- Historic Sites
The Highest Office
The Presidency has outlas fed the thrones of emperors and kings, shoguns and cxars, to become the world’s principal place of power
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
But not all memories of the White House are as dark as those of the Good Friday of 1865 on which the first assassination of an American President took place. The first real tenant of the W’hite House, and one who left his mark on it, was Thomas Jefferson, and it was characteristic of the late President Kennedy that when he gave his famous party for the American Nobel pri/.emen in literature and science he should have said there was more talent and genius gathered in the White House that night than there had ever been except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Other great makers of the American tradition haunt the house. Across the street, in Lafayette Park, is the absurd and endearing equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson, one of the great makers of the presidential office. The first man to dare to tamper with the sacred structure was Theodore Roosevelt; and the President under whose direction the White House was totally reconstructed within is still alive, Harry S. Truman. To see American families going through the public rooms of the White House which are shown to them (and which are far more attractive now than they were a few years ago, thanks to the energy and good taste of Mrs. Kennedy) is to get a lesson in the intensity of American reverence for American history and the degree to which that artificial construction, the United States of America, has gained blood, flesh, and spirit since it was launched uncertainly in the dread year 1789. Jn that year there was a King of France, a King of England, a Holy Roman Emperor, a Czarina of All the Russias, a very powerful and sagacious Emperor in Peking, a powerful Shogun in his palace in Japan. Of all these strictly monarchical offices, only one now remains, that of the Queen of England. Yet the office that Queen Elizabeth 11 holds is very different indeed from the one held by George III, while the office that President Lyndon Johnson now holds is basically the same as that to which George Washington was unanimously elected.
We tend to think of America as having no history or having a short history when in fact it has the longest effectively continuous political history in the world, marked by only one great breakdown, the Civil War—and that ended in the triumph of the Union, a triumph won at an immense expenditure of blood and an immense expenditure of national feeling—a loss from which the United Slates is still suffering.
But there is, of course, another side to the White House which gives it its double character. There are the private rooms where the President and his wife, and his children if he has them with him, can take some refuge from the intense pressures of the publicity that beats on any American President. President and Mrs. Kennedy were especially successful in preserving something of the air of a private house in the midst of this great national monument of publicity and power. But the real contrast is not between the public and the private quarters. It is between the White House as a residence, as the great official American home, and the White House as the center of power of the most powerful state in the world. Its weight of power can be felt, it seems to me, oddly enough in the silence which at times pervades the administrative quarters, the two wings on each side of the White House which accommodate the closest members of the presidential staff. They of course have floods of visitors in the daytime. But I have been in the White House executive wing at night and felt its powerful silence. These corridors, half underground, are indeed “corridors of power.” Kipling, in a famous passage describing how he received the Nobel PriZe in Stockholm dining the period of couri mourning for the death of King Oscar, remarked that the only sound in the vast palace was the click of the decorations on the chests of the court officials. There are no decorations worn by non-military officials in the While House, bul there are court officials all the same.
The White House is a court because the President is a monarch. 1 used to be asked frequently during the lasl war by British officials posted to Washington what was lhe besl book to describe the strange new world they were entering on. I didn’t recommend Tocqueville or Bryce or even Brogan. I recommended Saint-Simon. I used lo say, “You must remember you are going to a court. You must abandon all your regular Whitehall ideas of official priorities and hierarchies. You cannot estimate the power of some people you will meet by their official title or by the quality of their carpet. You must watch out for those who have the ear of the President, the only ear that really counts.”