Watchin’ My Stories: “Going No-Where”
It was in summer of the first year of his second term that the President decided that he didn’t want to go anywhere anymore. It was announced rather precipitately to the public although it was certainly known to his inner circle for quite some time, because when you’re the President you simply can’t do things on the spur of the moment like a regular person. In fact as it turned out the whole thing had been causing all kinds of hell in the White House since early March and in that time, everyone was trying to convince the President to abandon his intentions. But in the end there was nothing for it and here is how everyone found out.
There was a state dinner for some visiting diplomats from South America, well-fed men in excellent suits who made their points firmly and didn’t like to ask questions. As it happened this was exactly the kind of function that the President wanted to avoid going to and so he just didn’t show up. A spokesman was sent out to explain that the President wasn’t there and at first everyone was very polite and assumed that he was ill or something similar. But over the next few days, the President’s press secretary got a right lambasting from reporters and finally he had to admit that the President didn’t want to go, and he wasn’t going to go anywhere else ever again, and that was all there was to it and now he would like to get on with the important business of running the country and leave this topic lay for the foreseeable future. Of course the visiting diplomats were outraged at such a grave insult but the ensuing controversy was so terrible that no one even remembered to register their outrage and by now it’s the rare bird in Washington who can even recall what countries they came from.
Naturally enough everyone jumped to the conclusion that this was an act of official policy and before a week had passed there were predictably blustering editorials in all the big city papers about how arrogant was the behavior of the current administration towards the press and the public. But it soon became clear that no one in the President’s inner circle thought that it was a good idea for him to not go anywhere anymore, and cabinet appointees were falling over themselves to explain that were it up to them the President would have an absolutely hectic travel schedule. And it was a very difficult situation, because the President was quite popular and no one on his staff wanted to be seen as overly critical or disloyal, but just the same, were they going to stand up before the American people and say they thought it was great that the President had holed himself up in the White House and there he would stay for the duration? It wasn’t even worth thinking about.
Just the same the President was sticking by his guns, and sticking by his guns is what people liked about him so the whole situation never developed into anything like open revolt. Obviously no one could talk about anything else, but the debate was never as one-sided as you might have expected it to be if, five years before, you had turned to your mother’s sister and said “Aunt Mildred, mark my words, some day the President is just going to up and decide not to go anywhere anymore.” If anything could be said to have been curious about the ensuing debate it would be that it didn’t break down along strict party lines as there were an equal number of Democrats as Republicans who said that what harm is it doing, the President not leaving the White House, it’s not as if the man can’t govern, while those loyal to the G.O.P. as well as the party of opposition said well now that’s just ridiculous, the President has places to go and it’s his job to go to them and that’s all there is to it.
The President himself was hardly reticent to talk about it. He had more press conferences in the subsequent eight months than he had had during the whole four years of his first term, provided they took place in the White House. A lot of people, especially people who didn’t like the President in the first place but to be honest a lot of his friends too, said that he must be crazy. He certainly didn’t seem irrational in any way other than the obvious: it reminded you of when some mad killer would end up in the dock and the prosecutor and defense attorney both would call in smart psychiatrists to argue over whether he was sane or insane, and you would always find yourself thinking “I reckon he seems plenty sane, but then he killed all those people, and that’s not something a sane man would do.” At any rate, he spoke willingly, even congenially, with the press, and made his case quite simply: he was the President, and he felt that when you get to that level of achievement, there are certain personal decisions that you are entitled to make. And he didn’t like to travel and it made him worn out and peevish and how might he govern if that was the state he was in all the time?
Since the President was always thought of in the public imagination as a simple man no one made too much of a fuss when he didn’t answer follow-up questions in any depth. By this time lines of opposition had been pretty clearly drawn and the President just went about business as usual and let everyone else make his arguments for him. You had to admit that his detractors made a lot of cogent points: leaving aside that the President has a certain responsibility to do things as the premier representative of the American people no matter how much he might not want to do them, all you had to do was look at how upset he was making everyone else in the world. And just when you would find yourself nodding in agreement, the people who were making the point would show a picture of those stupid South American diplomats, who let’s come right out and admit it were a little red-faced and bloated and quite honestly not that much to look at by anybody’s reckoning. So then his supporters would pipe up and say look, it’s a different world these days, with computers and the internet and wireless telephones and satellite hook-ups and so forth, and it’s not as if the President is unable to run the country, or make policy decisions, or communicate with foreign leaders or members of the Congress. Which was completely true. But then something would happen like a plane crash and then you’d find yourself on the other side again wondering what was such a goddamn big deal that he couldn’t show up at the funeral. And Air Force One is just sitting there, your taxpayer dollars paid for it and no one’s even using it.
The issue got to be so ponderous that it seemed as if a new social order was coming into existence and you defined yourself by where you came down on whether or not the President should have to leave the house every once in a while. Everybody had an opinion about it. The only person who didn’t seem to care was the First Lady. She would just say “I think the whole thing is very silly”, and that’s all she would say about it. Unfortunately, that didn’t tell anybody anything, and her very lack of a position on the matter became a heated point of debate itself. Some people said that what she meant was that the debate was silly, and that everyone should just leave her husband alone because he was doing a fine job, while other people said that what she meant was that the President was silly and that frankly, she was sick of him hanging around the house all the time. The everyday business of making appearances at rallies and for important votes and in meetings with foreign dignitaries began to fall increasingly on the Vice-President, who started to look rather put upon. But he had to remain publicly loyal to his superior, because he had designs on the presidency himself, and there was a campaign to run, and besides, what could he do?
After a while the issue reached a kind of heavy, frenzied omnipresence. It was all anyone ever talked about. The papers had exhausted their ability to editorialize about it in a meaningful or informative way, and besides that, they were beginning to worry about losing readership – after some extremely dire reductions in his popularity, the President was beginning to regain his support, and it was becoming difficult to criticize him straight out for deciding not to go anywhere anymore. For a time, different tactics were taken, and the argument became more nuanced. The White House is a very old building, some of the writers would say, and it can’t be pleasant to spend all your time there, and even the least among us like to get out of a summer day and enjoy the sunshine and breezes, don’t we? But this was met with derisive jeers. “Are you saying that the White House is a dump?”, the Secretary of Labor asked a reporter in late September. It was thought unpatriotic to suggest that one wouldn’t want to spend every day inside a house as grand and storied as the White House. Eventually even the overseas press decided to leave the President alone, although there were a number of mocking tones detected whenever the Vice-President came to visit.
In the end it turned out not to be such a big thing. There weren’t any wars or trouble that came about as a result of the President deciding not to stay at home. For all the talk about it setting a dangerous precedent, no other chief executive made the decision to spend his entire term in the White House, not even his own Vice-President, who we had figured probably had his fill of traveling. The temptation is to say that it didn’t matter much, but here we are now, still talking about it, thirty-four years later. What does that tell you? It has to tell you something.