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The Loneliest Place In The World
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
There have been periods of some duration in our history when there has been little healing to do or when, it may be, Presidents have neglected the work of diagnosis. Coolidge once observed that he could close down the whole government and it would be several months before the country noticed the difference. He was probably right, but fevers were mounting as he said it, and it was the last time when any President could have spoken as he did. Even so, there are times when the hum and the buzz of the White House can scarcely be heard a block away. There are times when the institution can take over for the man. Eisenhower’s heart attack in the late summer of 1955 came at a time when the ship of state was resting easily at anchor. The country was reassured merely by the knowledge that the crew was on deck. Sherman Adams’ briefcase always looked full as he moved in and out of Fitzsimmons General Hospital, James Hagerty’s voice had the ring of authority, John Foster Dulles looked wise and strong. That was a rare and unusually long period of calm, but short ones are frequent. Often the hum and buzz are deliberately made to interrupt the quietude. Lyndon Johnson keeps terribly busybut largely by doing busy work, some part of which may be a masterful exercise of power, while other parts may be described as frivolous. It pleases us somehow to think of the Presidency as a killing job, a consumer of Presidents. Many Presidents have encouraged us in this. “No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” James Knox Polk confided to his diary. But that was Polk, a splendid President and a man with a passion for detail. There have been many conscientious Presidents who, quite apart from what they may have said about the office, have had plenty of leisure. There have even been some who admitted it and who admitted enjoying themselves thoroughly. “I had a corking time in the White House,” Theodore Roosevelt said. Presidential calendars are kept full, but generally with appointments that mean rather little to Presidents. A careful study of them might show that most Presidents have spent most of their waking hours listening, more for politeness’ sake than for anything else, to tiresome presentations by advocates of causes either foolish or hopeless or both. The ear is the organ most likely to be damaged in the course of presidential tenure. Most Presidents endure the flow of petitioners and justify it as politically advantageous or as educational. Lincoln spoke of his ordeals with cranks, self-seekers, and occasional purveyors of sound intelligence as “opinion baths.” Kennedy, who did not suffer fools gladly, said that he kept in touch with reality by seeing all sorts of people on all sorts of errands and that, besides, if he didn’t listen a lot, he would read more, which would be hard on his eyes, would add to his grievances, and would strain the resources of libraries. In any case, the hours thus passed are seldom stolen from duty. The proof is that it can all be put aside in a moment when duty calls—or when ennui or restlessness descends upon a President and he decides, suddenly, to take a few days off for golf or for a tour of distressed areas.
This is only to say that the mills grind slowly. Sovereignty is a holding action, a waiting game. To see its grandeur, and that of the Presidency, one must see beyond its legends and its trivialities and its absurdities. Trivialities intrude all the time. In Vienna in 1961 the Communist Czar of All the Russias handed Kennedy a note that seemed in the nature of an ultimatum on Berlin. Kennedy could have sat down and drafted a fitting response in fifteen minutes, but to do that would have^been to have bypassed the great puffing engine of the Department of State. To maintain the bureaucracy’s morale, to maintain its necessary sense of involvement, the President had, like an applicant for a fishing license, to go through the prescribed channels. This meant a delay of forty-three days in stating basic American policies. And the absurdities of power can be almost overwhelming. It is absurd, surely, that at this writing the man in the greatest office on earth should be waiting to see whether he and his lieutenants can succeed in mobilizing enough parliamentary strength to have it written into law that a citizen may be free to go into a dime store and there buy and consume a hot dog. Can this be a becoming use for sovereignty? The answer has to be a resounding affirmative. For the absurdity is not in power or sovereignty or the Presidency but in life and in society, and there is much that is of ultimate value in the concern with the hot dog—at least as much, one is bound to say, as in the concern with East India tea in Boston a couple of centuries ago. The society a President serves, by waiting and talking and thinking and now and then deciding on small matters and on large and fateful ones, is a human cosmos, vast in its stretches and endlessly disparate. Every day that passes with the structure more or less intact is, historically, a miracle, a triumph over absurdity. To prevent it from destroying itself, to counter the processes of disintegration and decay, and occasionally to codify simple humaneness is to keep alive the hope of fulfillment. This is the President’s role—formidable, nowadays exposed, and mysterious.