Presidential Accessibility

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There is, in Woodrow Wikon’s words, “a very holy and very terrible isolation” inherent in the Presidency of the United States. For all his power, indeed because of it, the President leads a singularly circumscribed life. Surrounded by Secret Service agents wherever he goes, his public movements preplanned and often rehearsed, he lives in an insulated, socially antiseptic world, apart from the very people he is called upon to serve.

But such is the nature of his office that no President can be isolated for very long if he hopes to be effective. Somehow he must make himself accessible to his constituents, convincing them that he is in touch and aware of their concerns. The problem is as old as the government, and we offer here a sampling of experience with Presidential accessibility in the past.

The Presidency has come a long way from those wintery days in 1800 when Abigail Adams hung out her wash to dry in the East Room of the newly opened White House. Or when Thomas Jefferson the next year, according to a persistent (if unauthenticated) story, returned from his inauguration to take his customary place in the lowest and coldest seat at the dining table in Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house, where he had rented temporary lodgings.

Yet even in that relatively uncomplicated time, when George Washington ran the nation’s highest office with only three poorly paid clerks and Jefferson for a while conducted official business in the boarding-house parlor off his bedroom, the problem of Presidential accessibility loomed large, as it has ever since.

Who was to see the President, and on what terms? To whom were explanations for Presidential action owed, and when? What avenues of communication were to be employed, and how often? In short, how available was the President of the United States to be? How much of himself did he owe the nation that had elected him?

“To draw a line for the conduct of the President as will please every body, I know is impossible,” Washington wrote in 1789, and in one way or another each of his successors has echoed those words, for, like Washington, none of them has escaped the criticism of being too remote or too withdrawn from the public or Congress for his own or the nation’s good.

Part of the problem lies in the uniqueness of the Presidency itself. Under Article n of the Constitution the President is both the ceremonial chief of state and the executive head of government. He thus combines in a single office the powers and functions that elsewhere, notably in Great Britain, have been divided between a prime minister and the monarch. He is expected to carry in his person the dignity, indeed the majesty, of the state while simultaneously preserving the republican principles of the people he represents.

But to a remarkable degree the Constitution is silent as to how this two-part role is to be performed, and the best advice that Washington could offer was that the President must bear himself between two extremes, avoiding as much as he could “superciliousness, and seclusion from information” on the one hand and “too much familiarity on the other.”

In the end “the true medium"—as Washington called it—was left to chance and common sense, for within broad limits the President is under no legal compulsion to be accessible to anyone in the ordinary course of affairs. He is free to keep his own counsel, to seek advice from any quarter or from none, and with the exception of an annual message required under the Constitution, to report to Congress or the nation only when he sees fit to do so.

There is, for example, no counterpart in American government to the “question period” in the British Parliament, where the prime minister and the cabinet are required to appear in person to give an accounting of their policies in response to written questions submitted in advance. Short of court action and cumbersome congressional maneuvering(includingimpeachment), the President usually cannot be forced to defend or explain himself if he decides to remain silent.

No wonder then that Patrick Henry once charged that the Presidency “squints toward monarchy,” for legally the President is only as accessible as he chooses to be, his administration only as open as he chooses to make it.

But, as in so many things, what the Constitution fails to provide by way of specific restraint on broad powers, custom, political reality, and the public’s expectations enforce. Almost from the beginning the nation refused to give the Presidency a monarchical cast and came instead to view the President—in English historian Walter Bagehot’s phrase —as “an uncommon man of common opinions.” Whatever was special or unique about him resulted from the office, not the man. He was entitled to respect, certainly, and on occasion to distance, but not to needless special privilege. As the custodian of the people’s power he was not to forget that ultimately he was responsible, and therefore accountable, to them.

Among other things this means that in our times he must be accessible to them—not necessarily in physical terms, nor simply in free and open communication, but accessible as well in a curiously spiritual way that is most often revealed in moments of national crisis or national grief. For at such times an uncertain people expects the President to speak for them, to reassure them, to act in their behalf. And no President who has been too distant and too inaccessible can do that effectively.