- Historic Sites
The Loneliest Place In The World
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
On other large matters—fiscal policies, the allocation of resources, the budget—the way in which a President exercises power will be the simple product of, on the one hand, ideology and, on the other, those facts of life, often statistical in nature, which define the realm of the possible. The fundamental thing a President may decide for himself—in solitude, perhaps in secrecy, almost certainly in ways that must be somewhat mysterious to himself—is what kind of President he wishes to be. His realm of the desirable can be as extensive and as interestingly appointed as his imagination can make it. It can also be small and unornamented. In either case, there will be tension and conflict between the two realms. The tension can itself be productive. Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy gained strength and power from their wish to transform a good society into a great one, while living with a sophisticated awareness of how difficult it was even to keep the society from sinking into squalor. Dwight Eisenhower took office with the most modest of presidential visions and with what might be called a meager view of the promise of American life. He hoped to achieve certain things he regarded as good by the restraint of federal power and by a minimal exercise of presidential power. His views of the role of government in the domestic economy were as negative and disapproving as those of his Secretary of the Treasury, George Humphrey. But as the realm of the possible sets limits on presidential action, it also sets limits on presidential inaction. It was simply never possible for Eisenhower to do or ask or initiate as little as he had hoped. The intractable facts and figures of an industrialized society of continental expanse were against him, compelling him to exercise powers whose creation and continued existence he deplored. “Nowadays,” as Richard E. Neustadt has said, “[the President] cannot be as small [a man] as he might like.” It is as impossible to be a McKinley as to be a Pericles.
In almost every discussion of the Presidency, we tend to linger on the peaks of presidential experience, to subject to close scrutiny the grand designs, the daring innovations, and the dangerous, sickening confrontations with hostile power. We thus conceal from ourselves not only much of the truth about the office but some of the truth about ourselves as a people. In point of fact, there are not, even today, many peaks- perhaps two or three in a peacetime administration. And the “big decisions,” on really close scrutiny, turn out to be choices of lesser evils. Most Presidents would like to satisfy the historians and offer “creative leadership,” but history provides very few opportunities for this sort of work. What it provides, most of the time, is trouble to be avoided. Commanding the ship of state is largely a matter of seeing to it that it stays afloat and clear of the reefs. The great commanders are, as a rule, those who succeed in preventing the worst from happening. Aside from providing it with a poem, Lincoln did nothing for the Union but save it from destroying itself. Roosevelt’s New Deal had some elements of creativity, but it was in the main another rescue operation; it checked disintegration. In the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev managed to come to an agreement on the inadvisability of suicide; the test-ban treaty was an agreement of a similar nature. In what he called, after the racial disturbances in Alabama, the “moral crisis” of 1962, Kennedy achieved a sure place in history merely by becoming the first President to call the thing by its proper name. One could describe it as a major scandal that Lyndon Johnson’s largest enterprise is to be a “war” on, of all things, “poverty” and that if he wins it, we will have caught up at last with Sweden and Switzerland. Or one could describe it as a heroic enterprise in a society so vast that it could relocate Sweden and Switzerland in a county or two and of diversity and complexity unknown to any other peoples.
But the Presidency is not diminished by these truths about it and about Presidents. One -M-J might as well disparage a physician by saying that he can, after all, do little more than occasionally save us from death and ill health. Most of the time of most men in most periods of history has been occupied with supporting and maintaining life—preventing the worst from coming to pass. There is mystery and majesty in the Presidency because there is mystery in life and majesty in great human societies. Politics is a healing art, and in the American society the President is the principal physician and the only general practitioner. He diagnoses and prescribes. He must design splints for social fractures.- His decisions and his words may be stimulants or tranquillizers, coagulants or anticoagulants. His first mission is to keep the patient alive, whole, and ambulatory.