- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Most early Presidents were thus forced to dip into their private funds to supplement their salaries. Washington, for example, drew as much as $5,000 a year from his estate to meet his Presidential expenses. Jefferson owed nearly $20,000 when he left office, and Monroe claimed to have spent $30,000 from his own savings. Presidents without large private incomes had to cut corners wherever they could, most commonly in transportation and in the quality —and quantity—of the food served at state dinners.
In time Congress sought to reduce the strain, but only gradually at first and in a very modest way. By the 1930’s a small number of White House expenses had been added to the public charge. Over the next forty years, however, congressional opposition to funding the Presidency rapidly disappeared; and now, in 1974, little of the earlier parsimony remains.
The White House is elegantly furnished in every area and superbly staffed. The personnel of the executive office number more than the population of many American small towns. The President has available to him the most sophisticated communications equipment technology can provide. There is, for example, more than a million dollars’ worth of electronic equipment on Air Force One alone, so that the President can, while in flight, speak by telephone with anyone anywhere in the world. A fleet of cars, jet planes, and helicopters is set aside for his use. Three government-paid physicians oversee his health; trained personnel staff the White House gymnasium and pool; free movies are his for the asking, and the nation’s leading entertainers will come to perform without fee. The President has a government-owned hideaway at Camp David, in Maryland, suitably equipped with a swimming pool, tennis and golf facilities, and other diversions. He has access to comfortable quarters for rest and relaxation at virtually any military base under the American flag. And, as Richard M. Nixon has amply demonstrated, if none of this is satisfactory, the government may well improve the President’s private residences to make them suitable as Presidential retreats.
How much does it all cost? Surprisingly, there is no way of knowing exactly. To begin with, the upkeep of the Presidency is not a clear budget item in the nation’s fiscal records. The cost of Presidential services is spread through dozens of accounts; for example, all state dinners (there were thirteen last year) are now paid for by the Department of State. Mr. Nixon’s dinner honoring prisoners of war on their return from Vietnam (there were twenty-five hundred guests) was charged to the Department of Defense. The cost of Secret Service protection is borne by the Treasury Department and the upkeep of the White House grounds by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. Camp David, the Presidential retreat, is listed as a “secure” naval base and is supported by Navy Department money.
In those cases where clear budget items exist, what sometimes appears is a bookkeeping figure well removed from the reality of the expense; the current transportation allowance, for example, is a mere $75,000 a year, which would hardly cover the cost of repainting Air Force One (a cost rumored to be in excess of $80,000 the last time it was done, just before Mr. Nixon flew to China). The greater part of his transportation is provided out of Defense Department funds, and no cost figures have been made available.
Furthermore, some expenses of the modern Presidency are not easily determined. When the President flies over ocean waters, rescue craft are stationed at two-hundredfifty-mile intervals along the route (a practice that began with Dwight D. Eisenhower and has continued since). When the President flies to a domestic city, say New York, hundreds of paid city and state personnel are placed on special duty to receive him and ensure his safety. Should he choose to reach the city by helicopter from Kennedy Airport, as Mr. Nixon prefers to do, a small army of emergency crews will greet him at the Wall Street heliport; scuba divers, fireboats, and police launches are in or on the water; some thirty firemen specially trained in removing crash victims are on hand with metal-cutting tools; a surgically equipped ambulance and a surgeon wait nearby; and all around are dozens of city policemen, FBI agents, and Secret Service men, plus skilled drivers to take the President and his party into town, while other agents and police line the automobile route to his destination. There is no way to figure what this costs, but it is obviously large by any standard.
Beyond that, it is clear that the expense of the modern Presidency is far greater than it was in the past, both in dollar amounts and in the kinds of services provided. Washington’s eight years in office averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year, not counting housing. A conservative estimate in 1953 placed the cost of maintaining the President—including housing this time—at “better than three million dollars.” In 1973 a staff member of the Office of Management and the Budget suggested that the current figure is about $100 million. (Surprisingly, however, the current expenses constitute a smaller percentage of the federal budget than they did through the nineteenth century. Washington’s $40,000 represented about two per cent of the 1789 budget of $2 million. The annual figure of $100 million represents roughly four hundredths of one per cent of the 1974 budget of $270 billion. On the other hand, current costs are up sharply compared with twenty years ago, when the Presidency accounted for about four thousandths of one per cent of a budget approaching $75 billion.)