Presidents have brought a wide range of personalities and proclivities to the White House. But one factor that turns up again and again in the Oval Office is loneliness. As it turns out, there are some very good reasons that many people have referred to the presidency as the “loneliest job” in the world.
Barack Obama said that former presidents warned him about the loneliness and isolation they felt while in the White House. Richard Norton, a presidential historian, told ABC News that “many presidents, despite the constant company of security personnel and Cabinet members and advisors, have felt lonely and isolated during their time in office.” A major factor? A “crushing sense of personal responsibility,” a burden that nobody else bears in the same way.
Read on to discover the loneliest presidents to have held office. And don’t miss the reasons why Donald Trump doesn’t mind being labeled the loneliest president of all.
1. John Tyler
- 10th president of the United States
Let’s start with one of the most famously isolated presidents in American history. John Tyler became a president without a party when he was disavowed by the Whigs, the party with which he had aligned himself when he ran for vice president alongside William Henry Harrison. The Whigs tried but failed to impeach Tyler. In fact, historians attribute Tyler’s inefficacy in office to his isolation from the political process.
Additionally, Tyler didn’t speak to anyone of the financial troubles he had while living “in a kind of genteel poverty” at the White House. There, he paid for maintenance, for much of the staff, for constant entertaining, and for the support of his large family. Tyler also kept to himself his concerns for his dying wife.
Next: This president’s talk of suicide alarmed his friends.
2. Abraham Lincoln
- 16th president of the United States
ABC News notes that Abraham Lincoln was “probably the last president to more or less live among the people without a lot of security.” Two to three times a week, Lincoln held office hours open to the general public, an opportunity that disappeared for later presidents. The publication reports that the often-melancholy Lincoln also “found solace in humor and theater.” Yet even that didn’t inoculate Lincoln against loneliness.
The Atlantic reports that Lincoln dealt with clinical depression his entire life. Lincoln’s so-called “melancholy,” along with his talk of suicide, repeatedly alarmed his friends. One historian wrote, “Notwithstanding Lincoln’s geniality he was a lonely man; for there was a remoteness and innate dignity about him that kept acquaintances at arm’s length. Most people addressed him as ‘Mr. Lincoln’ or ‘Lincoln.'”
Next: This president often avoided social occasions.
3. Ulysses S. Grant
- 18th president of the United States
The Daily Beast reports that though historians have written more than 200 biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president “remains an enigma more than 150 years after the guns of the Civil War fell silent.” The publication characterizes Grant as “small in stature, invariably rumpled in appearance, taciturn, and painfully shy.”
When stationed a remote California outpost during his military career, Grant “grew lonely, depressed, and began to drink heavily.” He seemed prone to loneliness later in his career, and in the White House, as well. The New York Times reports that even at the height of Grant’s political life, the president “often avoided social occasions and retreated into alcohol.”
Next: This president even called the presidency ‘the loneliest job in the world.’
4. William Howard Taft
- 27th president of the United States
William Howard Taft reportedly referred to the presidency as “the loneliest job in the world.” It’s no surprise that Smithsonian Magazine refers to chief justice, not president, as Taft’s dream job. Taft “never really wanted to be president,” the publication explains. “Politics was his wife’s ambition for him, not his own.”
With the loneliness of the presidency behind him, Taft eventually served nine years as chief justice after his four years as president. (He remains the only person to hold both jobs.) Justice Felix Frankfurter once remarked, “He loathed being president, and being chief justice was all happiness for him.”
Next: This president chose to hide his health problems, which left him isolated.
5. Woodrow Wilson
- 28th president of the United States
Woodrow Wilson was another famously lonely president. He wrote in a letter to one of his daughters, either Jessie Woodrow Sayre or Margaret Woodrow Wilson, “One could hardly imagine a more empty and forlorn house than this, but I did not expect anything else.”
An article in the Wilson Quarterly notes that Wilson’s struggle with physical affliction also left him isolated, as did his choice to cover up his health problems. One of his close advisers, Edward M. House, wrote that Wilson “said it looked as if the people were trying to kill him, and he spoke of the loneliness of his position, in a way that was saddening.”
Next: This president had a famously somber nature.
6. Calvin Coolidge
- 30th president of the United States
The Miller Center at the University of Virginia describes Calvin Coolidge as “a quiet and somber man whose sour expression masked a dry wit.” History reports that “Coolidge’s no-nonsense approach and somber nature stood in stark contrast to his predecessor’s genial personality and casual leadership style,” referring to Warren G. Harding. Coolidge may have been prone to loneliness as it was, but later sank into a depression upon the death of his son, who died of an infection. (Calvin Jr. decided to play tennis without socks, and developed a blister that soon became infected.)
Coolidge declined to run for a second term as president. He was credited for much of the prosperity of the 1920s. But less than a year after he left office, the U.S. stock market crashed. Then, the economy plummeted into the Great Depression. Coolidge recognized that he bore some responsibility, and admitted to friends that he spent his presidency “avoiding the big problems.”
Next: This president had few real friends.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
Franklin D. Roosevelt had many admirers and acquaintances, but almost no real friends — a lonely situation, indeed. Historian Alan Brinkley told NPR that Roosevelt “kept his inner self to himself and seemed to have an almost infinite ability to adapt himself to whomever he was talking to, but very few people with whom he was really intimate.”
