- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
One of the chief mysteries of the Presidency is the cost of maintaining its outward splendor. Dozens of corporate leaders, television personalities, athletes, and entertainers earn substantially more than the President does, but few—or none—live as well or as expansively, and none can match the pomp and pageantry that lately have given the Presidency an almost royal cast. Indeed, during his years in office he enjoys a life-style that goes well beyond the relatively modest sum he receives in salary and that easily rivals in its comfort and trappings that of royalty. To a large extent this is a recent development and a corollary to the expansion of Presidential power in this century, although—as some of the Founding Fathers feared—it may have been implicit in the nature of the office from the beginning. We think it worth further examination and present here a record of the growth in Presidential expenses since 1789.
In the spring of 1840, as the Presidency entered its fiftyfirst year, Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania took the floor in the House of Representatives to deliver a devastating attack on the highfalutin ways of Martin Van Buren. Over the course of three days Ogle patiently examined the furnishings of the White House and the incumbent President’s habits and tastes. In florid strokes of what a colleague called “pure buncombe,” he painted a broad portrait of a sybaritic chief of state, living in royal splendor at the public’s expense.
While the rest of the country toiled in hard labor, Ogle fulminated, “Sweet Sandy Whiskers” lolled about his commodious White House bath sipping French champagne and gently spraying his red beard with an imported cologne called Triple Distillé Savon Daveline Mans Sens. Where the common man was content with honest American fare on his table, like “fried meat and gravy, or hog and hominy,” the President, Ogle said, would dine only on continental cuisine that any true citizen would find “hardly fit to eat,” despite its elaborate preparation by an imported French chef.
Compare, the congressman implored, the contents of the White House—the fine china, the heavy silverware, the crystal, the paintings, the rich carpets, and the imported furniture—with the simple, homespun decorations of the log cabins in the West, whose bareness was scarcely relieved by “a string of speckled birds’-eggs festooned about a looking-glass measuring eight by ten inches, and a fringed window curtain of white cotton cloth.” Compare, he said, and note how far the Presidency had come from the days of authentic heroes like Washington and Jackson. The once-proud office was now dimmed by Van Buren’s unseemly display of “pomp, pride, and parade.”
“I put it to the free citizens of this country … ,” Ogle said with a flourish, “will they longer feel inclined to support their chief servant in a Palace as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion?”
Apparently the answer to that question in the election of 1840 was No, for the incumbent was soundly drubbed by William Henry Harrison, who was adroitly, if inaccurately, peddled to the public as the simple “Farmer from North Bend.” But what is the answer in 1974? If Ogle found the “Royal Splendors of the President’s Palace” too expensive for his democratic tastes more than a century ago, what splenetic phrases would he need now to describe the way of life of the contemporary chief of state? For surely one of the remarkable developments of the last forty years has been the dramatic increase in the richness and comfort of the President’s life.
Equally striking is the significant change during those four decades in the attitude of both Congress and the public—the one generally ready to pay for added Presidential perquisites, the other apparently prepared to accept each addition as a necessary prerogative of the office. Historically such was not the case, for the Founding Fathers had viewed the executive with considerable trepidation. As Edmund Randolph put it, there was buried in Article n of the Constitution “the foetus of a king.” Consequently every effort was made to circumscribe the President’s power and keep him within the responsible bounds of republican rule. Each succeeding Congress tried to resist nourishing the very monarchy it feared. Allocations for the White House were kept to a minimal (some would say niggardly) level, and Presidential expenditures were carefully scrutinized. In 1825, for example, John Quincy Adams was so strongly challenged for spending $61 out of a furniture fund on a pool table for the family quarters that he finally paid for it out of his own pocket.
Presidents were expected to live on the salary Congress voted them; no additional moneys were offered for most of the nineteenth century. This meant that all state entertainments, public receptions, formal dinners, and the like were the President’s financial responsibility, as were the staff of servants in the White House, transportation, medical care, additional office help beyond that provided by the government, office supplies, and—to some extent—the furnishings of the White House. Congress from time to time made funds available for redecorating and refurbishing the Presidential mansion, but most of the limited money provided was expended on the public rooms. The Presidents supplied the rest. As late as 1945, when the Trumans moved in, the private quarters, according to young Margaret, resembled “a third-rate boarding house.”
