The sight of George Bush kicking back in Kennebunkport as he handles the crisis in the Persian Gulf brings up an old question this Labor Day. Just how hard does a president work?
The answer depends on the president.
Ulysses S. Grant worked on telegrams and correspondence until 10 a.m., saw senators, representatives and Cabinet members until noon and worked on "official business" until 3. Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes met with Cabinet members and reporters as late as 11 p.m. In the days before word processors and speech writers, Grover Cleveland would also burn the midnight oil, scribbling out his own speeches into the night, chewing tobacco. When Teddy Roosevelt worked too late, his Edith's trill of "The-o-dore!" warbled down the hall. He went to bed. In the depths of the Great Depression, a stone-faced Herbert Hoover went over dictation as many as three times and "labored practically all his waking hours," according to the White House chief usher.
Every morning, Harry S. Truman took his constitutional around Washington streets to clear his head for the office work ahead. Richard Nixon got the most done not in the Oval Office but with his note pad and Dictaphone in the Lincoln Sitting Room, before a blazing fire. In the summer, he had the air conditioning turned on and the fire going. After a morning in the office, John F. Kennedy liked to take a dip in the pool, often talking and swimming with advisers, then head upstairs to lunch with his wife and rest for a while.
There have been workaholics.
William Henry Harrison put in overtime on his first day. After delivering the longest inaugural speech ever -- somewhat over two hours -- in the sleet of a freezing day, he was immediately besieged by office-seekers and overwhelmed by the work. He died 31 days later of a combination of exhaustion and pneumonia.
James Knox Polk so believed in his vow to work for the nation that when protocol absolutely demanded that he attend a social function, he would later return to the office to make up the time he spent in entertaining, not wanting to cheat the nation of his business hours. On the last day of his grueling term, by the end of which he had shockingly aged -- his hair completely white, his eyes sunken in his gaunt face -- Polk wrote, "I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free from all public cares. I am sure I shall be a happier man in my retirement than I have been during the four years I have filled in the highest office in the gift of my countrymen." He died 103 days later.
Others have known how to mix business with pleasure. Or with sleep.
Warren G. Harding was at work early but always took part of the afternoon to play golf -- or to have a tryst with his out-of-town mistress, Nan Britton, at Friendship, the estate of his friends Ned and Evalyn McLean. He enjoyed the night and liked to work into the wee hours, often until 2 a.m. He hated lounging in bed -- "No, it is too much like a woman" -- but sometimes napped on the couch in his office. Once, Britton recalled, she joined him. But not for a nap.
His successor, Calvin Coolidge, slept about 11 hours a day. He often awoke as late as 9 a.m. After lunch, without fail, he snoozed -- sometimes for as long as four hours. His bedtime of 10 became so well-known across the nation that once, while attending an evening musical that ran longer than scheduled, performer Groucho Marx looked up at the presidential box and cracked, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"
William Howard Taft liked to relax and read the national newspapers in his office. His unfortunate habit of falling to sleep anywhere, any time often kept his embarrassed but smiling wife, Nellie, prodding his side. Taft developed his own system for keeping himself awake in the office. He balanced his spectacles on the end of his finger. When he dozed, his finger went limp, his glasses fell and he awoke.
It was Millard Fillmore who said no to work on Sundays. "Besides being a religious duty, it was essential to health. On commencing my presidential career, I found that the Sabbath had been frequently employed ... for private interviews with the President. I determined to put an end to this custom, and ordered my doorkeeper to meet all Sunday visitors with an indiscriminate refusal."
John Quincy Adams kept a meticulous record of his workday. "I rise at about five, read two chapters of Scott's Bible and Commentary, and the corresponding Commentary of Hewlett; then the morning newspapers and public papers from the several Departments; write seldom and not often enough; breakfast an hour from nine to ten; then have a succession of visitors, upon business in search of a place, solicitors for donations, or for mere curiosity from eleven until between four and five o'clock. The heads of the Departments, of course, occupy much of this time. Between four and six I take a walk of three or four miles. Dine from half-past five until seven, and from dark until about eleven I generally pass the evening in my chamber, signing land-grants or blank patents... . About eleven I retire... ."
Once America entered "the Great War" in 1917, Woodrow Wilson kept a clipped pace, always attempting to get in a game of golf or indulge in his favorite pastime, a motorcar ride in the country. While in France during the Versailles Treaty talks, he began his days in the early morning and commenced a series of intense, 15-minute meetings with European leaders back to back, starting at 11 and ending at 3:30 in the afternoon. When he returned to America to push his League of Nations, Wilson scheduled a grueling 9,981-mile train tour with 26 stops in 27 days, speaking in smoky auditoriums and halls and from the train's platform. He began to suffer severe headaches and slur his words, and was unable to find rest even in sleep. Against his doctor's advice, he forged ahead, driven by his dream for a league. On the night of Sept. 25, 1919, unable to sleep, he broke down. As he argued with his doctor, wife and chief aide, the president began to salivate. His left arm went limp. Woodrow Wilson had suffered the first of two strokes that would incapacitate him for the rest of his life.
