Overburdened Men in the White House
I HEAR it said that Borah is too old for the Presidency. This at once raises in my mind two broad questions. How old is old? And how crushing is the Presidency?
Perhaps that second question should be stated a bit differently. Perhaps I ought really to inquire: How crushing does the Presidency actually have to be?
I have observed quite a few Presidents. I am convinced that some of them have positively enjoyed the sensation of being crushed by their responsibilities. I am convinced that some of them have deliberately — even if unconsciously and merely instinctively — sought to work themselves into that sensation. They had been brought up to love the picture of ‘the overburdened man in the White House.’ They accordingly strove, when they had the opportunity, to reënact that picture in their own persons.
Contrariwise, that perfectly healthy animal Theodore Roosevelt emerged from seven years in the White House with the ebullient remark, ’I’ve had a bully time.’ My conviction is that they could all have a bully time if they would just dispense with a little of the mixture of sentimentalism and megalomania which afflicts a good many of them.
A good many of them, but not all. I once intercepted Mr. Calvin Coolidge taking a nap in the middle of a presidential executive day. When he opened his eyes, he grinned and asked: ‘Is the country still here?’
It was. Of course Mr. Calvin Coolidge should have checked the increase in brokers’ loans. He should have stemmed the divorce evil. He should have reduced the tariff, all by himself. lie should have changed mergers and combinations Into dissolutions and competitions. He should have made wheat farmers in western Kansas keep milk cows. He should have restored religion.
Yes, almost every President becomes religious. No matter how indifferent he may have been previously toward religion, he starts as soon as he is inaugurated to talk familiarly about God. Our worldliest and most agnostic chief rulers have done it. The spiritual life of the American people is one of the deepest concerns of American Presidents. British prime ministers, generally speaking, leave the spiritual life of the British people alone. Not so American Presidents. Even as candidates for the Presidency, they begin talking about spiritual forces, and, under the influence of the vocabulary of modern psychology, they recently have begun to talk about spiritual ‘values.’ They are not content with being the Chief Magistrates of the Republic. They seem to want to be also its High Priests.
This aggressive busybodiness of American Presidents should be restrained, I think, by some salutary cynicism. Calvin Coolidge — and long may his memory be therefore green — had cynicism enough and humor enough and sense enough to know that he was not called by the Almighty to remedy every evil of the New Era between the Great War and the Great Depression, especially since he was utterly without the constitutional or political or personal power to do so. The ‘ crushingness ’ of the Presidency, in so far as it exists, is simply the result of the arrogant determination of some Presidents to discharge not only the duties of the President but also those of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the heads of departments, the chiefs of bureaus, and the members of the Supreme Court, to say nothing of those of the members of the National Committees of the political parties to which they belong.
Now if a President can indeed do all of these things and still, like Theodore Roosevelt, take it easy and look happy about it, he removes at least one cause for complaint. But when he unnecessarily takes upon himself all the miseries of the universe, and then proceeds to look like a spent dishrag and to inspire newspaper pictures showing him first in his carefree days when he was earning his living and then with the face furrows produced in him by his presidential efforts to earn everybody else’s living, it becomes time, I think, to call a halt for refreshments.
And the first refreshing cool drink to consume, or to dash on the overheated brow, is the fact that the President is in a lot of luck in comparison with any European prime minister. Think it over, and see if it is not so.
A prime minister is responsible for the operations of the administrative branches of the government of his country, just like a President among us; but then he goes on from there — and he goes a long way — toward additional woes which our President never needs to encounter.
A prime minister — to begin with a small matter — has to dine out occasionally or even quite frequently with his friends and supporters and also with his critics and enemies. He has to maintain his political social circle. An American President virtually never dines out. He evades all dining-out fatigue. If he wants to dine with you, he tells you to dine with him, and you come.
And when you have come, and it gets to be ten-fifteen, or any other moment that suits his pleasure, he stands, and you and all the rest of those present go. I never saw a prime minister who exercised any social right to dismiss his guests in that way, simply because he might want to conserve his strength and go to bed. But it is the right — and the exercised right — of every American President.
