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The Temper Thing
How bad is it when Presidents get really sore?
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
The rumor first began to spread around Washington last year: Sen. John McCain had a skeleton in his closet. Was it something to do with his past as a war hero in Vietnam? His voting record in the Senate? The role he had played as one of the Keating Five in the savings and loan scandal?
No, it was something much worse. Supposedly, John McCain had a temper. The rumor was apparently bruited about by George W. Bush’s campaign, which would make an appropriate bookend to his family’s sojourn in national politics. After all, it was George père’s allies who put it about in 1988 that either Michael Dukakis or his wife or both had a history of mental illness.
What all this speaks to (besides the willingness of Bushes young and old to go to the mat) is how much importance we now attach to “character” in the Oval Office. Why character—and why now? On a political level it probably reflects how dramatically the differences between the two major parties have shrunk. And as a people, Americans have become more “attuned” to their feelings than ever before in our history, sometimes to an almost nauseating degree.
But, to put it in full psychobabble, just what do we mean when we talk about character? Also, is it really such a bad thing to have a temper when you’re President? To judge from our history, the answer to the latter question seems to be no—as long as it’s the right kind of temper.
Most Presidents—and nearly all successful Presidents—have displayed some kind of temper at some time in their tenures. It’s simply too difficult to get that far in politics without so valuable a tool. Sooner or later any President is going to have to get tough with truculent senators, evil foreign dictators, willful special-interest groups, corrupt criminal syndicates, recalcitrant state governors, shilly-shallying bureaucrats, and feckless relations. And then there’s the rest of us. Any man who could get to be President without becoming at least occasionally fed up with all the silly, self-serving demands we make of him would have to be possessed of an almost unnatural serenity.
About the only Presidents who seem to have been consistently genial were William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, and Warren G. Harding (at least until Harding discovered that all the friends he had appointed to public positions were robbing the country blind). None of them fared very well in office, save for McKinley, who was assassinated by a man in a reception line who pretended to have a bandaged hand. (A little more impatience—“Why is that fool trying to shake my hand with a cast?”—might have served him well.)
Of course, not all tempers are created—or regarded as—equal. The rumor-mongers were obviously trying to imply that McCain had an uncontrollable, perhaps even psychotical, bad temper, that he was a sort of Manchurian Candidate, permanently warped by his wretched wartime experiences.
Lyndon Johnson’s temper was less tortured but probably even more vitriolic than Nixon’s.
The only President generally thought of as possessing a crazy bad temper is Richard Nixon. Releases of tapes from the National Archives continue to confirm the widespread notion that he spent much of his time in the White House doing a sort of free-form imitation of Capt. Philip Francis Queeg. (Some of the most recently published tapes contain, in the course of a single conversation with Ehrlichman and Haldeman: “We’re going to [put] more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls.…Mexico is a much more moral country [than the United States].…You know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them.…You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags…the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out.”)
Even in his own time Nixon’s sort of temper did not play well, no doubt in part because of his repeated Freudian need to let his darkest inner conflicts slip. At the end of the first debate in the 1960 election, for instance, in closing remarks supposedly designed to show that he, too, wanted to “get America moving again,” he repeated over and over, “We can’t stand pat”—inadvertently invoking the name of his wife.
Lyndon Johnson’s temper was less tortured but probably even more vitriolic than Nixon’s and found release in repeated, and on occasion disgusting, humiliations of his wife and closest aides. It was, at least, a useful component in the famous “Johnson treatment” of alternating flattery, intimidation, and general cajolery that got so much legislation passed. It might have been better applied, though, to all those respected Wise Men and Ivy League experts who kept telling LBJ how we could win a war on behalf of a people who did not want to fight.
Peevish bad temper also fails to play well, something that Bob Dole might have noted before his 1996 campaign. One need only look at the Adamses, John and John Quincy, who were smarter than nearly everyone else and spent most of their careers letting everybody know this. John, Sr., once went so far as to call George Washington a “muttonhead”; it was not surprising that the disastrous Alien and Sedition Acts he signed clamped down on derisive cartoonists and columnists.