The phrase “splendid isolation” is commonly understood among historians to refer to British foreign policy in the 19th century, but on this side of the Atlantic it is frequently used to describe the lot of the person who occupies the Oval Office of the White House. As Kenneth T. Walsh puts it in the beginning of this study of the presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“To be sure, the president deals with a particularly splendid form of isolation. A president is pampered and privileged. He lives in a mansion that has 132 rooms, 32 bathrooms, a movie theater, tennis courts, a bowling alley, and an ornate East Room that’s perfect for hosting state dinners and other fancy events. He has a large household staff that does his grocery shopping, cooks and serves his meals, prepares his clothes, shines his shoes, takes his kids to school, places his phone calls, and manicures his lawn — in other words, serves his every whim. . . . A president makes $400,000 a year in salary and has a $100,000 nontaxable travel account, a $50,000 annual expense account, and an additional allotment of $19,000 for entertainment. But he rarely carries money. His staff does that. . . . Of course there is Air Force One, the president’s personal jet, always at the ready. He never has to check in at airports; his plane is always cleared for takeoff and landing, and it is the safest, best-maintained aircraft in the world.”
Et cetera. As George Reedy, the wise senior adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson (who too often unwisely ignored his advice), put it in his excellent book “The Twilight of the Presidency” (1970), “There is built into the presidency a series of devices that tend to remove the occupant of the Oval Room from all of the forces which require most men to rub up against the hard facts of life on a daily basis.” It is difficult in the extreme for the occupant of what is commonly known as the White House “bubble” to be connected with the quotidian realities of life as most Americans live it, especially those who do not enjoy the privileged circumstances taken for granted by most of those who work on a president’s staff or who otherwise work with him to transact the nation’s business, as well as those members of the press who cover them. Apart from the splendor of his isolation, the president labors under responsibilities so vast as to render it impossible for him to be in regular contact with ordinary citizens, but it does not always help him discharge those tasks when he knows so little about what those citizens feel and desire.
Walsh, who has covered the White House for U.S. News & World Report for more than a quarter-century, knows his beat intimately and has had at least a passing acquaintance with every president since George H.W. Bush. He is not wholly immune to the variation on the Stockholm syndrome that often affects reporters on that hermetic beat, some of whom fall into the trap of identifying themselves with the presidency and assuming themselves essential to it, but on the whole he takes a reasonably distanced approach to the men he has covered and recognizes their faults as well as their virtues. There is nothing especially new in “Prisoners of the White House,” but it is a useful survey of how presidents are isolated from their constituency and how some of them have tried to overcome that.
“There are four fundamental ways in which today’s presidents stay in touch,” Walsh writes: intuition, “based on life experience and a ‘feel’ for what Americans are really like, especially the vast middle class”; polls, focus groups and other means of assessing public opinion; being “a voracious consumer of information about American life, from television, movies, and national and regional newspapers; from friends and associates; and from many other sources”; and dealing directly with members of Congress, whose constituencies are far smaller than the president’s and thus who — in theory, at any rate — should have more direct knowledge of what the stereotypical “man in the street” is thinking about current affairs.
Of the 11 presidents under discussion here — Dwight Eisenhower is inexplicably omitted, and Gerald Ford gets only passing mention — Walsh argues that four lost touch with the people, two “not only declared their independence from public-opinion polls but flaunted their disdain,” and five made serious efforts to stay in touch. Of the first four, Lyndon Johnson “understood public opinion [but] wouldn’t heed it, especially in Vietnam”; Richard Nixon “was perhaps the most isolated and solitary president of the modern era,” inhabiting “an alternative universe populated only by friends and enemies, a black-and-white, Manichean world”; Jimmy Carter’s “problem was that while he understood public opinion, including widespread opposition to his ideas, he stubbornly adhered to unpopular views and was unable to change people’s minds about his agenda”; George H.W. Bush was “a man of decency and generosity,” but he was also “a man of privilege who lacked an intuitive sense of how most of America lived or what most people wanted from the president in terms of improving the economy and empathizing with them during a recession.”
Walsh sees John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush as the two anomalies, men who relied less on polls than on their own sense of what the country wanted or would accept: “Each was the product of a privileged background, but the similarity ended there. Kennedy was urbane, articulate, and glamorous. Bush was rough-hewn, often inarticulate, and down-home. Kennedy ran a successful presidency because he had a good intuitive sense of what the public would accept, and Bush’s presidency failed in many ways because he lacked the same.” Kennedy read widely, enjoyed talking with people who disagreed with him as well as those who supported him and tried to stay just far enough ahead of public opinion — especially on civil rights — so that he could inch the country ahead rather than bully it into submission. Bush, by contrast, seems to have read only newspapers and journals that agreed with him, to have listened only to poll results that he liked and to have taken the country into war out of a rather scary sense of divine mission rather than as the leader of a willing nation.
Roosevelt, though decidedly patrician, had a strong sense of the American public and relied heavily on reports from the hinterland that were delivered to him by his wife, Eleanor; the polio that afflicted him gave him sympathy for those afflicted in other ways. Harry Truman is now regarded as a great or near-great president, but during his time in office his “failure was not that he misunderstood the country, but that he was unable to move Americans to adopt his ideas on too many issues, ranging from civil rights to war in Korea.” Ronald Reagan followed the news closely in print and the broadcast media, “relied on his key advisers . . . to keep him grounded in real American life” and somehow managed to keep in touch with his own deep Midwestern roots. Bill Clinton “relied on polls perhaps more than any other president in history” and “was proud of how close he was to the people.” As for Barack Obama, he seems to be highly aware of the problem of isolation and fights it in many ways, including social media, selected letters from constituents and close contact with his wife and daughters, which keeps him grounded in the reality of family life.
Having reached this point, Walsh suddenly veers off into a detailed discussion of polling, with profiles of several notable (or notorious) practitioners of same, among them Patrick Caddell, Richard Wirthlin and Dick Morris. This may be of interest to players of inside baseball, but it is unlikely to interest many others and it certainly doesn’t address the “Crisis of Leadership” cited in his subtitle; indeed the question is never really addressed at all, leaving one to wonder whether he forgot about it in the rush to publication or whether it was simply tossed in to make the subtitle a bit sexier. Then, in his closing chapter, he offers “my own prescriptions for ending or at least reducing presidential isolation,” but though well-intentioned, these are simply bromides. “Prisoners of the White House” has a good subject but doesn’t go very far with it.
PRISONERS OF THE WHITE HOUSE
The Isolation of America’s Presidents
and the Crisis of Leadership
By Kenneth T. Walsh
Paradigm. 244 pp. $27.95