Once, when I was familiar with the habits of Presidents but not of prime ministers, I had a journalistic occasion to call upon a Continental prime minister rather late at night. He courteously provided supper. The occasion became social. We sat and talked; and then we sat and talked and sat and talked. I became very uneasy and fidgety. I was waiting for the prime minister to stand.
Twelve o’clock arrived. I became desperate. Like every other Washingtonian, I was trained to stay while the Chief Executive sat and to go only when the Chief Executive rose.
I kept wondering whether that prime minister would ever rise. Then — I ’ll say it for myself — I had a flash of marvelous insight. I guessed that perhaps foreign customs might be different from ours. So I flippantly wondered aloud if my host could sit hospitably in his chair as long as I could sit enjoyably in mine. My host — engaged in governing one of the world’s greatest countries — looked puzzled. ‘ Why,’ said he, ‘of course. Are you not my guest ?’
I realized then that I had never been really a guest in the White House. I had been a subject, summoned and dismissed at the President’s pleasure. I at once explained American presidential institutions to my pale and weary European prime minister, apologized for my ignorance of the social obligations of chief executives in his country, and ran.
That little incident began to teach me what I afterward learned in full. The social life of prime ministers is that of human beings engaged in daily politics, with all the hazards of a fall from political power at any moment, while the social life of an American President is that of a demigod in a shrine from which there can be no fall for four years and into which and out of which the worshipers pass obediently at quasi-divine command. In other words, prime ministers cannot control the requirements of their social intercourse with their colleagues and rivals and the wives and sisters and cousins and aunts of them all. Presidents have no colleagues. They have only subordinates, and they can control their social intercourse with them absolutely. They can fix their receptions and dinners at any hour they please and end them at any hour they please, and they could go to bed at nine every night if they really felt ‘overburdened ’ by ceremonial.
So much for ceremonial and society, which are a big element in public life. But now we come to an element which is, of course, much bigger. It is the parliamentary debating endeavors which exist in the lives of prime ministers and which do not exist at all in the lives of American Presidents.
I wonder just how ‘overburdened’ the pampered recluses of the White House would really feel if, on top of their sheltered administrative chores, they had to undertake the open parliamentary catch-as-catch-can life-anddeath chore of going to Capitol Hill and engaging in debate with the Opposition Senators or Representatives, it being understood that they would immediately fall from the presidential office if they were beaten too badly.
Prime ministers in all free European countries must face that parliamentary ordeal. They must face it frequently; and they must face it often late at night. They cannot dismiss their parliamentary inquisitors by rising to their feet. When they rise to their feet, their parliamentary inquisitors merely ask them some more questions and settle down to a fine evening’s fun and carnage.
Our Presidents need never see a parliamentary character — or, in our language, a Congressional character — unless they wish to invite him to repair to the sacrosanct presidential presence in the White House. Our Presidents need never look a political or personal enemy in the eye during the whole course of their presidential careers. They need never answer a critic’s arguments face to face with him. All they need to do is to read what he says in the newspapers and then give out a perfectly secure retort to him at their next press conference.
One reason why a certain number of our Presidents get elephantiasis of the ego is precisely that they spend almost all their time with administrative officials and newspaper reporters and other political inferiors and are never obliged to meet a political peer in a free forum on equal terms. This fact tends to produce in them a sense of lofty separateness. They begin to divide the whole American public-life world into (a) a statesman and patriot living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and (b) ‘politicians.’ The Senate, they finally think, contains 96 mere ‘politicians.’ The House of Representatives, they know, contains 435 mere ‘politicians.’ And life for them becomes a remote-control struggle between 531 ‘politicians’ on Capitol Hill and the country’s one blameless public careerist in the White House.
European prime ministers are saved from all that sort of incipient insanity by being hurled into the parliamentary arena, where they get the nonsense knocked out of them by hard blows and where they are constantly compelled to acknowledge to themselves that their opponents are pretty stout and shrewd and competent fellows. But on the point of ‘overburdenedness,’ on the point of toil, on the point of fatigue, the American Presidents have all the best of it. They can take treatments from their masseurs in the White House while British prime ministers are getting mauled and pummelcd in the House of Commons by His Majesty’s loyal and loquacious Opposition.
