DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Great White Jail at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Harry Truman called it "the great white jail." Bill Clinton referred to it as "the crown jewel in the federal penitentiary system." President Barack Obama simply calls it "the bubble." But no matter what the name, the terms all point to a major problem for any modern American president - how can he (or someday she) be a man of the people when he is so isolated as president from the realities of everyday life?

"It always strikes me how abnormal the president's life is," says U.S. News reporter Kenneth Walsh, who has covered 5 presidents as a chief White House correspondent - Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "How do you have normal everyday reactions with people? How do you keep in contact with the flow of everyday life?"

Walsh tackles that subject in his new book Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership. Recently, he appeared at an Inside Media edition at the Newseum to discuss his book and his observations from his White House work.

Even in the earliest days of America, there were problems with the tug between an imperial presidency and a president of the people. Initially, there was sentiment to call George Washington His High Majesty or some  other such elevated term. "Mr. President will be fine," Washington said.

In Abraham Lincoln's years,  any person could walk into the White House and grab the ear of the president, a fact accurately portrayed in Stephen Spielberg's recent movie on Lincoln.

However, by the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the modern world was forcing the president more into seclusion. "Presidents have been trying to break out ever since," Walsh said. For his part, Roosevelt, also inhibited from traveling by his polio disability, had his wife Eleanor tour the country to get a feel for what was going on outside of Washington. "She would travel for him and she spent many hours briefing him over dinner," Walsh said.

Walsh said both Reagan and Obama, although quite different in makeup and political beliefs, did share a common way to keep in touch - both were avid letter readers and writers. In fact, Reagan actually had a young black pen pal in DC that he would secretly visit. Obama tries each evening to read and respond to 10 of the 40,000 emails and letters the White House currently receives daily.

But the physical isolation is only part of the problem, Walsh said. "Every moment (as president) you are focused on as the center of the universe. That's got to change your focus. Maybe you even begin to believe it," he said.

Another drawback to openness is security and protection, which began in 1963 with the assassination of John Kennedy and really ramped up after 9/11. "Right now, it is as intensive as I have ever seen it," Walsh said.

Walsh said that despite the restrictions, Obama attempts to keep himself grounded by trying to have dinner with his wife and their 2 children at 6:30 every night he is in DC. "They talk about the most basic kind of family stuff. But how normal could it be for Melia and Sasha?. They're not everyday people. They're in the bubble, too," Walsh noted.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As you might expect with President Obama facing 3 scandal situations - the fatal attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, the IRS targeting of tea party and conservative groups for special scrutiny, and the Justice Department's seizure of AP reporters' phone logs - Walsh was asked which one he thought posed the most damage to the president. "We don't know how they're going to play out, but I think the most dangerous politically is the IRS issue. It connects to people's idea that there is too much government, that government is running amok and abusing its power." Walsh said that Obama is facing what some historians have called "the 2nd term curse." During many presidencies, "things go wrong in a very big way" for a re-elected president, Walsh said, noting Reagan's Iran/Contra scandal, Clinton's impeachment, and Bush's handling of the Iraq War and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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