Presidential Perks

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Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Keener: Hey, Jane. I wanted to bring our listeners up to speed about a special fact about you they might not be aware of it.

Jane McGrath: Oh, yeah. Put me on the spot.

Candace Keener: And that's that, in addition to being a very fabulous history writer, Jane is also the resident website's money writer. And so she read this article that's technically for our money channel of the website, but it has lends very strongly to history and facts that we thought you all might be interested in, so we decided to hijack it and present it to you today.

Jane McGrath: It's a really cool subject and pretty fun because it's fun to imagine what life would be like as a president, even though they have probably the most stressful job in the world. It's fascinating to delve into all these special perks and extras that they get just by virtue of being the Chief Executive of the United States.

Candace Keener: And it's pretty controversial, some of these big financial perks that the president gets. Because, as you know, if you've been keeping up with the news, the Obama Administration has really been cracking down on people from Wall Street and perks that people in the financial sector have been getting. And many of them have been lashing back at the President and saying, "You get a lot of perks, too. And what's more, yours are tax free so who are you to say what we can and cannot have?" The President's salary is capped by nature of the law, but he gets plenty of things on the side that has some people pretty worked up.

Jane McGrath: He doesn't even need a salary for all the things that he gets.

Candace Keener: I know. And two presidents in history have actually refused a salary. Do you know who they are?

Jane McGrath: Oh, I don't.

Candace Keener: George Washington and JFK. JFK had tons of family money, so I understand.

Jane McGrath: That's true. But George Washington, that's pretty cool. So I guess I'll kick it off with the White House, which is probably the most obvious of the Presidential perks. All in all, there's about 132 rooms in the residential White House, and 35 bathrooms. In addition to the standards - the swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts - you've got the jogging track, putting green - which just sounds so much fun.

Candace Keener: I know. The real estate ad really writes itself, but it's off the market, you guys. And in addition to the pursuits for active presidents and first families, if you're a little bit more sedentary, that's working in your favor, too, because there are at least five chefs in the White House, including a full-time pastry chef. And if you are an appreciator of fine arts, you'd be happy to know that the President can request different works of art to be brought in from the National Gallery on loan. And I actually have a personal anecdote about this. You may not be surprised to know that I've got people. And I got to go on a very behind the scenes tour of the White House a couple of years ago, during which I saw the White House kitchen - which is much smaller than you may have thought.

Jane McGrath: Really? Yeah, I've seen pictures actually. It did seem small from the pictures.

Candace Keener: It's itty-bitty. And I saw the florist. And I got to meet the resident florist there as well as George Bush's cat. That was pretty cool. And the point of the story is about works of art, because my source told me that during the Clinton Administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a very active art enthusiast. And she very much enjoyed swapping out the different works of art. And one time she wanted a very heavy and unwieldy piece of sculpture brought into one of the gardens. And it was a huge production to get this thing put down safely. And of course the curator was there fretting back and forth the whole time that something would happen. But it was put into place, and I think it was taken out undamaged, unscathed. So funny story about that! Only if you are the President and First Lady can you command a huge unwieldy piece of sculpture to be put into the garden. Isn' t that nice?

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's awesome. And that's in addition to the super expensive fancy furniture that they get as well, right, in the White House?

Candace Keener: Yeah. They get $100,000 to redecorate the White House. And as you may know, from reading my blog, the Obama's elected not to take that and to use their own money to redecorate! But in addition to that money, the President also gets to choose from an array of historical desks that have been used by other Presidents. So for instance, someone could use the desk that Lincoln had used.

Jane McGrath: That's so cool.

Candace Keener: I know. Think about all the historical documents that were signed on that thing, all the different speeches written.

Jane McGrath: The Emancipation Proclamation.

Candace Keener: There you go. And all manner of rugs! I heard that the rugs are just stacked right on top of each other. They're so heavy, they have to get huge machines to lift them up to the President and First Lady can see them.

Jane McGrath: And there's talk recently about changes that Obama made, especially the Oval Office, I guess. He took out a bust of Winston Churchill. And did he bring in a new rug? I remember talk about the rug in the Oval Office.

Candace Keener: I'm not sure.

Jane McGrath: There was some talk about that. But in terms of money, you mentioned the florist. The flowers alone, one source I found says they cost more than $250,000 per year.

Candace Keener: That's wild.

Jane McGrath: And upkeep alone for the entire White House is about $4 million a year. So it's a sweet pad they've got there.

