Presidential Accessibility


Until the establishment of the Civil Service in the 188o’s the most common (and troublesome) visitors were office seekers who sometimes appeared in droves to be interviewed by the chief magistrate himself. “One or twice,” Garfield recorded, “I felt like crying out in the agony of my soul against the greed for office and its consumption of my time. My services ought to be worth more to the government than to be spent thus.” Ironically, he wrote those words only weeks before Charles Guiteau, a disappointed applicant, gunned him down; and even that act did not stop the office seekers. Rallying briefly from his wound in July, 1881, and able for the first time to have visitors, the dying President was besieged at his bedside by men demanding jobs.

After 1901, when Secret Service agents were first assigned as Presidential bodyguards in the wake of McKinley’s assassination (the third in thirty-seven years), Presidents still moved freely about the country and the city of Washington, fending off strangers as best they could. But whether at the executive office on duty or on vacation, they found the problem of privacy particularly vexing because they lacked a staff sufficient to the demands of the job.

It was the conscious penury of Congress that, hesitating to make the Presidency stronger, kept the number of Presidential assistants to a bare minimum and often skimped on that. George Washington was permitted three aides, whose meager wages he supplemented from his own pocket, a practice that continued until the McKinley era, when additional moneys were regularly made available. Throughout the nineteenth century the number of the Presidential staff rarely exceeded eight officially, although it became a common practice after Grant to augment the executive personnel by carrying assistants on the budgets of other departments.

Grant, for example, had been authorized to hire six clerks in various grades; he in fact had a staff of ten. As an old military man familiar with the ancient custom of “midnight requisitioning,” he “borrowed” three generals from the War Department as staff assistants and paid for another secretary on his own. As late as 1929 Hoover found it necessary to skim money from his transportation and garage maintenance funds to pay for office help.

Without a sizable staff to protect him from unwanted visitors and from endless paperwork a President before 1933 was likely to find himself performing duties quite beneath his high position. Cleveland, for example, personally answered the White House phone during office hours.

More often than not the low wages produced mediocre aides who proved to be more burden than help. A President, said Polk, can find no leisure, for “if he entrusts the details and smaller matters to subordinates,” he runs the risk of “constant errors. I prefer to supervise the whole operation of the Government myself … and this makes my duties very great.” As he lamented on another occasion, “Though I occupy a very high position, I am the hardest working man in the country.”

It was a view that every other President shared. “The second office of the government is honorable and easy,” Jefferson remarked, “the first .is but a splendid misery.” Thirty years later Jackson wrote, “I can with truth say mine is a situation of dignified slavery.” And later still there was Garfield’s heartfelt cry “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get in it?”

“I have come to the conclusion,” said Taft, “that the major part of the work of a President is to increase the gate receipts of expositions and fairs and bring tourists into the town.” Apparently the only time he acknowledged liking the office was on the night of his inauguration in 1909. Returning to the White House from the festivities of the day, Taft dropped his great bulk into a chair, stretched his full length, and, turning to the head usher, growled, “I am President now and tired of being kicked around.”

By then there was undoubtedly greater opportunity to withdraw from the public than, say, fifty years before, but for at least another twenty years the Presidency remained the somewhat informal office it had always been. Administratively it was on the level of any small business anywhere in America: the chief executive surrounded by a handful of clerks and assistants, with dozens of drop-in visitors waiting patiently in the outer office, hopeful that the President was not too busy to give them the time of day. As late as 1924 it was possible to stop the President on a Washington street for a chat, a practice that Coolidge ended with the firm rule “I see everybody at the office or not at all.” But change was in the air. As a result of measures introduced in World War i and during the “Red Scare” in 1919-20, the physical accessibility so characteristic of the Presidency until then gradually disappeared. By Hoover’s time it was, to a large extent, a thing of the past to see the President casually.

Beginning in 1933 and accelerating after World War 11 the President’s powers and responsibilities underwent extraordinary growth. He became the administrative leader of a civilian army in the executive branch now numbering more than two million employees. He emerged as the central figure in the exercise of governmental power and, in the process, acquired a public visibility his predecessors had rarely known.