The message to the nation could hardly be missed. The determination of black Americans to join the levee constituted, in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s secretary William Stoddard, “a practical assertion of negro citizenship, for which few were prepared.”
Why did the tradition end? Because Hoover, irritated and exhausted after shaking thousands of hands on Jan. 1, 1932, turned to his wife and said, “Next year, we’ll spend New Year’s in Florida.” His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, not wanting to be seen in his wheelchair, was hardly the man to resume it. After that, there was World War II, followed by the Cold War, followed by the war on terror, and . . . well, once the decision is made to wall the president off from the people, one can always invent a reason.
Walsh, analyzing the presidencies from FDR’s on, gives high marks to Clinton and Ronald Reagan, gregarious and cheerful men whose outgoing personalities set a tone that allowed them more frequent escapes from the bubble. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, in Walsh’s telling, barely even tried. For Barack Obama, writes Walsh, the struggle to stay close to the public has been made difficult in part by a staff that shunts aside advisers who “shake him up too much.”
The aide who complained about Clinton giving ear to every sob story probably worried about the same thing. Similar fears very likely plague the Vatican bureaucracy every time Pope Francis plunges into a crowd. But there’s no better way to avoid thinking of the people as an abstraction than to meet them, frequently, up close.
Certainly the president is busy, and there will be security concerns to be resolved, but moving the presidency closer to the people is in the national interest. “I call these receptions my public-opinion baths,” Lincoln once said. He added: “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.”
As it happens, Jan. 1, 2014, will mark the 150th anniversary of that day when Lincoln showed that the White House was truly open to all comers. If the Obama administration starts planning now, it has plenty of time to prepare the Blue Room and renew the tradition of the levee.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”