Candace Keener: It definitely is. So if you've got a great house, the next obvious perk would be great modes - plural - of transportation. We're talking about the Presidential limo, the two Boeing 747s - Air Force One and Marine One.

Jane McGrath: And Air Force is weird, because technically whatever plane the President is on is referred to as Air Force One as the radio call name. But in common parlance, we talk about Air Force One, specifically talking about these really awesome planes, the Boeing 747s that you mentioned. And there are two of them, actually. And I think sometimes when they take the President out, one acts like a decoy, partly to carry cargo and partly to carry staff. Which, that sucks to be flying on a decoy as a staff member. But anyway, the Air Force One planes that we're talking about carry up to 70 passengers, which is not including the 26-person crew. And there are special areas for staff, even media, and security of course.

Candace Keener: And the President has his own workout room. Isn't that nice?

Jane McGrath: It's wild. Yeah. In addition to a really nice office and bathroom and bedroom, even - can you imagine having a bedroom on a plane? That's awesome.

Candace Keener: Jane is really excited about this. I think to you Presidential perks is what medieval torture is to me. We both have our own little areas of fancy.

Jane McGrath: Mine makes more sense. I'm sorry. So we're talking about the middle level of the plane. There's actually multiple levels. In the upper level, you have the cockpit, the telecommunications center. And the bottom level is for cargo. But you don't really need a whole lot of space for cargo, because there are other special planes - C-141 Starlifter cargo planes that carry actually the motorcade of the President. And they send the armored limos to wherever the President is headed.

Candace Keener: Including places like perk number three, Camp David - which is the super private getaway of the President. And when it was originally built, I think it cost only $25,000 to build.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, not much but it's been renovated so much and it's such a nice relaxing place. And the fact that it's ultra secure. It's got super super strong security.

Candace Keener: And ultra close. It's only an hour's drive from DC.

Jane McGrath: Not that he needs to drive, though. He takes the helicopter.

Candace Keener: Pish posh. He takes the helicopter. And it was renamed Camp David during the Eisenhower Administration. And that was after his grandson, which I think is incredibly sweet.

Jane McGrath: That's really cute, but I like the first name, Shangri La - named after the Tibetan Utopia in the book Lost Horizon. That's a fun name.

Candace Keener: And the Stevie Nicks solo album, right?

Jane McGrath: That's right. There you go.

Candace Keener: It has 11 different cabins, a pool, its own skeet shooting range, and its own private office cabin so the President can get some work done while he's there as well.

Jane McGrath: So even though it's a relaxing place to go, it's still a place of business. And you probably remember, it's most known for when President Carter used Camp David as a place for peace talks between the Egyptian president and the Israeli prime minister in '78. And what's interesting about Camp David is, that unlike the White House - you mentioned you had a behind the scenes tour of that? That's awesome, but Camp David is completely closed to the public.

Candace Keener: Well, I hate to break it to you, but - no you're right. I've never been.

Jane McGrath: I was like, "Oh, I read by high authority." So it's weird that, unlike the White House, it's closed to the public. It's even more secure than the White House in that way. And it's nice also, because it's on top of a mountain. And growing up in DC, I know how hot that city can get. So you have I think about 10 degrees cooler temperatures up on top of that mountain, on Camp David.

Candace Keener: And in addition to all of these wonderful perks that the President gets to enjoy while he's in office - other little ones being things like having your family around the office. They live there, and it's also your office. It's nice. Your kid can come in and just say, "Hey, dad. How's it going?"

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I know. I like working from home.

Candace Keener: Flexible work hours. As we know, during the George W. Bush Administration, he liked to go in early and take a little break to go work out and then come back. And I think Reagan was pretty famous for actually taking naps during the workday, which is a luxury we do not have yet around the How Stuff Works office. But fingers crossed.

Jane McGrath: I smell a petition going on.

Candace Keener: You get free soda from Pepsi and Coke. And like I mentioned before, complimentary M&Ms! Isn't that nice?

Jane McGrath: That's really nice.

Candace Keener: So in addition to all these little perks you get while you're in office, you may be happy to know, too, that the President is taken care of after he leaves office. And since 1958, all Presidents have gotten a pension. And this is particularly happy news for people like poor Thomas Jefferson, who as you may recall from the Monticello podcast, actually died more than $100,000 in debt. And he would've been in luck had he had a much later administration. Because as of March 2008, the pension was $191,300 annually!

