The isolation of the presidency

In his new book Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership, Kenneth Walsh examines the challenges facing leaders whose exalted position cuts them off from the people who elect them. You can get a taste of his ideas by reading his column on the subject.

One of Lincoln’s solutions to this problem of presidential isolation was to use the crowds of petitioners and visitors who flooded the White House to get a sense of popular opinion. Here is how he explained it to Charles Halpine in 1863:

Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn as if waiting to be shaved in a barber’s shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return. I tell you, Major, that I call these receptions my public-opinion baths; for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way, and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.

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