- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Harry Truman received the first Presidential pension in 1959, six years after he left the White House. Until then Congress had made no provision for former Presidents, twenty-seven of whom survived the office to retire. This lack had proved a considerable problem, especially before the twentieth century. At least seven ex-Presidents in that period courted or actually entered bankruptcy. Washington, although he possessed great landholdings, was perpetually short of hard cash and was further embarrassed by the expense of entertaining the hundreds of guests who came to see him at Mount Vernon before his death in 1799. Jefferson was so reduced financially that he asked the state of Virginia to authorize a land lottery so that he might raise funds to save Monticello. A public subscription made the lottery unnecessary, but the former President’s estate was lost shortly after his death in 1826. Madison was saved from bankruptcy in 183? only when Congress agreed to pay $30,000 for his papers, including his Notes of … the Federal Convention ; his widow was kept from a similar fate eleven years later when Congress paid her $25,000 for her husband’s letters.
James Monroe died bankrupt, losing his Virginia estate at Ash Lawn and then his retirement home, Oak Hill. Congress temporarily relieved his distress by paying him $30,000 for personal expenses he had incurred as President, but in the end it was not enough. Andrew Jackson died in debt, William Henry Harrison was virtually penniless, and Ulysses Grant valiantly completed his Memoirs only days before succumbing to cancer, thereby providing his family with nearly a half million dollars to meet the huge debts that had piled up from the failure of his Wall Street firm.
Despite this sorry record Congress did nothing. On occasion it voted money for Presidential widows, beginning with a $25,000 payment to Mrs. Harrison in 1841 and a similar amount to Mrs. Lincoln in 1865. But the main impulse for establishing a Presidential annuity came from Andrew Carnegie toward the end of the century. He offered an annual payment of $ 10,000 from his own money without finding any takers until Taft accepted at least one grant in 1919, a year after Carnegie’s death and two years before he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
No federal action was taken until 1958, when Congress established a pension of $25,000 for former Presidents and $10,000 for their widows. Additional money was provided for office space and staff salaries. The current figures were voted in 1971. Ironically, the pension came into existence following a century of relative prosperity for former Presidents, virtually all of whom had earned substantial sums through the publication of their memoirs and other books and articles. Moreover, two of the first three recipients, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, were already drawing—and continued to draw—their Senate pensions. Dwight Eisenhower, once he became President, was forced by law to waive his claim to his military retirement. Mr. Johnson was the first President to be eligible for the $375,000 transition fund, which was enacted by Congress in 1963, to help ease the President’s return to private life.
Presidential private homes.
The most recent addition to Presidential expenses is not unaccountably the most controversial. In 1973 rumors that had circulated for some time were at last confirmed when government figures were published to show that federal money estimated at more than $10 million had been spent on improvements to Mr. Nixon’s private residences at San Clemente and Key Biscayne and for security arrangements at Grand Cay, the Bahamas, where the President has made more than twenty visits to date. The White House, at first reluctant to issue any statement, originally contended that the true amount was $39,000. Later, in a breathtaking escalation, this was revised upward, eventually to meet the reported figure of $10 million.
Among the expenditures at Key Biscayne was $418,000 for a helicopter pad to eliminate a five-minute automobile ride from the civic airport two miles away, $300,000 for communications equipment, and $150,000 for “security” landscaping. Basic security maintenance—provided in part by the Coast Guard—annually costs $330,000.
Security maintenance at San Clemente is estimated to cost $677,000 annually. In addition more than $6.1 million has been spent to prepare the President’s estate as the Western White House. About $68,000 of that money was for capital improvements in the President’s house itself, dictated, administration spokesmen said, by security requirements. A total of $13,500, for example, was paid fora new electrical heating system, and $23,000 was spent for a sprinkler system; the sum of $2,329 went for a flagpole; more than $500,000 was spent on landscaping. Most of the remaining $5 million provided executive offices and equipment for Mr. Nixon’s staff.