April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
What accessibility comes down to, in the end, is a forging of mutual trust and concern between the President and the nation, which in its simplest form is suggested by a passage in Frances Perkins’ memoir of Franklin Roosevelt. On the night F.D.R. died, Miss Perkins, who was his Secretary of Labor, joined a large crowd of silent mourners before the White House gates. Next to her in the gathering darkness stood a young soldier, his eyes brimming with tears for the death of a man he had never met. After a long time the young man whispered, “I felt as if I knew him.” He paused and then went on, “I felt as if he knew me—and I felt as if he liked me.”
Accustomed as we are to the enormous power now lodged in the Oval Office and the degree to which its occupant dominates both the news and the national consciousness, it is difficult to remember that for much of our history the President was only a dim, distant figure in the daily lives of most Americans. His remoteness was obviously a function of both geography and technology (until about 1900, for example, more than half the nation had no easy access to a daily paper, and, of course, there was no radio or television); but it also depended upon a public attitude that until forty years ago held the federal government to be little more than a peripheral enterprise except in time of war or national crisis—unconcerned, for instance, with aid to education or with welfare and poverty. Moreover, within the limited role the federal government was expected to play during the first hundred and forty-four years of the Republic, from 1789 to 1933, the Presidency was seen as one of the least consequential parts of the Republic.
All but six or seven of thirty-one Presidents through 1933 had been little more than custodians of the office, performing the necessary administrative, legislative, and ceremonial functions associated with it largely at the direction of Congress. And it was clearly understood that the others (Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, perhaps Polk, then Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson) had emerged as strong Presidents to exercise initiatives in their own right because of the unusual demands of the times in which they served.
Under ordinary conditions the chief executive was not central to the national prosperity or the national life. When, for example, the influential North American Review assembled a distinguished panel of intellectuals to examine the question of Presidential disability in the aftermath of Garfield’s assassination in 1881, none of them was prepared to make any recommendation for congressional action. Garfield had lingered on, mortally wounded and unable to perform his duties, for nearly three months; but as the Review panelists noted, Congress was not in session, the nation faced no crisis, and his incapacity had had little effect on the continued functioning of the government. And as the New York Times and other papers editorialized, Garfield’s absence from office was only slightly longer and (once the tragedy of his death had been discounted) no more significant than Rutherford B. Hayes’s two-month absence on a tour to the west coast near the end of his administration the year before.
Nor had that view of the dispensability of the President changed much on the eve of World War I. Eleanor Roosevelt recorded that she and her husband, then an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to Woodrow Wilson, met Henry Adams for lunch in 1913. The distinguished historian listened impatiently to Roosevelt’s recital of some departmental problem and finally broke in to say, “Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House across the square come and go, and nothing … the occupants of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long.”
Yet despite his presumed lack of importance, or perhaps because of it, a President in those years was expected to perform a myriad of duties within his narrow sphere. Chief among them was the requirement that he be available on a regular basis for consultation with members of Congress and with the public at large. What this meant was that the White House, except for the family quarters, was virtually wide open to even the most casual visitor through most of the nineteenth century. In 1889, for example, Benjamin Harrison, who customarily relaxed on the south porch of the White House after dinner, was accosted by a southern senator’s drunken son who had lurched across the lawn to say hello. After a few minutes of idle talk the intruder retreated into the night.
No policemen guarded the gates until Cleveland’s first administration, and then for many years they were not empowered to question any who attempted to enter unless there was reasonable cause. The strict security measures now in force originated less than a half century ago. As late as 1905 it was possible to roam the premises almost at will in the daytime in the hope of buttonholing the President in a chance encounter.
For more than a hundred years a steady stream of uninvited congressmen, businessmen, and others came to the executive offices during office hours to see the President, on the assumption that he would be available to them. “I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this,” William Howard Taft exploded to his aide in 1910. “It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk.”