As the Vietnam War dragged on into the late '60s, Lyndon Baines Johnson became consumed by his work. He took calls at 3 in the morning, and would meet with people at any time, any place -- even the restroom. A decent meal was something worked in between meetings, often brought by his solicitous wife. Lady Bird Johnson recalled in an interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institution the cursed package of priority memos, correspondence and decisions that faced him every night on his bed. She pleaded with him to "let it rest until the morning," but he knew there would be more work as soon as he awoke. He worked into the night, and kept later and later hours. Lady Bird "kept on counting the days that were left to his term," and attempted to have him "measure his strength... . Unfortunately Lyndon's health began to deteriorate markedly in March, fourteen months after he was out of office... ." With a history of serious heart disease, LBJ died barely four years after leaving the White House.
The presidents' wives also have had their own styles of working, tailored to their interpretations of the First Lady's role.
In the '20s, Grace Coolidge began each working day with coffee and a doughnut. She got to work on the typewriter with her social secretary while listening to ballgames on the radio. During the Depression, Lou Hoover used her bedroom as an office, and often spread out and filed papers on her bed, attempting, with her four secretaries, to keep up with the pleas for welfare support from the needy. Mamie Eisenhower, because of her health, woke early but usually stayed in bed until noon, reading national newspapers and answering correspondence on her pink table tray. With a pink bow in her hair and a pink bed jacket, she often held her staff meeting around her gargantuan pink bed. If the staff came during her favorite soap opera, "As the World Turns," however, they had to wait until a commercial to do any work.
Jacqueline Kennedy worked, not in the East Wing, but from the large Victorian desk in the Treaty Room in the family quarters. For hours on end, she would cloister herself, working on her historic restoration and arts programs on her favorite memo paper, yellow legal pads. But she always kept at least one hour during the day, regardless of outside pressures, to spend with her young children. Lady Bird Johnson maintained the schedule of a successful businesswoman but always worked in some time to dictate her daily diary entries into a tape recorder. Pat Nixon steadfastly believed that anyone who wrote to her deserved a personal response. She spent at least four hours each morning working on public correspondence alone.
Rosalynn Carter was the only First Lady to work in a formal office in the East Wing. Arriving at 9 every morning, she worked on speeches, correspondence and project issues, happily delegating the social and household decisions to the staff. Once a week she had a working lunch with the president, and every day the Carters took an exercise break together.
But when it came to working, none compared to Eleanor Roosevelt. As she casually recorded everyday for her daily syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," she never waited for elevators. It wasted time. She hurried up and down the stairs, dictating in her proper, slightly shrill voice; her fur piece swagged in her whirlwind as she hopped into a car to go across town, or up a platform to catch a plane across the country.
"If I feel depressed," said Mrs. Roosevelt, "I go to work."
When she was in residence, after a hardy 7 a.m. horseback ride in Rock Creek Park it was breakfast -- never alone but meeting with members of Congress or labor leaders or political experts. Then it was to her office to begin dictating "My Day." Lunch was another political meeting. In the afternoons she often sponsored conferences on New Deal social issues, sitting in the front row taking notes or clicking her knitting needles. Dinner was another meeting, often heated banter with government agency chiefs whose departments had projects with which she was involved. Her day wound down at about 3 in the morning, when she wrote personal letters by hand. One typical day had her leaving town by train at 11 p.m., getting into West Virginia by 6:30 a.m. and making a 50-mile motor tour and delivering three speeches. Before 9. After a college commencement, tours of two farming communities and a battlefield, eight more speeches and another 150 miles by motorcar, Mrs. Roosevelt wrapped up her 19-hour day.
Eleanor Roosevelt became the first and only First Lady to take a job. In 1940 as America prepared for war, and after arm-twisting FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt assumed the unsalaried position of deputy director of the Office of Civilian Defense. The startling sight of the tall, toothy Eleanor in the blue-gray coverall uniform of the Office of Civilian Defense striding up Connecticut Avenue to the Dupont Circle Building became familiar to early morning workers.
Every morning when she was in town, Mrs. Roosevelt was at her office desk on the top floor, organizing a national volunteer network of women. Outside the building, the curious gathered daily. Even Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, came with her little dog to see Mrs. Roosevelt. One afternoon, when black friends were refused seats in the restaurant now occupied by Lawsons food store, the First Lady announced, "Very well, we'll all eat in the lobby." So she did for several days, until the restaurant was integrated. But when the First Lady hired her friend, dancer Mayris Chaney, to teach calisthenics on the building's roof in the afternoons, a hue and cry went up in Congress, which provoked what Eleanor called "more or less abusive" public mail.
The First Lady concluded that it was "unwise" for a president's wife "to try a government job."
Carl Sferrazza Anthony's book, "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961," is being published this month by William Morrow.