In the wake of the shoot­ings in Tucson, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence Robert Gilbert dis­cussed the issue of increased secu­rity for elected offi­cials who still need to meet openly with con­stituents and do “the people’s busi­ness.” Gilbert offers some his­tor­ical and present-​​day per­spec­tive on how per­sonal con­tact with our leaders has changed, and the impact of change on our republic.

How has access to our elected offi­cials changed over the decades, begin­ning in the after­math of Lincoln’s assassination?

I think that ear­lier assas­si­na­tions had less of an effect on the public’s access to the pres­i­dent than the Kennedy assas­si­na­tion in 1963. Even after Lin­coln, Garfield, and McKinley were assas­si­nated (in 1865, 1881, and 1901 respec­tively), pres­i­dents still felt free to take walks, largely unpro­tected, on the streets of Wash­ington, D.C. Coolidge reg­u­larly strolled through the city, gen­er­ally accom­pa­nied by a single body­guard. Truman was famous for his fre­quent walks in the cap­ital, at least until he came close to being killed in a 1950 attack.

How­ever, Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion seemed to be the defining moment, per­haps because film clips of the event — shown repeat­edly on tele­vi­sion — were so hor­rific and trau­ma­tizing. The near-​​assassination of Reagan in 1981, also heavily cov­ered by tele­vi­sion, under­scored the pow­erful mes­sage. Now pres­i­dents typ­i­cally stroll nowhere except at Camp David and they no longer ride in open cars. The dis­tance between the public and its leader has grown sig­nif­i­cantly — but for good reason.

Many mem­bers of Con­gress say they do not want to change their public out­reach efforts. How have pres­i­dents and other holders of high office sought over the years to work around increasing secu­rity restric­tions to try to stay in touch with the people?

Pres­i­dents try hard to main­tain some sort of con­tact with the public, but now sub­sti­tute elec­tronic for per­sonal contact.

For example, speeches by U.S. pres­i­dents for­merly were very rare. Even the annual State of the Union address was typ­i­cally read to Con­gress by clerks, rather than being deliv­ered in person by the pres­i­dent. Now, of course, pres­i­den­tial speeches on TV and radio have become common. Such speeches allow pres­i­dents to reach a national audi­ence, while pro­tecting their per­sonal safety.

A “rhetor­ical pres­i­dency” has clearly emerged and new forms of “rhetoric” appear from time to time. Pres­i­dent Obama has become the first pres­i­dent to make appear­ances on the Jay Leno and David Let­terman late-​​night enter­tain­ment pro­grams, and he has already engaged in an “Internet chat” with some of his con­stituents. Vari­a­tions on these themes may filter down to lower polit­ical levels, not in terms of national TV, but per­haps involving cable and local access tele­vi­sion. And the Internet is already a com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool for some mem­bers of Congress.

Does democ­racy truly lose some­thing tan­gible when phys­ical access to elected offi­cials grows more tightly restricted?

Strangely enough, we’ve actu­ally increased public con­tact with can­di­dates in the United States because pri­mary elec­tion vic­to­ries — rather than party leader sup­port — has become essen­tial to win­ning a nom­i­na­tion. Even pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates must “press the flesh” in public. On the con­gres­sional level, some inter­ac­tion between the public and mem­bers of Con­gress is inevitable, not only during cam­paign periods but even after elec­tion. Con­gress prefers to be seen as “the people’s branch.”

But without some face-​​to-​​face inter­ac­tion, such a des­ig­na­tion would be dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Some sen­a­tors and mem­bers of the House had already begun to tighten secu­rity pro­ce­dures sur­rounding their public appear­ances. The recent shoot­ings in Ari­zona might well result in increas­ingly high bar­riers — and increas­ingly onerous secu­rity mea­sures — being insti­tuted between mem­bers of Con­gress and their con­stituents. This would indeed be a loss, since the “people’s branch” should not ide­ally be a fortress.

Has restricting the phys­ical con­nec­tion we are able to have with our elected offi­cials dimin­ished the bond we feel with them? In the case of the pres­i­dency, for example, do you believe that this has con­tributed to the phe­nom­enon of the “Impe­rial Pres­i­dency?“

French Pres­i­dent Charles DeGaulle once said that to be effec­tive, leaders require an aura of some mys­tery about them, and I think he was cor­rect. Dis­tancing pres­i­dents from the public has made them seem more remote and even has trans­formed them into mytho­log­ical fig­ures. This has con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of the insti­tu­tional charisma of pres­i­dents. Insti­tu­tional charisma is the spe­cial aura that attaches to the office of the pres­i­dency and that every occu­pant of that office inherits upon inau­gu­ra­tion. It means that, although few pres­i­dents are per­son­ally charis­matic, all have a form of charisma that should ben­efit them greatly.

But the dis­tancing of pres­i­dents from the public has indeed con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of the “Impe­rial Pres­i­dency.” In cer­tain respects, this phe­nom­enon may actu­ally help the pres­i­dent achieve his or her objec­tives but at the same time, it can create public expec­ta­tions that cannot rea­son­ably be met. For pres­i­dents, this is a two-​​edged sword.