'Lock Her Up' Is a Really, Really Bad Anti-Hillary Slogan

Delegates yell after the temporary chairman of the Republican National Convention announced that the convention would not hold a roll-call vote on the Rules Committee's report and rejected the efforts of anti-Trump forces to hold such a vote. Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

"Lock her up," shout the crowds at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, convinced that Hillary Clinton should go to prison because of Benghazi or her email server or Hillarycare or some other reason.

They should stop. Not because it's crude and uncivil—though it is, like so much else in the political sphere today—but because living in the White House has been compared, over and over, to being incarcerated.

"Elect her," they may as well have shouted, as New Jersey Governor and George Washington Bridge lane-closer Chris Christie made his case against Clinton on Tuesday night. Because, as presidents have testified over and over, election to the most powerful office in the world is in some ways similar to a prolonged imprisonment.

The notion is as old as the presidency itself. Martha Washington, for example, bemoaned a life that was "more like a state prisoner than anything else." And this was before the White House became the gilded cage of American power.

The feeling continued into modernity. In 1952, Harry Truman wrote in a letter to Edward McKim, an old friend, that he wanted to come down to Panama but couldn't because he was in "jail." On another occasion, the Missourian called the White House a "glamorous prison" and, in his best quip about a residence he clearly disliked, "the big white jail."

Ronald Reagan expressed the same sentiment in 1982. "I sometimes look out the window at Pennsylvania Avenue and wonder what it would be like to be able to just walk down the street to the corner drugstore and look at the magazines. I can't do that anymore," he complained, sounding very much like a convict longing for freedom.

"I don't know whether it's the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the prison system," said Bill Clinton, who today stands accused by many activists on the left of expanding the prison population.

Kenneth Walsh, a longtime journalist, published a book in 2013 about presidential leadership. It is titled Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership.

Since 9/11, the feelings of isolation for an American prisoner have only deepened. In 2014, CBS reported on President Barack Obama, sick with "cabin fever," walking to a Starbucks near the White House. "Secret Service gets a little stressed," he explained. "But every once in a while, I'm able to sneak off. I'm sort of like the circus bear that kind of breaks the chain."

His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, also appears to struggle against the confines of presidential life. "There are prison elements to it. But it's a really nice prison," she said in 2013, during a summit in Africa with her predecessor Laura Bush.

Bush amended the complaint slightly. "But with a chef."

The "Lock her up" crowd is very much hoping Clinton makes do with prison meals, not state dinners. But their inflammatory rhetoric might only help send her to the jailhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue.