The Wealth Of Presidents

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But what, exactly, does that mean? No one can say with certainty—aside from the avoidance of obvious breaches of good taste. Former Presidents have variously interpreted the obligation they owe to the public for the honor of having been Chief Executive. Two returned to elective office, John Quincy Adams becoming a member of the House of Representatives, Andrew Johnson resuming his seat in the Senate. Neither was criticized significantly: they had conformed to a sense of what was considered appropriate in a democracy.

Most ex-Presidents have gone back to private life, where they have interpreted their obligation variously. Coolidge, for instance, turned down a $75,000-a-year offer from an advertising firm because he believed that accepting it would not be congruous with his conception of the fitness of things. Former President Grant, on the other hand, put all of the capital he accumulated during his Presidency, and a considerable sum borrowed from William H. Vanderbilt, into a partnership in a doomed investment firm. But that was in a much different day.

Rutherford B. Hayes, a wealthy man, served as a director of a savings bank. Grover Cleveland helped to reorganize and resuscitate the Equitable Life Assurance Society. John Tyler, impoverished by the Civil War, dunned some of his old legal clients for bills long past due—including one for $3.56!

Tyler’s plight is only one demonstration of the fact that the American people, despite their obvious national pride in the Presidency, have not been notably openhanded to the men who have survived its burdens. Not until very recently did a pension bill for them get through Congress, despite the forceful arguments of its proponents that the President, though he is not supposed to demean his former office by taking jobs of low repute, was the only United States government officer not covered by retirement benefits. In the debate that preceded final passage, a Kentucky representative vented his spleen upon one of the two men to whom the bill was going to apply immediately, Harry Truman: “Let him continue his cheap demagogic politics at his own expense.”

Nevertheless, a bill finally passed, vigorously supported on the floor of the Senate by Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, among others. It was signed by President Eisenhower on August 25, 1958. Its provisions included a $25,000 annual pension (with a $10,000 pension for a President’s widow), free office space, $50,000 a year for clerical assistance, and the franking privilege.

The passage of the bill went almost unnoticed in the press, possibly because past Presidents are generally regarded as used-up institutions. Most of the time, the nation’s eye is on the incumbent or the heir apparent, and clearly, more than ever before, it focusses upon a President’s wealth at the time he takes office. In part this is because people are simply curious. In part, too, people are expressing suspicion of the man of power, inquiring in effect not about his judgment as an investor (which might indeed offer some evidence of his judgment in general) but about his possible self-serving as a speculator.

The sources and amount of a man’s wealth became a troublesome issue during the presidential campaign of 1952. The fire centered on the origins of certain funds in the control of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Richard M. Nixon. As a result of the ensuing imbroglio, Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President, boldly made known his fiscal assets. Since then, all the candidates for the two top offices have made some kind of financial report to the electorate.

But the public is not easily satisfied, an outgrowth of its endemic hostility to Wall Street and its growing sophistication in money matters. Inquiring citizens are constantly raising new questions. President-elect Kennedy, for example, announced early in January of 1961 that he had disposed of all his stocks and bonds within the preceding sixty days in order to avoid any “conflict of interest.” The money accruing had been reinvested in federal, state, and local bonds. A lawyer familiar with Kennedy’s financial status explained the nature of two irrevocable trusts of which Kennedy was the beneficiary: “His sole right under the trusts is to receive income and at stated times part of the principal. He has no voice in the management or investment policy and cannot appoint a trustee. Together with all other beneficiaries, he is prohibited from disposing in any wise of his beneficial interests.” Not many days later a letter to the editor of the New York Times from a professor of business administration pointed out that Kennedy could be favorably affected by government action on bond prices.