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The Temper Thing

June 2024
7min read

How bad is it when Presidents get really sore?

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.

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.”

One president who seemed genuinely unable to contain his anger was Harry Truman, and it cost him. It was one thing when Truman chewed out the Soviet ambassador (supposedly telling him, when he protested such treatment, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t be spoken to that way!”) or when he fired nasty barbs in the direction of Bernard Baruch, John L. Lewis, or Drew Pearson. It was another when he accused the Marine Corps of having “a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s” or when, in December 1950, he wrote an almost comically nasty letter to the Washington Post ’s music critic, Paul Hume. “Some day I hope to meet you,” Truman warned Hume, who had dared to give his daughter Margaret’s recital a bad review. “When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Never before had a sitting President threatened to knee a music critic in the groin. This was just the sort of outburst we now cherish about Harry Truman, but it did not go over so well at the time, once the Washington News printed the letter on its front page. The United States was then enmeshed in the worst stage of the Korean War, our troops being pushed back by the Chinese onslaught, and millions of worried American mothers and fathers were in no mood to sympathize over Margaret Truman’s professional travails. Letters poured into the White House, denouncing Truman as “uncouth,” “common,” and even mentally unstable.

Yet Paul Hume himself had tried to keep the letter from being published and was cognizant of the fact that Truman had recently endured the death of his lifelong friend and press secretary, Charlie Ross. Hume announced that he had voted for Truman and supported him still, adding, “I can only say that a man suffering the loss of a friend and carrying the burden of the present world crisis ought to be indulged in an occasional outburst of temper.”

What better proof that Americans will tolerate the hottest temper, so long as we believe it is wielded on our behalf?

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