Jane McGrath: Not too shabby.

Candace Keener: In addition to a staff, an office, office supplies - and Jane you pointed out that the ex-presidents also get phone services.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. They get all the extra perks for their office. And it's interesting you mentioned Thomas Jefferson, because back when I was researching First Ladies, Dolly Madison actually died pretty poor. I think after James Madison died, her relatives squandered her money and she died pretty poor. Now widows are more or less taken care of as well, if they want to be. It's interesting. The wives or the spouses of ex-Presidents also get benefits. They get a pension if they want to, but a caveat to that is they have to waive the right to any annuity or pension under any other legislation. And this became an issue for Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford. They didn't want to waive this right, so they actually didn't get that pension. But LBJ's widow did until she died just recently in 2007. And another point about the wives of ex-Presidents is, Hillary Clinton is an interesting situation. In addition to being a spouse of a former President, she's a Senator now - or she just was before being Secretary of State. While she was Senator, she got protection shared by the U.S. Capitol Police who usually handle the Senators, and the Secret Service, who usually handle the spouses of ex-Presidents. So it's interesting to see how widows are handled, especially when they take on more roles.

Candace Keener: And you think that this may be superfluous, but our country has no monarchy. We obviously have no royal members of a family to take care of. And the President and his wife would be the closest thing to royalty that we have. And to consider how much a President, even an unpopular President, puts into his office, you wouldn't want to think of him or his widow living in squalor.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And you want them to be able to focus on the job that they were hired to do.

Candace Keener: And what's more, even after the President and First Lady leave the White House, their names continue to carry a lot of power. And as we mentioned in the First Lady podcast, they can attach their names to many different causes and continue to make a difference out of office. And President Jimmy Carter even famously said he's made a bigger difference out of office than he ever did as President. And if you don't know, Jimmy and Roselyn Carter are very active at the Carter Center. And they're still working very hard as philanthropists and making people aware of different causes around the world, like free voting rights and getting warm eradication. So it's important that the President is given the tools that he needs to continues his work.

Jane McGrath: Definitely. And another interesting part about being a former president is they usually get a Presidential library. And every President except for Nixon since Herbert Hoover has gotten his own library. And recently George W. Bush has gotten some press because he's made a lot of money very quickly. He made more than $100 million for the library in the first 100 days after he left office, which is a record setting pace. And his library's scheduled to open 2013. So you have this library, which is raised by private funds, but the archivists actually gives the President's official records and papers over to this library and manages it for him or her. One interesting thing that I found researching the retirement perks is - like you mentioned, Candace, the former presidents didn't start getting perks until 1958. And back in 1912 there was talk about giving them perks because Andrew Carnegie actually said that he wanted to start giving a pension to these former presidents.

Candace Keener: How about that?

Jane McGrath: It sounds really nice, but Congress found this inappropriate coming from a private donor.

Candace Keener: I would say so.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, you can see mixed motivations there, maybe. So Congress was like, "No, we don't want that." So they introduced legislation to start giving them a pension, but that died. So they weren't ready to do it, either, so unfortunately it went another four decades. Finally, in the '50s poor Truman was struggling to pay and hire staff. So Congress finally passed that legislation in '58. Thank goodness.

Candace Keener: And another perk, if you can call it a perk, is that when former president's die, their funerals are paid for and they get a very grand state funeral.

Jane McGrath: Which at least takes the burden off of the families?

Candace Keener: It does, which is very important. And prior to their deaths, they receive medical treatment at military hospitals. And they continue to have security perks throughout their golden years. So as you can see, there are definitely a lot of advantages to being President of the United States. You get the $400,000 a year salary, your $100,000 in expenses, and a very hefty entertainment account that is renewed annually. But I believe that whatever you don't use at the end of the year goes back into the funds.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that sounds right.

