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The Loneliest Place In The World
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
It is only in recent years that power has been represented as “decision-making” or a President as a “decider.” The language has come to us from the academy (Division of Social Sciences), and it was much in vogue during the Kennedy administration. It has its uses, and it is easy to understand its appeal to young leaders who thought of themselves as activists and who succeeded an elderly administration easily faulted for inaction and indecision. But the language is, one sometimes feels, reductive, demeaning, and misleading. Power is more than “ultimate decision,” and decision is perhaps the least of its mysteries. A President is not first of all a man thinking over what (or what not) to do next and then doing (or not doing) it. This may describe the central role of a purchasing agent or a speculator, but it does not describe that of a President, who “decides” now and then and “presides” for twenty-four hours a day. Appraise George Washington by the quality of his presidential decisions, and you have a presidential mediocrity. Who and what Washington was from 1789 to 1797 matters to history far more than what Washington did in those years. Lincoln’s greatness will not be denied even by those who think he made all the wrong decisions. Emerson got close to the truth when he said that in an age without printing, Lincoln “would have become mythological … by his fables and proverbs,” and so did Edmund Wilson when he spoke of the great “poem that Lincoln lived.” But there would have been no poem without the Presidency and no true occasion for the myths and fables. Had Kennedy lived to serve a few years more, he might have staked a claim to greatness by the Tightness of his decisions, which is unmistakably the claim that Truman makes upon our consideration. As things have worked out, Kennedy will not be judged by this standard. The most memorable thing about him is bound to be his presence —always surprising, bracing, promising much in the way of new departures—in the White House from 1961 to 1963.
Mere presence, of course, cannot promote the general welfare or secure the blessings of liberty when these are imperilled. Power is given in order that it may be used, and it is true that, with a few exceptions that should not be overlooked, the great men have been those who used it boldly, imaginatively, humanely. But not every exercise of power is an act of “decision”—preceded by rigorous deliberation, followed by vigorous execution. One of the mysteries is that there can be palpable power in mere presence. Regard Lyndon Johnson, who knows in his large, raw bones how potent presence can be and who delights in what can be done with it. He was employing to the full all the sovereign powers of his office—specified, implied, residual—whenever, during the railroad negotiations last April, he walked across the street to the Executive Office Building merely to ask the negotiators if any progress was being made.
Crossing the street on such an errand is an exercise of power that may provide a surer test of a President’s judgment, his sense of occasion, his strength, than most of the “big decisions” the political scientists delight in analyzing. In any event, those decisions that are of the largest, clearest, most immediate importance are more likely than not to be the opposite of impenetrable. Many of them are made by Presidents, or made for them, long before they take the oath of office. They are made in choices of party and faction; they are made in the process of winning support, of putting together winning combinations in nominating conventions and general elections; they are often written, so to speak, into the contracts that establish the terms of presidential employment. Nor, as it usually turns out, is there anything obscure about those decisions Presidents make in times of great danger to the republic or when human lives are at stake. At such times, for one thing, the range of choices is likely to be, or at least likely to seem, cruelly narrow. In 1945, Harry Truman felt he had to make a simple choice between using and not using the bomb. Later thought, illuminated by later knowledge, revealed other possible approaches. It was in the nature of things at the time, though, that Truman, a war President actively functioning as Commander in Chief and unable to disclose even the nature of his concerns to more than a handful of men, should have conceived the problem as he did. Still, there was nothing obscure about his decision, nothing mysterious, and partly because he made it as he did and led us . into a terrible new age, his successors have done all that they could to bring circumspectness to every decision that may increase or diminish the prospects for war and destruction. When peace is thought to be at stake, a Commander in Chief will do everything possible- and much is possible—to eliminate factors of an obscure or invisible nature. He will seek the most interested advice he can get. He will call for precise, verifiable data. And he will then “decide” as little as he possibly can—that is to say, he will miss no opportunity for purposeful enlargement of the area of indecision. Jn the Cuban missile crisis two years ago, Kennedy knew, and in time all of us knew, exactly why he made the responses he did—and exactly why he did not make certain responses he might have made. There was secrecy in that awful affair, but, after a while, no “mystery” at all about “the essence of ultimate decision.”