The Loneliest Place In The World

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The American Presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. —John F. Kennedy, 1963

The Presidency is mysterious because it is formidable; mystery is inherent in power. “All government is obscure and invisible,” Bacon wrote long ago. The machinery is now pretty much open to view; democracy and modern communications have “exposed” our governors in many ways, some of them dreadful. But the experience of power and many of its exercises continue to be obscure and invisible, and the ultimate in systems of temporal power—sovereigntyis the ultimate in temporal mystery. Sovereignty, moreover, is experience unshared and by its nature unsharable. It is something like death, unknowable to the sentient or by the modes of sentience. It seems to be the unsharable weight of this knowledge of sovereignty as much as the weight of specific responsibilities that Presidents have had in mind when they have spoken, as nearly all of them have, of the “burdens” of the office. Of all Presidents, James Buchanan assumed the fewest responsibilities and filed the most complaints about his aching shoulders. And it is, apparently, the inability to communicate the nature of the experience that has led so many Presidents to speak of “loneliness.” “This is the loneliest place in the world,” William Howard Taft, one of the most gregarious of Presidents, said as he was about to turn things over to Woodrow Wilson.

What defies communication defies anticipation. The White House should have held few surprises for Woodrow Wilson. In 1908, he had written a book called The President of the United States . When the book’s title was his title, he wrote, “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible.” Wilson was a war President and a man much given to anxiety of spirit. But there have been similar outcries from men who have experienced only peace and have not been known to relish guilt. As a matter of fact, the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson—all five of them men who have lived with responsibilities unimaginable to their predecessorshave been freer of anguish and of self-pity than any five men before them, which invites the speculation that the experience of sovereignty in an imperial, or superpower, phase produces fewer frustrations and less self-regard than sovereignty in a pre-imperial phase. But everyone has testified to the mystery. Calvin Coolidge, who was Doctor Pangloss in the White House and who delighted in the opportunities it offered for afternoon snoozes, wrote of the Presidency that “Much of it cannot be described, it can only be felt.” And from Harry Truman, a flat, authoritative pronouncement: “No one who has not had the responsibility can really understand what it is like to be President.” Sovereignty resists empathy; if Truman is right, then only Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, and Truman himself are qualified to address themselves to the mysteries.

Kennedy, perhaps the most reflective and detached of Presidents, went further than Truman and said that the mystery is never fully revealed even to those who embody it. The Presidency, he wrote in an introduction to Theodore C. Sorensen’s admirable DecisionMaking in the White House , “is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself.” This seems to deepen the mystery, but it doesn’t really; in a way, it dispels it, for it returns the whole question to the level of commonplace, man-in-the-street, existential bewilderment. Who among us knows the “essence” of our own “decisions”—or why we have done what we have done? Whole schools of theology and psychoanalysis flourish and profit on our lack of selfknowledge and the troubles we have with decisions, decisions, decisions. Kennedy’s formulation somehow doesn’t work. What is impenetrable about the office cannot be one of the things it has in common with every other office and station in life. Moreover, presidential decisions often seem quite devoid of hidden or obscure essences. No mystery envelops Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase or Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Or Kennedy’s assignment of the highest priority to civil-rights legislation in 1963. This last was only barely within the realm of presidential discretion.