Candace Keener: So what is there not to love about being President? Well, for one, you become a little out of touch with the world sometimes. And this, of course, depends on the President. I think some Presidents are more in touch than others. Although I will say, I don't believe Bill Clinton jogged to McDonald's too much toward the end of his term. I think that was just in the very beginning. But Ed Rogers, who was Deputy Assistant to the President and Executive Assistant to the White House Chief of Staff during the George H.W. Bush Administration told a little anecdote about going to McDonald's once when he was traveling with Ronal Reagan. And apparently, someone gave Reagan a $50.00 bill to pay for lunch and Ed Rogers said, "He looked like he didn't know what to do with it." And if you're President and you have this expense account and everything is being done for you, I can imagine that things like that would be unsettling when you're a common person again, or you're thrust into the world. But President's do have to pay for stuff. They may have White House chefs, but Presidents have to pay for the groceries. They have to pay for their personal care items. So you can request anything you want cooked, but if you haven't actually footed the bill at the grocery store, it's not going to happen. And another downside to being President, the anti-perks if you will, is that everyone has an opinion about what you do. And I think with the Obama Administration, even so early in the game, this has been a huge deal. And I think the American public - and not even just the American public - maybe the International public has been very nit picky about this family. For instance, the dog. Before Little Bo Obama came to be, there was much debate about whether the Obama's would get a purebred dog, whether they should adopt one. And as you'll recall they had special concerns about their daughter's health since she had allergies to dogs. It was very important that they got one more allergy friendly. And a story that really piqued my interest since I'm interested in fashion and style is Oscar de la Renta getting onto Mrs. Obama for some of her choices of attire! He wanted to see her wearing more American designers and nitpicking the items she had chosen. And he even commented, "You don't go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater." Because she did - she on a little stylish cardigan!

Jane McGrath: That's harsh.

Candace Keener: So bearing that sort of criticism is pretty rough.

Jane McGrath: In addition to that, one of the perks we alluded to earlier was the Marine One helicopter. And that started a controversy because it ended up being much more expensive than it originally was thought to be - and this, of course, the program was started before Obama came in. So when he was campaigning and he heard how expensive it was getting, he was like, "Oh, we need to take a closer look at that." And it's tough because he's inherited all these super expensive things. Is it worth it for security, and is it worth stopping a program? That's a waste of money for all this money that's gone into it.

Candace Keener: It's a darned if you do and darned if you don't situation. And as you may recall, Alice Waters was being very vocal about the Obamas' choice of White House chef and encouraging them to have an organic vegetable garden on the White House property. And even trying to make recommendations about the Secretary of Agriculture - and one of our bloggers here; Sara Dowdy, who is our green editor blogged about Mrs. Obama having planted a garden! All is well and good. Maybe she was able to appease Alice Waters and her camp of followers. And then, not too long ago, she was actually petitioned by the MidAmerican Crop Life Association to put fertilizer and pesticides on her organic garden. So you can't win sometimes.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, you can't.

Candace Keener: If you're President or First Lady.

Jane McGrath: It's a tough job.

Candace Keener: Definitely. So as you were saying, some of these perks may seem like luxuries, but other ones like security, for instance, are just necessities.

Jane McGrath: And some presidents have actually wanted to opt out of the security. You can imagine how awkward it is to go around everywhere with security guards, the disadvantages of that sort of perk. And it wasn't until '84 that the law was passed to allow the President and his dependents to opt out of that security, which is interesting.

Candace Keener: And when people leave the How Stuff Works office, we actually offer security detail for our more notable workers here, like our bloggers and our podcasters. And it used to be that Marshall Brain did that, but he's been keeping really busy. So now our producer, Jerri Roland, follows people around ensuring that they're safe from the masses of adoring fans.

Jane McGrath: It's a little creepy honestly.

Candace Keener: It really is. So my question is - Jane, what do you think about that?

Jane McGrath: I'm not so sure. It actually turns out that I'll have to face that decision soon, because I'm actually leaving the How Stuff Works office. I'll be moving out of the area and sadly leaving behind all my colleagues, and you Candace! And I will cry.

Candace Keener: I'll cry, too. And you can't see tears -

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Keener: - through your headphones listening to this podcast. But you should know that Jane has been such an important and significant to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. It's a totally different creature now than when it first started almost a year ago. And I really appreciate the quiet dignity and intelligent conversation she's brought - and especially all her facts about the crusades and the history of the Catholic Church.

Jane McGrath: You can see I light up with the Catholic Church.

Candace Keener: She's good at it.

Jane McGrath: It's been a joy being able to record with you, Candace. You're always effervescent, and you make history really exciting even with my dry interpretations, you're able to spin it into something happy and fun.

Candace Keener: I wouldn't call it dry, but Jane has promised that she'll continue listening to the podcast. And I certainly hope that, even though there'll be a notable absence here, that all of you will continue doing the same. And until next time, you can read more about Presidential perks and other great presidential history on the website at

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