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.)
What follows is a representative sample of Presidential costs.
Currently $200,000 plus $50,000 for expenses, both taxable as income under IRS law.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Benjamin Franklin proposed that the nation continue the precedent established by George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army: the President would receive no salary; he would instead be regularly reimbursed for his expenses. Such a practice, Franklin argued, would assure the services of dedicated and disinterested statesmen who were truly committed to public service. To put a price tag on the office with a salary would only “sow the seeds of contention, faction & tumult, by making our posts of honor, places of profit.”
The delegates listened respectfully to Franklin’s plan, but moved perhaps by the conviction that corruption was more likely to result if the President were not paid, they provided in Article n for a compensation to be voted by Congress. To prevent the very tactic they had perfected in colonial government, where royal governors were bent to a legislature’s will by the attachment of salary resolutions to controversial legislation, they added the qualification that the President’s wages “shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected.” (Both Grant and Truman received substantial raises at the beginning of their second term in office, but the legislation mandating the increase was passed before their re-election had been confirmed.)
In 1789 Congress set the salary at $25,000 despite George Washington’s request that he be permitted to serve without pay, as Franklin had suggested. In the end he found he needed every dollar provided for him.
The salary remained unchanged until after the Civil War. In 1873 it was increased to $50,000, in 1909 to $75,000, and in 1948 to $100,000, at which time a tax-free expense account of $50,000 was also included. Five years later Congress voted to treat the expense money as taxable income. The current salary was established in 1969. Despite stories that a number of Presidents in this century (Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy, in particular) refused to accept salary payments, official records indicate they were paid. Whether the moneys were then turned over to charity is not known.
No rent charged for occupancy of the White House. Current staff: seventy-five servants, cooks, and caretakers; twenty-one gardeners and maintenance personnel. Current budget cost: $1,375,000.
The original White House, built at a cost of about $400,000 and first occupied by the Adamses in 1800, was described by a contemporary journalist as “big enough for two emperors, one pope and the grand lama in the bargain.” Its twenty-three rooms, Abigail Adams suggested, would require at least thirty servants, an estimate remarkably close to the staff size that was maintained until this century.
The mansion was gutted by fire during the War of 1812, when the British burned the Capitol and other government buildings in retaliation for an American raid on the Canadian town of York (Toronto). Rebuilt at a cost of $500,000, the White House underwent further change and expansion in the twentieth century. Finding the family quarters cramped and scruffy, Theodore Roosevelt secured an appropriation of a half million dollars for renovation in 1902. In the next decade the west wing permanently removed the executive offices from the main house, and additional office space was provided by the construction of the east wing in 1942. In the 1950’s a separate executive office building took the overflow of the swollen Presidential bureaucracy, which now numbers fifty-four hundred employees.
Although Congress habitually provided funds for redecorating the White House as each new occupant moved in, general maintenance was ignored too long, and in 1948 the building was close to collapse. After young Margaret Truman’s piano broke through a floor in one of the family rooms, an engineering study proved the house unsafe. Some $5,700,000 was spent to renovate—in reality, rebuild—the entire structure. The outer walls, reinforced by steel frames and deep concrete footings, and all the original trim were preserved, but the interior was completely gutted and redesigned from the basement upward.
The new White House, opened in 1952, has some fiftyfour main rooms (not counting the office wings or the basement storage areas) as well as a gymnasium, a barbershop, a theatre, and a swimming pool. (The original pool, destroyed during construction, had been built for Franklin Roosevelt through a public subscription sponsored by a New York newspaper. Five years ago the new pool was boarded over to serve as the floor of the new White House pressroom.) With portions of the building open to the public, more than a million and a half visitors a year create an enormous maintenance problem, and this plus the additional space provided by the restoration led to a doubling of the house domestic staff. Beginning with Harry S Truman’s administration the number of servants, maids, cooks, and maintenance personnel increased from the century-old average of thirty-five employed to the present level of seventy-five. (Additional help is hired for state dinners and receptions.) Some sixteen acres of lawns and gardens are tended by twenty-one employees of the National Park Service.