I once saw Gladstone himself taking it in the House of Commons. My father dragged me to the House of Commons gallery to give me the instruction which he thought should be absorbed by an American tourist boy. Gladstone was speaking on his Irish Home Rule bill. He was at his most eagle-like age and in his most eagle-like mood. At the end of decades of public experience and sophistication he had come to his most outbreaking, his most progressive, his most revolutionary legislative proposal. The wings of his eloquence beat the air of the House to a tumult both of approval and of answering invective. He rode the storm as if floating in the empyrean.
And I recollect that even as a boy I wondered at his ability to do it, not only in the face of his opponents, who were violent, but more especially in the face of Mr. Arthur Balfour, who was not.
Mr. Balfour’s non-violence was the most disconcerting thing I have ever seen. Mr. Balfour sat on the front Opposition bench, only a few feet from Mr. Gladstone. He sat on the small of his back. His feet were thrust far out in front of him; his head was thrown back at rest. He gazed at Mr. Gladstone incuriously. He gazed at him as one might gaze at a flitting moth. He gazed at him with a negligent insolence that said ‘Tosh!’ in such a loud tone that I almost wondered how Mr. Gladstone could continue.
But continue Mr. Gladstone did, against fiery tongues and against Mr. Balfour’s icy eye. And it was of that year of his life that the British historian Sir Charles Edward Mallet wrote: —
The power, the vitality, the astonishing resources of argument and of eloquence, of dexterity and of understanding, with which the Prime Minister fought for every detail of his Irish bill fascinated most opponents hardly less than they fascinated friends.
And how old was Mr. Gladstone then? He was eighty-two. Myself, I would advise anybody to take on our Presidency at a hundred and ten rather than take on the British prime ministership at eighty-two. But Mr. Gladstone took it on at eighty-two, — after having taken it on once, by the way, at seventy and again, by the way, at seventy-six, — and at eightythree and eighty-four he dazed Britain with his robustness. How old is old?
One Major William Pierce of Georgia once intimated that eighty-two, if not eighty-three, might sometimes be about as old as twenty-five. He was a delegate to our Constitutional Convention of 1787. He there met Benjamin Franklin, a delegate. Major Pierce wrote back home: —
Mr. Franklin is eighty-two years old and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of twenty-five.
This would seem to set twenty-five as the age of maximum or optimum mental activity. What, then, of Alexander Hamilton in that same Constitutional Convention? He was thirty. And what of James Madison? He was thirty-six. Perhaps Hamilton and Madison were too old. How young is young?
I imagine that the prosaic answer is that youth and age are terms that have to be considered relatively to occupation.
What is ‘old’ for prize fighters? What is ‘old’ for tennis players? What is ‘old’ for heads of businesses? What is ‘old’ for statesmen?
I am totally convinced that a man gets too old for business long before he gets too old for statesmanship. That is because the strain in business is much greater.
A business can easily go bankrupt. It requires enormous effort to make a government go bankrupt. A peanut vendor can be ruined. How do you ruin anybody who can almost illimitably tax and borrow? The depression led a considerable number of business men to leap out of hotel windows. When did a depression ever lead a President to leap out of a window of the White House?
No! The contemplation of the woes of the electorate is a much less strenuous occupation than the facing of judgments secured by unsatisfied and implacable creditors.
The only President in our times who succumbed to the Presidency was Harding. And did he really succumb to the Presidency? He did not. He succumbed to his private associations and to his error in bringing those associations with him into office. His fate had nothing whatsoever to do with any ‘overburdensomeness’ of regular presidential administrative routine.
Theodore Roosevelt, after being worn out by the Presidency, plunged buoyantly into exorbitant expeditions into Africa and South America. William Howard Taft survived the White House to spend many years laboriously and happily as a law teacher and a judge. Calvin Coolidge was certainly as healthy when he left the White House as when he entered it. Herbert Hoover encountered more unmitigated concentrated economic anguish in our country than any other President in our history and reaped from it an almost unprecedented pressure of resentment and complaint. He looked sometimes in his press conferences as if nothing could ever dig him out of the pit of his dejection. Well, observe him now! Does he bear upon his body — or upon his truculent wisecracks — a single mark of his devastating presidential experience? Meanwhile plenty of business men — large and small — who had to encounter the consequences of the depression of 1929 are dead, and precisely because of the depression.
