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Presidential Accessibility

May 2024
14min read

There is, in Woodrow Wikon’s words, “a very holy and very terrible isolation” inherent in the Presidency of the United States. For all his power, indeed because of it, the President leads a singularly circumscribed life. Surrounded by Secret Service agents wherever he goes, his public movements preplanned and often rehearsed, he lives in an insulated, socially antiseptic world, apart from the very people he is called upon to serve.

But such is the nature of his office that no President can be isolated for very long if he hopes to be effective. Somehow he must make himself accessible to his constituents, convincing them that he is in touch and aware of their concerns. The problem is as old as the government, and we offer here a sampling of experience with Presidential accessibility in the past.

The Presidency has come a long way from those wintery days in 1800 when Abigail Adams hung out her wash to dry in the East Room of the newly opened White House. Or when Thomas Jefferson the next year, according to a persistent (if unauthenticated) story, returned from his inauguration to take his customary place in the lowest and coldest seat at the dining table in Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house, where he had rented temporary lodgings.

Yet even in that relatively uncomplicated time, when George Washington ran the nation’s highest office with only three poorly paid clerks and Jefferson for a while conducted official business in the boarding-house parlor off his bedroom, the problem of Presidential accessibility loomed large, as it has ever since.

Who was to see the President, and on what terms? To whom were explanations for Presidential action owed, and when? What avenues of communication were to be employed, and how often? In short, how available was the President of the United States to be? How much of himself did he owe the nation that had elected him?

“To draw a line for the conduct of the President as will please every body, I know is impossible,” Washington wrote in 1789, and in one way or another each of his successors has echoed those words, for, like Washington, none of them has escaped the criticism of being too remote or too withdrawn from the public or Congress for his own or the nation’s good.

Part of the problem lies in the uniqueness of the Presidency itself. Under Article n of the Constitution the President is both the ceremonial chief of state and the executive head of government. He thus combines in a single office the powers and functions that elsewhere, notably in Great Britain, have been divided between a prime minister and the monarch. He is expected to carry in his person the dignity, indeed the majesty, of the state while simultaneously preserving the republican principles of the people he represents.

But to a remarkable degree the Constitution is silent as to how this two-part role is to be performed, and the best advice that Washington could offer was that the President must bear himself between two extremes, avoiding as much as he could “superciliousness, and seclusion from information” on the one hand and “too much familiarity on the other.”

In the end “the true medium"—as Washington called it—was left to chance and common sense, for within broad limits the President is under no legal compulsion to be accessible to anyone in the ordinary course of affairs. He is free to keep his own counsel, to seek advice from any quarter or from none, and with the exception of an annual message required under the Constitution, to report to Congress or the nation only when he sees fit to do so.

There is, for example, no counterpart in American government to the “question period” in the British Parliament, where the prime minister and the cabinet are required to appear in person to give an accounting of their policies in response to written questions submitted in advance. Short of court action and cumbersome congressional maneuvering(includingimpeachment), the President usually cannot be forced to defend or explain himself if he decides to remain silent.

No wonder then that Patrick Henry once charged that the Presidency “squints toward monarchy,” for legally the President is only as accessible as he chooses to be, his administration only as open as he chooses to make it.

But, as in so many things, what the Constitution fails to provide by way of specific restraint on broad powers, custom, political reality, and the public’s expectations enforce. Almost from the beginning the nation refused to give the Presidency a monarchical cast and came instead to view the President—in English historian Walter Bagehot’s phrase —as “an uncommon man of common opinions.” Whatever was special or unique about him resulted from the office, not the man. He was entitled to respect, certainly, and on occasion to distance, but not to needless special privilege. As the custodian of the people’s power he was not to forget that ultimately he was responsible, and therefore accountable, to them.

Among other things this means that in our times he must be accessible to them—not necessarily in physical terms, nor simply in free and open communication, but accessible as well in a curiously spiritual way that is most often revealed in moments of national crisis or national grief. For at such times an uncertain people expects the President to speak for them, to reassure them, to act in their behalf. And no President who has been too distant and too inaccessible can do that effectively.

