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The Loneliest Place In The World

May 2024
12min read

The American Presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. —John F. Kennedy, 1963

The Presidency is mysterious because it is formidable; mystery is inherent in power. “All government is obscure and invisible,” Bacon wrote long ago. The machinery is now pretty much open to view; democracy and modern communications have “exposed” our governors in many ways, some of them dreadful. But the experience of power and many of its exercises continue to be obscure and invisible, and the ultimate in systems of temporal power—sovereigntyis the ultimate in temporal mystery. Sovereignty, moreover, is experience unshared and by its nature unsharable. It is something like death, unknowable to the sentient or by the modes of sentience. It seems to be the unsharable weight of this knowledge of sovereignty as much as the weight of specific responsibilities that Presidents have had in mind when they have spoken, as nearly all of them have, of the “burdens” of the office. Of all Presidents, James Buchanan assumed the fewest responsibilities and filed the most complaints about his aching shoulders. And it is, apparently, the inability to communicate the nature of the experience that has led so many Presidents to speak of “loneliness.” “This is the loneliest place in the world,” William Howard Taft, one of the most gregarious of Presidents, said as he was about to turn things over to Woodrow Wilson.

What defies communication defies anticipation. The White House should have held few surprises for Woodrow Wilson. In 1908, he had written a book called The President of the United States . When the book’s title was his title, he wrote, “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible.” Wilson was a war President and a man much given to anxiety of spirit. But there have been similar outcries from men who have experienced only peace and have not been known to relish guilt. As a matter of fact, the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson—all five of them men who have lived with responsibilities unimaginable to their predecessorshave been freer of anguish and of self-pity than any five men before them, which invites the speculation that the experience of sovereignty in an imperial, or superpower, phase produces fewer frustrations and less self-regard than sovereignty in a pre-imperial phase. But everyone has testified to the mystery. Calvin Coolidge, who was Doctor Pangloss in the White House and who delighted in the opportunities it offered for afternoon snoozes, wrote of the Presidency that “Much of it cannot be described, it can only be felt.” And from Harry Truman, a flat, authoritative pronouncement: “No one who has not had the responsibility can really understand what it is like to be President.” Sovereignty resists empathy; if Truman is right, then only Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, and Truman himself are qualified to address themselves to the mysteries.

Kennedy, perhaps the most reflective and detached of Presidents, went further than Truman and said that the mystery is never fully revealed even to those who embody it. The Presidency, he wrote in an introduction to Theodore C. Sorensen’s admirable DecisionMaking in the White House , “is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself.” This seems to deepen the mystery, but it doesn’t really; in a way, it dispels it, for it returns the whole question to the level of commonplace, man-in-the-street, existential bewilderment. Who among us knows the “essence” of our own “decisions”—or why we have done what we have done? Whole schools of theology and psychoanalysis flourish and profit on our lack of selfknowledge and the troubles we have with decisions, decisions, decisions. Kennedy’s formulation somehow doesn’t work. What is impenetrable about the office cannot be one of the things it has in common with every other office and station in life. Moreover, presidential decisions often seem quite devoid of hidden or obscure essences. No mystery envelops Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase or Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Or Kennedy’s assignment of the highest priority to civil-rights legislation in 1963. This last was only barely within the realm of presidential discretion.

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.”

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.

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.

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