As for Woodrow Wilson, if the Presidency broke his health, it was not in Washington but in Paris. It was not the duties of the Chief Magistrate of the American Republic that were too much for him. It was the wholly supernumerary and supererogatory duties of a Chief Magistrate who additionally insisted upon being his own Chief Diplomat. And who wore him down most in Paris? With that question we revert to the question of age.
Mr. Woodrow Wilson, aged sixtytwo, faced in Paris a statesman aged seventy-seven. It was Georges Clemenceau. At seventy-six, M. Clemenceau had undertaken the French premiership. He had undertaken to administer France, to debate all comers in the French Parliament, to rally the army, to visit and invigorate the battlefront, and to win the war. At seventyseven he won it, at the head of a rejuvenated France, rejuvenated by senility, if seventy-seven is senility. And at seventy-seven M. Clemenceau drew on his little black gloves and went into a ring called a council table with his vigorous juniors Mr. Woodrow Wilson and Mr. David Lloyd George and laid them repeatedly on the floor. Thereafter he lived many years as a cynical and delighted philosopher. And I do not think he ever said anything about the ‘overburdens’ of the premiership of France.
The plain straight fact is that the ‘overburdens’ of an American President, in so far as they exist, are all self-assumed. A President does not need to do anything more than make the top appointments to departments and commissions and courts and to determine his policies on the top national issues of the moment. That is all that George Washington did, in a time of supreme national domestic and foreign perplexity, and he thereupon produced an almost errorless administration and retired to Mount Vernon quite unimpaired. Some of his contemporary successors, under the spell of the modern and unconstitutional idea that this is Cæsar’s Rome, and that there is room in it for only one man, have tried to do the work of every legislator and every bureaucrat in Washington, besides their own, and they have thus built up a myth — a myth of their unique and solitary responsibility for our governmental welfare — which flatters their self-conceit and which (I do not hesitate to say it) is a menace to sound citizenship.
Let me illustrate what I mean — by just one recent instance. We say that Calvin Coolidge should have checked the increase in brokers’ loans. We say that he should have checked all the credit inflation of the New Era. No, he should not have. It was his duty, certainly, to fill vacancies in the Federal Reserve Board. But it was the duty of the Federal Reserve Board to check credit inflation. And it was and is and always will be improper and vicious, under our form of government, for a President to attempt to sway the decisions of the Federal Reserve Board, which is a body of technicians exercising quasi-judicial functions which should be unspotted by political dictations.
Ditto with regard to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Ditto with regard to the Federal Trade Commission. Ditto with regard to the Federal Communications Commission. Ditto with regard to every other regulatory body of prime importance in Washington. They were all established by the Congress to bo independent bodies administering not the wills of Presidents but the laws of the people, and administering them in quasi-judicial fashion. To expect the President to tell those bodies what to do is absolutely next door to expecting him to tell the Supreme Court what to do. It is an expectation which, if continued, and if played upon by Presidents, can end the Republic.
‘Back to George Washington!’ is what we should say to our Presidents. He had as many trying problems as any President has ever had — except Lincoln. And once he went to the Senate. And then he said he would never go there again, and didn’t. Wise man! He knew his place. He had majesty, and he had modesty. He understood the institutions that he founded. Why not revive them?
Let the national legislature again be the national legislature. Let judicial and quasi-judicial independent bodies created by the national legislature again be judicial and quasi-judicial independent bodies. Let our citizens back home think up some notions again — once in a while — for their own salvation. Let them stop looking at one hat in Washington for all the white rabbits. Let them look also at the hats of the legislators and of the members of the independent and responsible boards and commissions. And let the hat of the President be shrunk to presidential size. Let Presidents again be just Presidents. Then we can stop weeping for them and they can stop feeling sorry for themselves — which will be a big gain all around.
But they don’t need any tribute of tears, anyway. If we must cry for somebody, let us cry for Stanley Baldwin. He is carrying — I repeat — a much heavier job. And, by the way, he is sixty-eight years old.
Place aux vieux!
And can’t we stop encouraging our Presidents to swell up like little-boy toy balloons? It increases their chances of bursting — at any age.