By Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — "A new book is out talking about the perks and the excess of the $1.4-billion-a-year presidency that we're paying for. And this is a lifestyle that is one of excess. Now we find out that there are five chefs on Air Force One. There are two projectionists who operate the White House movie theater. They regularly sleep at the White House in order to be readily available in case the first family wants a really, really late show. And I don't mean to be petty here, but can't they just push the play button? We are also the ones who are paying for someone to walk the president's dog, paying for someone to walk the president's dog? Now, why are we doing that when we can't even get a disabled veteran into the White House for a White House tour? That isn't caring!"
— Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 16, 2013
During last year's GOP presidential race, Bachmann made so many statements that didn't hold up under fact checking that now just about everything she says needs to be checked and doublechecked before it is reported.
In this case, Bachmann appears to be citing the self-published book "Presidential Perks Gone Royal," by Republican lobbyist Robert Keith Gray, though one wonders whether she actually read the book — which is only 131 pages — or just read a summary that appeared in the Daily Caller, since many of her points are highlighted in the Daily Caller article.
We read the book so that you don't have to. It provides no specific sourcing for any of its claims, though in the back it provides a list of articles and books that presumably the author consulted. He claims that the book is not intended as an attack on President Barack Obama, but only on the imperial trappings of the presidency, though the subtitle of the book is: "Your taxes are being used for Obama's re-election."
Bachmann, however, framed it as an attack on Obama, and we will examine her claims in that context. How does Obama compare with other presidents?
Bachmann's headline figure is that Obama's presidency costs $1.4 billion a year. Gray never quite explains how he developed that figure, though another self-published book, "The 1.4 Billion Dollar Man: Costs of the Obama White House," by self-help writer John F. Groom, attempts to provide a breakdown. But what is quickly apparent is that this number covers every possible expense, including many having to do with the security that is necessary to protect the president. The figures also include the cost of the White House policy-making staffs. Are those really all "perks and excess?"
Groom's figures include a number of somewhat fishy guesstimates ("unreimbursed campaign expenses"), but as it happens, a much more credible scholar — former White House aide Bradley Patterson Jr. — attempted to figure out the tab for the White House for a book, "To Serve the President," published in 2010 by the Brookings Institution.
Patterson estimated that the cost of running the White House for fiscal year 2008 — when George W. Bush was president — was nearly $1.6 billion. About half — more than $800 million — related to the Secret Service budget. An additional $271 million was spent on the president's helicopter squadron.
If Bush is a $1.6 billion man, does that make Obama a relative bargain at $1.4 billion?
Seriously, it really depends on what one wants to count, but there appears to be no appreciable difference between Obama's expenses and Bush's expenses.
Patterson, in his sober account of his tally, noted: "This is the office of the chief executive of a $3 trillion government — a government currently at war, with its security forces on duty, under the chief executive's command, in virtually every corner of the planet."
Indeed, Gray, when discussing his figure, cites Patterson's "excellently researched" book, so as far as we can tell he simply took Patterson's number for Bush and applied it to Obama — making it especially strange for Bachmann to suggest that this is unique to the current president. (Gray also cites Groom, but then Groom cites Gray, making the whole thing quite circular.)
Similarly, Bachmann's specific points — Five chefs on Air Force One! Two projectionists in the White House! A dog walker! — are not unique to Obama. Even Gray does not try to assert that in his book.
We could not track down a source for "five chefs" on Air Force One, but perhaps the word "cook" would be better. In any case, taxpayers will be pleased to hear that White House staffers need to pay out of their pocket — $20 a meal — if they eat on board.
As for "the projectionists," this appears to be part of the president's 24-hour-a-day staffing requirements. Gary's book devotes considerable space to how much all presidents have used the White House movie theater, with Jimmy Carter supposedly using it 450 times. (The White House Museum says it actually was 480 times.)
The dog walker is the silliest claim. This refers to Dale Haney, the White House groundskeeper. Gray includes in his source list an Associated Press article on Haney, which states:
"Haney is often spotted walking Bo, the Obama family's Portuguese water dog. In fact, he's tended to every White House pup since King Timahoe, Richard Nixon's Irish setter. . . . Before Bo came along to romp on the South Lawn and roam the White House hallways, Haney spent a lot of time walking and playing with President George W. Bush's Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley. Haney was most fond of Spot, an English springer spaniel whose mother, Millie, belonged to Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush."
In other words, the White House groundskeeper — whose main job is caring for more than 18 acres of lawns, trees and gardens — happens to like dogs and has been doing this for every president since 1972.
As evidence of sloppy research, Gray at one point in his book refers to the White House paying $102,000 to a man who walks Obama's dog, saying that one point the "handler" was flown to Maine with the dog. (This anecdote also ended up in the Daily Caller article.)
This appears to refer to Reggie Love, then the president's personal assistant, who was once spotted taking the dog off an airplane. But the local Maine newspaper initially misreported that Love and the dog were flown on their own airplane. The article was corrected, but not before the blogosphere looked up Love's salary and went wild with the tale of the $102,000-a-year dog handler.
We sought comment from a Bachmann spokesman but did not get a response.
The modern-day White House is certainly an expensive enterprise, and perhaps Bachmann would be on more solid ground if she had framed her concern about presidential perks in a less partisan manner — or if a Republican were president.
But there is big difference between "perks and excess" and security necessary to protect the president. So using the broad $1.4 billion figure is fairly misleading in that context.
Moreover, the money spent on the presidency and the so-called perks she describes appear to be no different for Obama than for Bush or other presidents. It's absurd to suggest otherwise.