Until the Civil War the President was required to pay the wages of all servants and grounds keepers from his own salary. After 1860, however, Congress gradually added the White House staff to the Civil Service rolls, although the process was not complete until the 1920’s. In 1948 the meals of the domestic staff were provided for in the federal budget; the President continues to pay for all food and personal items used by his family.
Personal servants must be paid for by the President. John F. Kennedy, for example, privately employed a valet for himself, a maid for Mrs. Kennedy, and a nurse—and later a teacher—for his children.
Currently more than a hundred Secret Service men; three hundred White House police; state and city police as needed. Cost not known.
Until the end of the nineteenth century the President had no bodyguards and moved about the country as freely and unprotected as any ordinary citizen. [See “Presidential Accessibility,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1974.] Following the assassination of McKinley in 1901—the third Presidential murder in thirty-seven years—the Secret Service was officially empowered to guard the Chief Executive, and the authority of the White House police, established during the Civil War, was substantially increased.
There are now some 1,250 Secret Service agents (up from 350 in 1963) operating with a budget of $64 million. How many are assigned to the President has never been revealed, but the number is assumed to be in excess of a hundred. Beginning in 1913 agents were assigned to Presidents-elect and in 1917, during World War I, to members of the President’s family. In 1951 coverage was extended to the Vice President if he wished it; beginning in 1962 such coverage became mandatory.
At the present time Secret Service protection is also given to former Presidents and their wives, to Presidential widows unless they remarry, to the children of former Presidents (until age sixteen), to all major candidates for the Presidency and the Vice Presidency, and to virtually anyone else the President designates, including visiting heads of state and, as the nation learned in mid-autumn of 1973, former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned his office before pleading “no contest” to a charge of income-tax fraud. The Secret Service coverage of Agnew was withdrawn in February, 1974, after the General Accounting Office challenged its legality.
Current staff: about six hundred. Cost (payroll only): $9,767,000.
Until the 1930’s the President’s office staff rarely exceeded a dozen in number. George Washington, for example, was initially authorized to hire three assistants. Many nineteenth-century Presidents paid for additional help from their own pockets or requisitioned one or two extra clerks from other departments on a temporary basis. Mr. Nixon’s current staff, which includes about fifty highranking aides, special assistants, and counsels, is the largest in our history, double the size of Lyndon Johnson’s office force in 1968 and roughly a third larger than John Kennedy’s staff in 1962.
The current staff has, of course, provided all of Mr. Nixon’s legal work in the Watergate affair, at a cost estimated to be in excess of $500,000. Existing law allows the President, until he is impeached, to use counsel paid for by public funds to defend himself against charges or to counter legal maneuvers put forward by other elements of the government. Were he to be impeached, the President, according to a ruling of the Attorney General in January, 1974, would be required to pay the cost of his defense from his personal funds.
Current auto fleet: two bulletproof limousines (leased for $15,000 annually from Ford); thirty Chrysler Corporation cars (leased for $1 per year). Air fleet: five Boeing 707’s, specially equipped; eleven Lockheed Jetstars; sixteen helicopters. Total transportation allowance: $75,000. True cost: unknown.
As with virtually all other expenses of the office, early Presidents were expected to provide their own transportation. After Congress rebuked John Adams for purchasing seven horses and two carriages with government money earmarked for furniture, no President until William Howard Taft received transportation funds. A number of nineteenth-century Presidents accepted gift carriages from prominent businessmen to offset expenses. Occasionally saddle horses were made available by the Army, and by the 1880’s stablemen and grooms were carried on the public payroll, but all feed and veterinary costs were borne by the President.
In 1909 Taft was given $12,000 for the purchase of four automobiles, which he bought at discount prices in return for permitting the automobile companies to advertise that their vehicles were used by the Chief Executive. In 1915 the government first provided a Presidential yacht, The Mayflower , for Wilson’s pleasure, and every President since has had access to one or more vessels.
