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The Temper Thing
How bad is it when Presidents get really sore?
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Certain tempers have more or less faded out of style. Washington famously exploded at one of his generals, Charles Lee, for his conduct during the Battle of Monmouth, but he mostly specialized in a sort of majestic aloofness, something that did wonders for establishing the dignity of the office but that would scarcely be tolerated today. Then there was Calvin Coolidge, who got out his aggressions by bullying his wife and playing tiresome practical jokes on the White House staff. Although Coolidge seems, in his way, to have been devoted to his wife, the former Grace Goodhue, he did present her with a bag containing fifty-two pairs of socks, all of them with holes, the first week they were married. While in the White House he made her check in with him constantly, calling around town to see where she might be whenever she was a few minutes late. A typical uproarious Coolidge prank, meanwhile, was to ring for all of the White House servants, then hide under the desk when they hurried to his office.
There are two kinds of temper that seem to have been nearly indispensable in the Presidency. One is contrived indignation. Nothing is more valuable in politics than the ability to summon up histrionic anger on a moment’s notice. A recent example is Bill Clinton’s conveniently blowing up at Jesse Jackson near an open microphone during the 1992 campaign. The all-time Academy Award-winning performance, though, was put on in 1980 by—unsurprisingly—Ronald Reagan, when he waylaid George Bush in a New Hampshire primary debate by declaring, “I paid for this microphone!” No matter that his campaign had set up the whole incident or that his lines were taken almost verbatim from a speech by Spencer Tracy in the 1948 film State of the Union; it was an extremely effective piece of political theater.
The other most effective presidential temper seems to be the ability to channel all of the office’s inherent frustrations and aggravations into a focused, useful, limited hatred toward various persons. Just how limited of course depends on the President. For Andrew Jackson, it extended (in part) to the Bank of the United States (“The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it!”), to Henry Clay (“the basest, meanest scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his God”), to John C. Calhoun (“I will hang him higher than Haman!”), and to the British Empire (see “New Orleans, Battle of”).
Harry Truman seemed genuinely unable to control his anger, and it cost him.
Yet here is where the line between performance and reality becomes smudged, as it always does in politics. No one would accuse Jackson of faking his rages, yet as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., points out in The Age of Jackson , even that famous temper was often wielded for political effect. He cites a quotation from a Jackson contemporary, Henry A. Wise: “He [Jackson] knew that the world … counted him of a temperament weak, impassioned, impulsive, and inconsiderate in action; and he often turned this mistake as to character into a large capital of advantage. He was a consummate actor, never stepped without knowing and marking his ground, but knew that most men thought he was not a man of calculations. This enabled him to blind them by his affectation of passion and impulse.”
Somehow the objects of Jackson’s wrath all proved to be very useful enemies, whose mutual animosity helped advance his own career. Most successful Presidents have had their personal bêtes noires, who have proved similarly helpful—as long as those hatreds have been kept within reasonable bounds. For Jefferson, it was Aaron Burr; for John Kennedy, Richard Nixon; for Woodrow Wilson, the United States Congress, which was certainly understandable but a little too much. For Franklin Roosevelt, it was Robert Moses. FDR knew enough to stop when his hatred threatened public works funds for New York City during the 1930s, but only with this very human appeal to a visitor: “Is the President of the United States not entitled to one personal grudge?”
Hatred can be an animating force for statesmen and sometimes a very creative one. Booth Tarkington described Theodore Roosevelt as one who enjoys “the fun of hating,” and the journalist Henry Watterson said Roosevelt was “as sweet a man as ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.” Yet these appear to have been mostly his attempts to, in Satchel Paige’s phrase, “angry up the blood.” As Roosevelt’s biographer Edmund Morris puts it, “The man’s personality was cyclonic, in that he tended to become unstable in times of low pressure. The slightest rise in the barometer outside, and his turbulence smoothed into a whirl of coordinated activity, while a stillness developed within. Under maximum pressure, Roosevelt was sunny, calm, and unnaturally clear.”