“I’ve never accepted compensation…for federal service…”

by Thomas Schwartz

In a recent CBS 60 Minutes interview, president-elect Donald Trump told Lesley Stahl, “I’m not going to take the salary.  I’m not taking it.”  The annual salary of the President of the United States is currently $400,000 plus other provisions for expenses such as entertaining and travel.  President-elect Trump will not be the first person as president to forego a salary.  The first was Herbert Hoover and the second was John F. Kennedy.  Both of these individuals began the practice of not accepting a salary in public office well before the presidency.

31-1930-a17, Herbert Hoover in the White House. https://hoover.archives.gov/info/Presidency/31-1930-A17.html

Hoover rarely discussed his income or philanthropic giving, believing it a private matter.  Throughout his career as a public servant, as head of the Food Administration under Woodrow Wilson, as Secretary of Commerce, under Harding and Coolidge, as President, and in all of his private humanitarian leadership capacities, Hoover refused compensation for himself.  The most extensive explanations were in two interviews.  The first was with Charles Scott, editor of the Iola Kansas Daily Register in January, 1937.  Hoover stated: “I made up my mind when I entered public life that I would not make it possible for anyone ever to say that I had sought public office for the money there was in it.  I therefore kept the money that came to me as salary in a separate account and distributed it where I thought it would do the most good.  Part of it went to supplement the salaries of men who worked under me and whom the government paid less than I thought they were worth.  Part of it went to charities.”  In 1928, the annual salary of the President of the United States was $75,000.  Years later in an NBC interview on November 6, 1955, Hoover offered a more extensive reasoning for not taking any compensation for his public service: “I’ve never accepted compensation either for relief or for federal service, except in this sense: that I have at times taken federal salaries and expended them on matters that are outside of my own needs and use.  I was led to that by an overall question of conviction of my own, and I don’t say this in disparagement of men accepting salaries from the Government, because most of our official must have them to live.  But it happened that I had prospered in my profession, at a time when the income tax was only one percent.  I was able to save a competence, and I felt that I owed my country a debt that was unpayable and I had no right to ask her to pay me, so that was the practice right up until this year.”

John F. Kennedy gave his entire $100,000 salary to charity.  The records at the Kennedy Library-Museum are still closed regarding which charities but it is clear that his practice of not accepting compensation for public service began well before 1961.  According to Stacy Chandler, reference archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, “Fletcher Knebel reported on this [Kennedy’s giving his salary to charity] in 1962, and ‘White House sources’ eventually did confirm to the press that he had been donating his federal civil service salary since 1947 when he became a Congressional Representative.  I found a few letters from White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to constituents confirming the President’s donation (and one mentions RFK did the same), so the White House clearly wasn’t trying to hide the fact—but I couldn’t find any instances of the President publicly discussing this in news conferences or speeches.”

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