What accessibility comes down to, in the end, is a forging of mutual trust and concern between the President and the nation, which in its simplest form is suggested by a passage in Frances Perkins’ memoir of Franklin Roosevelt. On the night F.D.R. died, Miss Perkins, who was his Secretary of Labor, joined a large crowd of silent mourners before the White House gates. Next to her in the gathering darkness stood a young soldier, his eyes brimming with tears for the death of a man he had never met. After a long time the young man whispered, “I felt as if I knew him.” He paused and then went on, “I felt as if he knew me—and I felt as if he liked me.”

Accustomed as we are to the enormous power now lodged in the Oval Office and the degree to which its occupant dominates both the news and the national consciousness, it is difficult to remember that for much of our history the President was only a dim, distant figure in the daily lives of most Americans. His remoteness was obviously a function of both geography and technology (until about 1900, for example, more than half the nation had no easy access to a daily paper, and, of course, there was no radio or television); but it also depended upon a public attitude that until forty years ago held the federal government to be little more than a peripheral enterprise except in time of war or national crisis—unconcerned, for instance, with aid to education or with welfare and poverty. Moreover, within the limited role the federal government was expected to play during the first hundred and forty-four years of the Republic, from 1789 to 1933, the Presidency was seen as one of the least consequential parts of the Republic.

All but six or seven of thirty-one Presidents through 1933 had been little more than custodians of the office, performing the necessary administrative, legislative, and ceremonial functions associated with it largely at the direction of Congress. And it was clearly understood that the others (Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, perhaps Polk, then Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson) had emerged as strong Presidents to exercise initiatives in their own right because of the unusual demands of the times in which they served.

Under ordinary conditions the chief executive was not central to the national prosperity or the national life. When, for example, the influential North American Review assembled a distinguished panel of intellectuals to examine the question of Presidential disability in the aftermath of Garfield’s assassination in 1881, none of them was prepared to make any recommendation for congressional action. Garfield had lingered on, mortally wounded and unable to perform his duties, for nearly three months; but as the Review panelists noted, Congress was not in session, the nation faced no crisis, and his incapacity had had little effect on the continued functioning of the government. And as the New York Times and other papers editorialized, Garfield’s absence from office was only slightly longer and (once the tragedy of his death had been discounted) no more significant than Rutherford B. Hayes’s two-month absence on a tour to the west coast near the end of his administration the year before.

Nor had that view of the dispensability of the President changed much on the eve of World War I. Eleanor Roosevelt recorded that she and her husband, then an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to Woodrow Wilson, met Henry Adams for lunch in 1913. The distinguished historian listened impatiently to Roosevelt’s recital of some departmental problem and finally broke in to say, “Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House across the square come and go, and nothing … the occupants of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long.”

Yet despite his presumed lack of importance, or perhaps because of it, a President in those years was expected to perform a myriad of duties within his narrow sphere. Chief among them was the requirement that he be available on a regular basis for consultation with members of Congress and with the public at large. What this meant was that the White House, except for the family quarters, was virtually wide open to even the most casual visitor through most of the nineteenth century. In 1889, for example, Benjamin Harrison, who customarily relaxed on the south porch of the White House after dinner, was accosted by a southern senator’s drunken son who had lurched across the lawn to say hello. After a few minutes of idle talk the intruder retreated into the night.

No policemen guarded the gates until Cleveland’s first administration, and then for many years they were not empowered to question any who attempted to enter unless there was reasonable cause. The strict security measures now in force originated less than a half century ago. As late as 1905 it was possible to roam the premises almost at will in the daytime in the hope of buttonholing the President in a chance encounter.

For more than a hundred years a steady stream of uninvited congressmen, businessmen, and others came to the executive offices during office hours to see the President, on the assumption that he would be available to them. “I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this,” William Howard Taft exploded to his aide in 1910. “It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk.”

Until the establishment of the Civil Service in the 188o’s the most common (and troublesome) visitors were office seekers who sometimes appeared in droves to be interviewed by the chief magistrate himself. “One or twice,” Garfield recorded, “I felt like crying out in the agony of my soul against the greed for office and its consumption of my time. My services ought to be worth more to the government than to be spent thus.” Ironically, he wrote those words only weeks before Charles Guiteau, a disappointed applicant, gunned him down; and even that act did not stop the office seekers. Rallying briefly from his wound in July, 1881, and able for the first time to have visitors, the dying President was besieged at his bedside by men demanding jobs.