After 1860 virtually every President had a free pass for use on the nation’s railroads. At the end of the century, when security requirements made a special train necessary, the President was required to pay for the service. In 1925 the parsimonious Coolidge hit on the idea of using only a special car attached to a regularly scheduled train. His bill was thus reduced to a small rental sum “plus all fares normally received from the car’s occupants.” Coolidge got around the last provision by selling the available space to newsmen and Secret Service agents.
During World War n the railroads gave Franklin Roosevelt the Ferdinand Magellan —a railroad car as big as any engine then in use. It had a concrete and steel base, three inches of armor plate, and bulletproof windows. Despite the gift, however, Mr. Roosevelt, and later Harry Truman, continued to pay a service fee each time the car was used.
The most conspicuous Presidential perquisite is among the most recent. Beginning in 1944, when the Sacred Cow, a converted C-54, became Franklin Roosevelt’s personal plane, the President’s air fleet has grown rapidly in size and has become his primary means of transport. A handpicked Air Force unit, the 89th Military Airlift Wing, is permanently based at Andrews Air Force Base to provide what it describes as “incomparable quality airlift for the President.” In addition it provides air transport for the Vice President, the Cabinet, high-ranking government personnel, and foreign dignitaries. In recent years the 89th Wing has averaged upward of seven thousand flights annually.
The cost of maintaining this air unit is obviously enormous, but the exact figures are unknown, and the Air Force has steadfastly refused to disclose them. It has been estimated, however, that a typical round-trip flight to the Western White House in San Clemente, California, costs at least $46,000. Mr. Nixon made four such flights in 1973, plus one other on a commercial jet; in the same year he made thirteen flights to Key Biscayne, Florida, and back.
Under current regulations a minimum of six planes are in the air when the President flies. These include a communications support plane and a back-up 707 that always accompany Air Force One and one or more Jetstars to provide courier service back to Washington. At least two—and usually three—helicopters precede or follow the President to his destination to provide local transportation in California or Florida.
Unlike earlier Presidents, Mr. Nixon has never used any of the smaller planes assigned to the 8gth Wing. He has, however, frequently flown by helicopter to Camp David (thirty-six times in 1973). He has increased the number of 707’s to five (two more than the number available to Lyndon Johnson), and he has completely refitted and repainted four of them at least twice each in five years. In 1973 he ordered a new 707 for $10 million. That figure does not reflect the cost of additional special equipment that is always added to a Presidential plane. Nor does it include the additional $280,000 required to redesign the interior of the plane after delivery when Mrs. Nixon complained about the location of her sleeping quarters.
Mr. Nixon is apparently the first President to give his family private use of government planes on a regular basis. By contrast, Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Johnson generally used commercial flights for their private trips; Mrs. Truman and her daughter paid their own train fares home to Independence, Missouri, whenever they travelled without the President.
Currently $60,000 annually for the President; $20,000 for Presidential widows unless they remarry. In the first year of his retirement the President may spend up to $375,000 in “transition funds” for staff, office space, etc. Thereafter he is allowed up to $65,000 annually for staff and office expenses. In addition he has free postage for life.
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.
Most of these expenditures were apparently ordered by the Secret Service, which, under existing law, has the power to request relatively extensive “improvements” on property in order to protect the President’s life. The implementation of that law in the past produced only limited costs. The first governmental spending in this area was at President Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farm, where the Secret Service added three guard posts to an already existing fence. The Kennedy family itself paid for the fence surrounding the compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, although the government later added guard posts and paid for a trailer to house Secret Service communications personnel. Some $250,000 was spent on the airfield at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Texas, but perhaps half that sum purchased “foul weather” landing devices removed when he left office.
While Mr. Nixon has argued that he has done nothing wrong in permitting work to be done on his homes, certain questions of propriety remain unanswered. Seen from another perspective, however, San Clemente and Key Biscayne are the logical extension of tendencies already well established in other areas of Presidential spending, where the President has been led to expect luxury and comfort unparalleled in our history. Perhaps the issue will only be resolved when Congress and the public finally determine how regal a modern President’s life-style should be.