After he contracted polio, Roosevelt “erected this ebullient, cherubic personality to sort of divert people away from the fact that he couldn’t walk,” Brinkley explains. He must have felt the loneliness of his office and his position. Roosevelt reportedly told Wendell Willkie, his opponent in the 1940 presidential election, that if Willkie became president, “You’ll learn what a lonely job this is.”
Next: This president referred to the White House as a ‘great white jail.’
8. Harry S. Truman
- 33rd president of the United States
According to ABC News, Harry S. Truman wrote in a 1947 diary entry that life inside the White House felt like life in prison. He wrote that he would consider running for vice president on a ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1948. “Ike and I could be elected and my family and myself would be happy outside this great white jail, known as the White House.”
Truman also believed the White House to be haunted. If you ask us, that likely wouldn’t have helped his feelings of loneliness. He wrote to his wife that he often listened “to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth — I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”
Next: Declassified documents show that this president had a penchant for secrecy.
9. John F. Kennedy
- 35th president of the United States
John F. Kennedy doesn’t seem to have acknowledged the loneliness of the presidency as clearly as others who have held the office. Nonetheless, declassified documents paint a very lonely picture of Kennedy. As The Guardian reports, Kennedy had a penchant for secrecy in both his professional and personal lives. “Even friends did not know Kennedy well,” the publication learned.
Kennedy kept a hidden tape recorder in his office, unbeknown to just about everyone around him. He and his aides also constructed a “girlfriend system” used “to ferry women in and out of his chambers.” Kennedy “created a ‘culture of secrecy’ that would have eventually haunted him,” the documents show.
Next: This president’s introverted nature may have undermined him in office.
10. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
The New York Times characterizes Richard Nixon as “a rare example of a lonely introvert who rose to the top in the extroverted world of elective politics.” Though we’ve elected numerous presidents whom researchers have identified as introverts, Nixon’s climb to the top likely made him even more lonely.
The publication explains that Nixon’s “unremitting effort” to climb to the top — “to convince the public that a shy and withdrawn man was a genial backslapper — must have cost him a great deal psychologically; and it fixed on him the enduring suspicion that he never allowed Americans to see the ‘real Nixon.’ He rarely did.”
Next: Being an outsider made this president particularly isolated.
11. Jimmy Carter
- 39th president of the United States
ABC also notes that Jimmy Carter’s final days in office were “some of the most isolated of his tenure.” While dealing with the hostage situation in Iran, Carter would spend days closed up in his office with just one or two advisors. If that doesn’t sound lonely, we don’t know what does.
Carter famously developed a reputation as an outsider. That can get lonely in its own way. The Washington Post notes that throughout his presidency, Carter relied “heavily on a tight cluster of personal friends and longtime aides, placing a higher premium on loyalty than Washington experience.”
Next: This president had to give up the email account he used to write to friends and family when he moved to the White House.
12. George W. Bush
- 43rd president of the United States
Modern presidents have to comply with strict technology rules, including handing over their personal phones for a more secure device — with a number that few people possess. But even before everybody had smartphones, modern presidents have had to curtail their usual use of technology. ABC News reports that George W. Bush had to write an email to his friends and family, explaining why his inbox would suddenly close.
Interestingly enough, the younger Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, didn’t seem to feel the loneliness of the office. The elder Bush wrote to his successor, Bill Clinton, that he personally “never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.” No word on whether H.W. later saw his son among those presidents who did get lonely in the White House.
Next: This president developed a reputation for solitude and isolation.
13. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
Barack Obama is a famously lonely president. The Atlantic reports that Obama started worrying about loneliness before he even won his first term in office. Vanity Fair reports that “Obama’s resolute solitude—his isolation and alienation from the other players and power centers of Washington, be they rivals or friends—has emerged as the defining trait of his time in office.”
Vanity Fair notes that Obama also had “no relationship with any foreign leader that is remotely akin to Ronald Reagan’s with Margaret Thatcher, or Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s with Tony Blair.” And the publication characterized Obama as “the capital’s Lonely Guy.”
Next: Donald Trump has a reputation for isolation, too.
14. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
Many headlines have characterized Donald Trump as the loneliest president of all. For instance, Salon reported in the spring of 2017 that Trump “is increasingly without friends, even in his own party.” CNN reported that Trump returned to the White House from a trip to the Middle East “lonely, angry and not happy with much of anyone. The presidency, Donald Trump is discovering, is not an easy or natural fit.” And CNBC reported that “The view from the White House is a lonely one as the business community abandons Trump.”
Even before he was elected, The New York Times characterized Trump as “adviser-less” and “friendless.” The Times columnist wrote, “He was a germophobe through most of his life and cut off contact with others, and now I just picture him alone in the middle of the night, tweeting out hatred.”
Next: Nonetheless, Trump doesn’t seem to mind being the loneliest president.
But Donald Trump doesn’t mind being alone
Donald Trump has become increasingly isolated in the White House. But interestingly enough, Politico reports that “for Donald Trump, being alone is not a liability. It’s where he’s most comfortable.” The publication explained, “His critics might see his growing isolation as a product of his political inexperience—an aversion to the norms of the legislative process, a penchant for topsy-turvy management. But as unprecedented as this might be in the annals of the West Wing, it’s merely a continuation of a lifelong pattern of behavior for Trump.”
Trump has always operated in isolation, with friendships that prove mostly temporary and transactional. He doesn’t trust most people, and he doesn’t seem to want to have a lot of friends or even allies. Trump seems to believe that being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely.
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