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The President’s Day

May 2024
4min read

In studying the growing complexity of the Presidency in its 175-year history, it occurred to us that simply contrasting an ordinary day in Washington’s administration with one in Lyndon Johnson’s might tell far more than a lengthy article. Consequently we took the average day in 1790, which is described directly below in Washington’s own words and annotated at right. We then sent this material to the press secretary at the White House, asking him to match it with the schedule of an equally ordinary day of President Johnson’s. The schedule he was kind enough to provide is printed at far right exactly as we received it, but the annotation beside it is that of the Editors.


The artist John Trumbull was working on three portraits of Washington at this time, all to be used in battle paintings. As to the dinner guests: Judge William Gushing of Massachusetts was the first man appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; the Postmaster General was Samuel Osgood. All the other men were representatives: Samuel Griffin, Isaac Coles, and Alexander White from Virginia; Elias Boudinot from New Jersey; Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts. The message to the Senate was a polite, 124-word letter of transmittal.

Washington’s stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis, at the time a member of the presidential household on Cherry Street in New York, gives us a reliable description of how President Washington probably spent the early morning hours of February 18 before the arrival of Trumbull:

“General Washington, during the whole of both his public and private life, was a very early riser … [he was] seated in his library from one to two hours before day, in winter, and at daybreak in summer.

“Washington preserved the habit, as well in public as in private life, of rising at four o’clock and retiring to bed at nine.

“The library and a visit to the stables, occupied the morning till the hour of breakfast [usually at 7 A.M. ]: this meal was without change … Indian cakes, honey and tea.…”

The Washingtons usually held three social affairs each week: two formal levees open to the public and, on Thursday, a state dinner, for invited guests only, which began at 4 P.M. The guests included senators and representatives, Cabinet members, Justices of the Supreme Court, and prominent visitors. These dinners were not always crashing successes. In his journal for August 27, 1789, the dour Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania describes one:

”… It was the most solemn dinner ever I sat at. Not a health drank; scarce a word said until the cloth was taken away. Then the President, filling a glass of wine, with great formality drank to the health of every individual name by name around the table. Everybody imitated him, charged glasses, and such a buzz of ‘health, sir,’ and ‘health, madam,’ and ‘thank you, sir,’ and ‘thank you, madam,’ never had I heard before. Indeed, I had like to have been thrown out in the hurry; but I got a little wine in my glass and passed the ceremony. The ladies sat a good while, and the bottles passed about; but there was a dead silence about. Mrs. Washington at last withdrew with the ladies.

“I expected the men would now begin, but the same stillness remained. The President told of a New England clergyman who had lost a hat and wig in passing over a river called the Brunks [Bronx]. He smiled and everybody else laughed. He now and then said a sentence or two on some common subject, and what he said was not amiss. Mr. Jay [John Jay, the Chief Justice] tried to make a laugh by mentioning the circumstance of the Duchess of Devonshire leaving no stone unturned to carry Fox’s election. There was a Mr. Smith, who mentioned how Homer described Aeneas leaving his wife and carrying his father out of flaming Troy. He had heard somebody (I suppose) witty on the occasion; but if he had ever read it he would have said Virgil . The President kept a fork in his hand, when the cloth was taken away, I thought for the purpose of picking nuts. He ate no nuts, but played with the fork, striking the edge of the table with it. We did not sit long after the ladies retired. The President rose, went up-stairs to drink coffee; the company followed. I took my hat and came home.”


Legislative breakfasts are a weekly occurrence, and, according to Senate Whip Hubert Humphrey, as quoted in Newsweek , have changed from the gay gatherings of the Kennedy era. The congressional leaders are kept so immersed in business that Humphrey claims he can never remember whether he has eaten anything. With such an assemblage of presidential aides (the “Hons.”), majority leaders, and whips, it is a fair assumption that one of the main topics of conversation on that April morning would have been strategy on the civil rights bill.

To the Treasury officials, Johnson said that federal government must set an example for private industry in eliminating job discrimination. Specifically, he said, qualified Negroes hired by the Treasury Department under the government’s equal opportunities program were ready for promotion—to GS-12 rank and above.

Mr. Fowler, who accompanied Secretary Dillon to the 11:15 meeting, is Under Secretary of the Treasury. Mr. McKinney, formerly U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, 1961–63, is a newspaper publisher from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and (like the President) a cattle breeder. We have no clue as to the reason for the meeting.

The Public Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations is a private group to whom Johnson reaffirmed government support for freer international trade and tariff reductions. He stated firmly, however, that we would not enter into any agreement that did not provide lower foreign tariffs on American agricultural products, as well as on our industrial goods, which the New York Herald Tribune interpreted as a direct warning to France.

The Disciples of Christ, despite their name and the highly appropriate number in the group (twelve), are actually members of an indigenous American religious body more generally known as the Christian Church, which has a large membership in Texas.

Johnson’s remarks to the editors and broadcasters attending a State Department foreign-policy conference made that gathering something like a press conference. He urged the newsmen to mold public opinion to support economic assistance to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the course of a question-and-answer period, he discussed Cuba, juvenile delinquency, the number of White House visitors, his press relations, Vietnam, the rail strike, and politics (“I am a fellow that likes small parties, and the Republican party is about the size I like”). It is perhaps safe to assume that Vietnam was discussed at lunch, in view of the presence of Secretaries McNamara and Rusk (the latter had just returned from that troubled country the day before). President Johnson’s old friend Governor Connally had come to Washington to testify before the Warren Commission.

The gap in the schedule from sometime after 2:45 to 5:01 P.M. normally represents a nap and a swim, part of the President’s attempt to maintain a sensible regimen since his 1955 heart attack.

Congressman L. Mendel Rivers represents the First District of South Carolina, including Charleston. He is interested in defense problems and, one assumes, civil rights. There is no report of his talk with the President. Señor Betancourt, here for a six-week visit, discussed inter-American relations with Mr. Johnson. There is no public record of the discussions with Mr. McFarland, a former Arizona senator and governor, or of what brought Secretary McNamara to the White House so late at night.

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