Calling On The President
( Originally Published 1908 )
CALLERS at the White House are required to observe certain rules, both, written and unwritten. These rules vary with each administration, all depending upon the wishes or the habits of the President who happens to occupy the mansion at the time. Grant, for example, was most rigid in insisting upon punctuality on the part of his callers, and would see them only at certain hours. Lincoln and McKinley, on the other hand, would see callers at any hour of the day or night.
The written rules of the White House so far as they concern the public, are very few and very concise. They are given officially as follows :
The Cabinet will meet on Tuesday and Fridays from 11 A.M. until 1 P.M.
Senators and Representatives will be received from Io A.M. to 12 M., excepting on Cabinet days.
Visitors having business with the President will be admitted from 12 to I o'clock daily, excepting Cabinet days, so far as public business will permit.
The East Room will be open daily, Sundays excepted, for the inspection of visitors, between the hours of Io A.M. and 2 P.M.
The Unwritten Law of the White House
The unwritten rules include this one in particular : that in no circumstances may any caller of whatever position quote any words the President has spoken in the interview at the White House, except by special permission. For instance :
The day before the State election in Pennsylvania a certain United States Senator held a conference with President Roosevelt. At its close the Senator announced that the President was in hearty sympathy with the Republican organization in Pennsylvania, and this statement was given out for the purpose, it is said, of influencing voters. Mr. Roosevelt was very angry when he learned what had been done, and prepared the following statement, which was made public by Secretary Loeb :
"For many years it has been the invariable practice never to attempt to quote a private conversation with the President. It has been found that as a matter of fact the man who quotes such a conversation usually misquotes it, whether consciously or unconsciously ; and such an alleged conversation is under no circumstances to be held as calling for either explanation or denial by the President. The President is responsible for only what he himself says in public, for what he writes, or for what he explicitly authorizes the proper government officials to state in his behalf."
A story is told by E. J. Edwards that illustrates the working of the unwritten law of the White House when that law is observed to the letter. This story shows how President Arthur trusted a newspaper correspondent, because the President knew in his heart that the journalist would not violate the unwritten rule :
In the closing days of President Arthur's Administration it was arranged that a newspaper writer should spend an afternoon with him, reviewing the important events of his administration, lifting the curtain a little so that the springs and motives that controlled public men and events might be revealed. The President chatted with delighted freshness and vigor, narrating things of which the public had no knowledge, so that the sum of his information was sure to be of vast public value. As the newspaper writer arose to go, the President said : "Of course, this is not to appear as an interview with me."
"Ah, Mr. President," said the correspondent, "then the value of the story is almost ruined."
"But I cannot permit that," replied the President, "you must not write it as coming from me."
Arthur was about to go out of office. He would be powerless in a few days to do injury. Published as an interview with him the statement would have made a sensation of national consequence, but that reporter was no more tempted to violate that understanding than he would have been tempted to cut off his hand.
How President McKinley Received Callers
President McKinley received persons who had business with him every day, except Cabinet days and Sundays, between twelve and one o'clock, in his private reception room on the second floor of the White House.
"Here he usually finds waiting for him," continues a McClure Magazine article, published in 1898, "a dozen or more little groups of people and many individuals who have come alone. He moves from one to another, as it pleases him, shaking hands with each. His hand grasp is quite up to date; he holds his hand high and touches the ends of the fingers rather than clasps the palm. He is a most interesting figure as he stands with his left hand in his trousers pocket, pushing back the skirt of his long coat and slowly whirling his eye-glasses in his right hand.
"After a pleasant word he always leads immediately to the subject in hand. He seems to get at once at the point of a man's wishes. In fact, he has been informed before he goes in, as a rule, what the man wants to see him about, and he never forgets. He remembers names with extraordinary exactness and places people immediately.
"As the President passes about the room from one group of visitors to another, he takes in, from the corner of his eye, everybody who is waiting for him. His quick side glance is one of the most interesting things about his calm, immovable face; he sees everything in going about the room, though only a keen observer would notice that he saw anything."
