Getting to Know Presidents
At St. John’s College this Sunday, I’m sure to be asked how I got the access to write my latest book, Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership.
It’s a question I’m used to, for I answer it all the time.
The theme is a natural extension of my work as chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. This has been my job since 1986, and President Obama is the fifth commander in chief I’ve covered.
It’s always struck me how abnormal the life of a president is. He is protected not only by the Secret Service but also by a staff eager to free him from the everyday burdens, distractions and routines that other Americans are forced to deal with, such as grocery shopping, fixing a leaky faucet, driving a car or standing in line at an airport.
This pampering is certainly helpful in allowing presidents to focus on decision-making. But it also deprives them of the opportunity to interact normally with everyday people and to understand what life is like in the country they govern. They simply don’t live in the regular world, and that puts them in what Obama and other presidents have called “the bubble” of isolation.
An added problem is that presidents are often surrounded by idolizers who don’t want to bring them bad news and who are so loyal that they sometimes are blinded to a president’s faults. This has been true of every chief executive I’ve covered.
Among the most isolated presidents were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. More successful at staying in touch were Bill Clinton and Obama. Both used techniques such as polling, listening to family and friends, keeping tabs on popular culture and getting out of Washington as often as possible. Even so, Clinton and Obama also lapsed into isolation.
This is my sixth book. The others also fit the pattern of focusing on topics that extended naturally from my regular job of covering the White House. They include Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House; Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes; and From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.
I have a feeling that I’ll get some questions about those themes on