• U.S.

The Presidency: Two Centuries and Counting

5 minute read
Hugh Sidey

AT 200 YEARS OF AGE, THE WHITE HOUSE HAS NEVER been more polished, efficient, renowned as a symbol of liberty — or more coveted as a residence.

It has taken 200 years, but at last those protests from White House occupants — some real, some mock — about the duties and the life in and around the grand old mansion have faded. George Bush still gets misty-eyed wandering those corridors of history and confesses, “I love it here.” Bill Clinton never got over his boyhood handshake with John Kennedy in the Rose + Garden — a quasi-religious experience — and he has devoted his life to going back there to live.

But John Adams, the first occupant, had a brief, cold and unhappy time in the new White House, and his dyspeptic ghost seemed to linger there for years. Thomas Jefferson groused about “a splendid misery.” Mary Todd Lincoln understandably called the place “that whited sepulchre.” Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nobody lives there. They just come and go.” And Harry Truman called it “the great white jail” but loved the place for its grace and meaning.

None of the four living ex-Presidents harbor any of these complaints. Not long ago Gerald Ford thought back over his short but tumultuous residence, remembering the high of becoming President and the low of losing to Jimmy Carter. Then he smiled and said about himself and his wife Betty, “We never got bored in the White House. It was a beautiful experience. We tried hard to stay.”

The Fords once took Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip up to the private quarters before a state dinner. “We got on the elevator,” recalled Ford. “It goes up, gets to the second floor, the door opens, and there is our son Jack standing with his shirt off, and he says, ‘Oh, I’m trying to find my dress shirt and studs.’ Betty apologized. The Queen said, ‘Don’t worry, we have one just like him.’ “

The label Oval Office has become shorthand for the locus of power and grave deliberations, but in fact the modern White House occupants rarely used it that way. “The Lincoln Sitting Room was my favorite room,” Richard Nixon said. “It was a room for contemplation. I felt we did the best thinking, the most organized, disciplined thinking there. I got my best ideas in that room.”

Not a one of the former White House occupants still living ever saw or heard anything resembling the ghosts that legend insists sometimes prowl the premises. But hear Ronald Reagan’s story, told in that husky voice of his: “A couple were sleeping as guests in Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom. They were visitors more than once at the White House. And one morning the lady came forth and said that she had awakened and saw a figure standing down at the foot of the bed and looking out the windows. And when that figure turned, it was Abraham Lincoln. She said she swore by it. And he — the figure — then left the room. Well, her husband just couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘Oh, you must have been dreaming.’ And believe it or not, sometime later he was almost on his knees apologizing to his wife because he had awakened and he saw a figure standing down at the other end of the room and saw that figure leave and go through the door.”

A listener looks at the President’s crinkled eyes for signs of mischief. There are none. “So you did have a ghost,” he is asked. “Yes,” he said. “And when I told this to some of the longtime staff there, believe it or not, the first thing one of them said to me, ‘He’s back again?’ “

The White House of our time, so protected and pampered behind its high iron fence, has changed very little, physically, inside or outside. From Administration to Administration it has been a graceful statement of continuity and durability. It was not always so. The original structure took eight years to build in fits and starts. The invading British torched the building in 1814. There were jests that Theodore Roosevelt and his kids nearly dismantled it in their boisterous play. It was no joke when Margaret Truman’s grand piano broke through the floor; Harry Truman had the place gutted and rebuilt inside.

Over the years, wings for offices were added on east and west, other changes made for convenience or for the pleasure of the First Family. Franklin Roosevelt installed an indoor swimming pool for his polio rehabilitation. Nixon drained it and put press corps offices inside the shell. An outdoor pool was built for Ford. Bush added horseshoe pits. Those are the thumb prints of history, and each resident leaves a few.

But none of the recent occupants want to alter the profile of the matron of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which has become a singular beacon of freedom abroad and a touchstone of confidence at home. Remembered Jimmy Carter: “In 1980 I was beleaguered with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, wondering what they were going to do next, how I could keep them from expanding the aggression into Pakistan or to Iran when the hostages were being held. I looked at some of the other Presidents’ portraits and the furnishings and the mementos we had come to know and realized that I wasn’t the first President who went through tough times. The main thing is to gain both reassurances and inspiration from the fact that you are a part of a continuum of national greatness, that you personify the idea for the hopes and dreams and achievements of a great country.”

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