Lincoln's Gentleness With White House Callers
The White House doorkeeper, Mr. Pendel, in his Thirty-Six Years in the White House, tells many interesting facts about Lincoln's gentleness with White House callers. Mr. Pendel says :
"I recall an incident that serves to show the gentle nature of the great President and what manner of man he was. There came to the White House one day another Irish woman. She was well advanced in years, and was accompanied by her little daughter. She took a seat and waited for the President until he had finished with the other visitors. She then came forward with her daughter. She was tidy and neat in her person, and very modest in manner. She said, `Mr. President, my husband is down sick at the hospital in Fredericksburg, and I would like to have him discharged, for years have my husband and two sons, all three, in the army, and I need the help of one of them, either one of my sons or my husband'. The President said, `You make an affidavit to that effect and bring it back to me'. In the course of a day or so she returned again, and the President so arranged it that she could go down and take the order for the husband's or son's discharge. She had been gone probably three weeks, when one day she returned to the White House. When she came to speak to the President her voice was full of sorrow, and she was nearly crying as she said, `Mr. President, when I got down there he was dead. Now yers have two sons yet. I want to see if yer won't discharge one to help me get along, and yers can have the other one'. Then the President said to her as he had done before : `You make an affidavit to that effect and bring it to me'. She did so, and returned with the affidavit to the President. After he had arranged it so that she was to get one of her sons back, she stepped up to him and said, `Mr. President, may God bless you, and may you live many long years'. After she had left the room and there was nobody in the office with the President but myself, he said to me, looking up into my face, `I believe that old woman is honest'."
When a caller deserved a firmer hand and a sterner attitude, however, Mr. Lincoln was just as ready with gentle rebuke or reproach, as Doorkeeper Pendel shows when he relates the story of a certain Major who called upon Mr. Lincoln, a man more or less notorious for his career of reckless gaiety. It seems that the Major in question was anxious to get into General Hancock's corps, then being organized. He told the President he would like to get in this corps, and left his papers with him. In the course of a few days he returned and reminded Mr. Lincoln of the fact of having left his application and requested a reply. Mr. Lincoln said to him, "Yes, I have read your papers, but I do not find anything very strong in them." "Why," said the Major, "don't you see what General Hancock said?" "Yes," replied the President, "he says you are a gallant officer." "What more could you want him to say ?" asked the Major in surprise. "Why," replied Mr. Lincoln, "he does not say that you are a sober officer." The man, Mr. Pendel explains, carried signs of dissipation on his face.
Grant Made Rigid White House Rules
President Grant made an entirely new set of White House rules, insisting that they be rigidly observed. His reforms in this respect called forth the following in the press :
"There never was a time, probably, when the Executive Mansion was so free from hangers-on and kitchen cabinet arrangements generally. After four o'clock in the afternoon, the building assumes all the appearance of a private residence. The President refuses to see callers on business in the evening. The people who do call pay their respects or spend the evening in the private parlor with the President and Mrs. Grant, and the intercourse on such occasions is never allowed to approach business, save on some urgent public necessity."
And as to President Grant's firmness in the matter of the punctuality that he expected of his callers, this illustration is furnished by Doorkeeper Pendel.
One day Mr. Pendel saw two gentlemen coming up the sidewalk. It was after three o'clock in the afternoon. Mr. Pendel thought : "The President will not see these gentle-men." He stepped to the door and met them, saying, "Gentlemen, it is after the hour when the President receives visitors." They answered, "We have an engagement with the President." Pendel said, "All right gentlemen, if that is the case, walk in." Pendel went into the inner corridor, and there met the President, who had just lit a cigar, and was about to take his evening stroll. He said, "Mr. President, these two gentlemen say they have an engagement with you. I told them it was after your hours for receiving visitors." The President replied, "Yes, I had an engagement with them at two o'clock ; it is now after three o'clock, and I must poke my nose out of doors a bit, to get a little fresh air." Grant stepped to the waiting room where he met the visitors and said, "Gentlemen, your engagement was for two o'clock; it is now after three, and you failed to fulfil your engagement. I must have a little opportunity to poke my nose out of doors, and get some fresh air. Good afternoon." And the President walked out, smoking his cigar.
Grant Forbids Usher to Lie for Him
General Horace Porter, in his account of his personal experiences with President Grant, speaks of how it was often said that the General hated only two persons, the coward and the liar. Some of Grant's officers, according to General Porter, used to say: "Grant is tediously truthful." Then General Porter relates the following:
"When Grant became President an usher brought him a card one day when he was in a private room (at the White House) writing a message to Congress. `Shall I tell the gentleman you are not in?' asked the usher. No', answered the President, `you will say nothing of the kind. I don't lie myself, and I won't have any one lie for me'.