Presidential Accessibility

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But visibility is not accessibility. If anything it serves merely to reflect the awesome authority the President is entitled to wield. It tends to lengthen rather than reduce the distance between the President and the people he is called upon to serve. The President’s ability to dominate the news, to gain air time on radio or television, and to travel freely and at will to any part of the country on a moment’s notice magnifies the power of his office and sets him apart from other men.

Moreover, the growth of the federal bureaucracy, and particularly the White House staff, has given the President a protective shield that at times keeps him from public contact. When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, he was authorized to hire eleven assistants, secretaries, and clerks. Almost immediately it was clear that such a staff was inadequate to meet the demands the Depression crisis had created, but for six years Congress failed to act, and Roosevelt was forced to improvise an administrative team suitable to his needs. At last in 1939 Congress created the Executive Office of the President to institutionalize the Presidency and bring modern management techniques to bear on governmental problems.

Since then the Executive Office has grown in size and importance. It embraces now nearly a dozen components like the Council of Economic Advisers, the Domestic Council, and the Office of Management and Budget, with a current staff in excess of 5,600 employees all directly responsible to the President. (This represents a fivefold increase over the 1955 figure of i, 164 and a doubling of the 1965 work force of 2,849.)

A central component and, in effect, the right hand of the President is the White House Office. Composed of the President’s chief aides, its staff under Truman averaged about 290. In the Eisenhower years it reached a high of 446 in 1959. Three years later Kennedy’s staff totalled 467. Johnson subsequently reduced the number to 273 in 1968. President Nixon initially operated with 344, but since 1971 the total has averaged about six hundred each year, fifty of whom are high-ranking counsels, special assistants, and aides; the rest are secretaries and clerks.

Whatever the number, the White House staff represents a formidable barrier, and the contemporary President has every opportunity, if he chooses, to retreat behind it, to avoid the public and the press, to hide from Congress, and to insulate himself in a world where all criticism is muted and praise enlarged.

In recent years the temptation to do just that has been increased by developments that have sharply altered American life. The rise of street, or confrontation, politics in the 1960’s and the greater risk of assassination public men now run have, among other things, severely limited the physical access of the President to the public and vice versa. But that said, it is also clear that the President has the means to overcome these obstacles and to reach a vast audience merely by choosing to speak.

The key is the personality of the President himself. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, delighted in short-circuiting the very staff system he had created. Despite his physical disability he seemed to go everywhere in search of information. He read as many as a dozen newspapers or magazines a day, a rate matched only by Kennedy, and made himself available to as many congressmen, cabinet officers, and aides as time and circumstance permitted. On occasion he would go out to meet visitors on White House tours, frequently startling them with blunt questions about their opinions of decisions he had made or was about to make. His skill on the radio was so great that many Americans remember his “fireside chats” as weekly events in the igSo’s, when in fact there were only twenty-seven in twelve years. Still, he was in many ways the most accessible of recent Presidents.

By contrast, Dwight Eisenhower instituted a rigid staff system similar to the military organization he had known for most of his professional life. His chief assistant, Sherman Adams, was in effect a chief of staff; Presidential orders were directed through him, and he alone controlled access to the Oval Office. Adams undoubtedly was the most powerful single man in the government other than the President, especially during Eisenhower’s frequent bouts with illness. Plagued by heart trouble, Eisenhower was absent from his desk, resting or on vacation, a total of 583 days during his first five years in office, which is one day in three, a record matched only by John Adams.

Moreover, Eisenhower rarely read either the newspapers or the bulky reports placed on his desk. His staff prepared a daily summary of the press and reduced policy papers to one-page summaries. As a result Eisenhower frequently showed himself to be uninformed about matters pending in Congress or even within his administration. Nonetheless, he radiated an interest in the public, and in his television appearances, in particular, he projected an image of warmth and openness that belied his dislike for the details of the President’s job. His lack of arrogance, his distaste for power, and his common touch made him appear more accessible than, perhaps, he really was.

President Nixon, on the other hand, has remained remarkably aloof throughout his years in office. His staff system, like Eisenhower’s, has kept him amply protected, if not insulated, from public view. He is clearly a private man who relies upon himself alone to an extent unmatched in recent administrations. He has revived the practice of reading daily summaries of the press, which his critics have maintained are partisan and distorted. He has made no secret of his disdain for the press and has met with newsmen less than any recent President.