After 1901, when Secret Service agents were first assigned as Presidential bodyguards in the wake of McKinley’s assassination (the third in thirty-seven years), Presidents still moved freely about the country and the city of Washington, fending off strangers as best they could. But whether at the executive office on duty or on vacation, they found the problem of privacy particularly vexing because they lacked a staff sufficient to the demands of the job.

It was the conscious penury of Congress that, hesitating to make the Presidency stronger, kept the number of Presidential assistants to a bare minimum and often skimped on that. George Washington was permitted three aides, whose meager wages he supplemented from his own pocket, a practice that continued until the McKinley era, when additional moneys were regularly made available. Throughout the nineteenth century the number of the Presidential staff rarely exceeded eight officially, although it became a common practice after Grant to augment the executive personnel by carrying assistants on the budgets of other departments.

Grant, for example, had been authorized to hire six clerks in various grades; he in fact had a staff of ten. As an old military man familiar with the ancient custom of “midnight requisitioning,” he “borrowed” three generals from the War Department as staff assistants and paid for another secretary on his own. As late as 1929 Hoover found it necessary to skim money from his transportation and garage maintenance funds to pay for office help.

Without a sizable staff to protect him from unwanted visitors and from endless paperwork a President before 1933 was likely to find himself performing duties quite beneath his high position. Cleveland, for example, personally answered the White House phone during office hours.

More often than not the low wages produced mediocre aides who proved to be more burden than help. A President, said Polk, can find no leisure, for “if he entrusts the details and smaller matters to subordinates,” he runs the risk of “constant errors. I prefer to supervise the whole operation of the Government myself … and this makes my duties very great.” As he lamented on another occasion, “Though I occupy a very high position, I am the hardest working man in the country.”

It was a view that every other President shared. “The second office of the government is honorable and easy,” Jefferson remarked, “the first .is but a splendid misery.” Thirty years later Jackson wrote, “I can with truth say mine is a situation of dignified slavery.” And later still there was Garfield’s heartfelt cry “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get in it?”

“I have come to the conclusion,” said Taft, “that the major part of the work of a President is to increase the gate receipts of expositions and fairs and bring tourists into the town.” Apparently the only time he acknowledged liking the office was on the night of his inauguration in 1909. Returning to the White House from the festivities of the day, Taft dropped his great bulk into a chair, stretched his full length, and, turning to the head usher, growled, “I am President now and tired of being kicked around.”

By then there was undoubtedly greater opportunity to withdraw from the public than, say, fifty years before, but for at least another twenty years the Presidency remained the somewhat informal office it had always been. Administratively it was on the level of any small business anywhere in America: the chief executive surrounded by a handful of clerks and assistants, with dozens of drop-in visitors waiting patiently in the outer office, hopeful that the President was not too busy to give them the time of day. As late as 1924 it was possible to stop the President on a Washington street for a chat, a practice that Coolidge ended with the firm rule “I see everybody at the office or not at all.” But change was in the air. As a result of measures introduced in World War i and during the “Red Scare” in 1919-20, the physical accessibility so characteristic of the Presidency until then gradually disappeared. By Hoover’s time it was, to a large extent, a thing of the past to see the President casually.

Beginning in 1933 and accelerating after World War 11 the President’s powers and responsibilities underwent extraordinary growth. He became the administrative leader of a civilian army in the executive branch now numbering more than two million employees. He emerged as the central figure in the exercise of governmental power and, in the process, acquired a public visibility his predecessors had rarely known.

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.

On that, Franklin Roosevelt was the champion. In a little over twelve years he held 998 press conferences, for a time averaging two a week. He gathered perhaps a dozen reporters at a time in his office, and he answered questions for periods of up to two hours. Truman averaged a conference a week. Eisenhower, who allowed his conferences to be filmed and shown on television after they had been edited, logged a hundred conferences in his first term but, because of illness, less than half that number in his second. Kennedy, whose conferences were presented live on television and averaged a half hour in length, managed sixtyfour in nearly three years, roughly one every fifteen days. President Nixon, through December, 1973, had held twenty-six (roughly one every two months on average, though he had gone as long as five months without one).

Such are some of the statistics that measure the accessibility of one of the three most powerful rulers on earth, a subject scarcely even brought up in Moscow or Peking. Whether indeed accessibility is a help or a hindrance in getting things done at the modern White House may be argued, but it remains the basis of the American social contract entered into nearly two centuries ago.

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