santa Barbara, the first stop for the royal party. Webb inquired, “Will there be any buttons?”, a euphemism at that time for official or royal pins and badges. Hoover assured him that someone in the royal party would have a sack full of appropriate “buttons” for city officials.
The royal entourage was met by a sheriff who Hoover described as “a Hollywood sheriff with a ten-gallon hat, high boots, and two revolvers.” Not versed in proper protocol in addressing his guests as “Your Majesty”, the sheriff referred to him as “O King.” When corrected by a member of the party, King Albert, amused by the honest mistake, insisted that the sheriff continue to address him as “O King” for the remainder of the visit.
Difficulty began when the royal party arrived in San Francisco. Mayor James Rolph, facing a tough reelection, was concerned that consorting with royalty may not sit well with voters. Hoover agreed to be the official host and make the appropriate arrangements. All the mayor would have to do is make a short speech welcoming the royal couple to the city. Hoover strategically blocked off a main street to build a big crowd for the King and Queen and had sufficient numbers of Army and Navy recruits and their bands to provide a grand parade. The King proudly bestowed the Order of the Crown, second class, on Mayor Rolph. According to Hoover, Rolph, worried that “this display of feudalism on his breast…would lose thousands of votes,” asked for Hoover’s advice. Hoover suggested that Rolph simply accept the honor on behalf of the City of San Francisco since many cities in Europe during World War I received similar honors. The mayor embraced the suggestion and when he rose to speak, “in most eloquent terms accepted it on behalf of the city of which he had the honor to be chief magistrate.” A confused King Albert turned to Hoover and asked “What in @$%! is he talking about?” A calm Hoover replied, “Pay no attention to the Mayor. He has his troubles. I’ll explain later on.”
In spite of the complications all the “buttons” created during the visit, Hoover noted that it had a happy ending. Mayor Rolph was reelected by a sizeable majority and later went on to be elected Governor of California. When Rolph died in 1934, Hoover was asked to serve as pallbearer. He could not help but notice that the corpse was sporting on his suit lapel the Belgian Order of the Crown. The Governor was buried with his “button.”