A Thin Line Between Love and Hate


Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple Since World War II, by Gil Troy, New York: The Free Press, 486 pages, $27.50

With Reverence and Contempt: How Americans Think About Their President, by Thomas S. Langston, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 180 pages, $14.95 paper

A couple of years ago, a clinical psychologist published a damning analysis of Bill Clinton's personality titled The Dysfunctional President. Now that the Clinton scandal chart has grown more tangled than an Arkansas family tree, it's easy to see that many bad character traits took root in a place called Hope. But there is more to the dysfunction on Pennsylvania Avenue than one man's tarnished soul. According to books by historian Gil Troy and political scientist Thomas S. Langston, the American public has long had a troubled relationship with residents of the White House.

I use the word residents instead of men because Troy's Affairs of State concerns first couples, not just chief executives. Anyone seeking a collection of heartwarming anecdotes should look elsewhere: This book is serious political history with a tough-minded attitude. After examining presidential marriages from the Trumans to the Clintons, Troy reaches a dour conclusion: "The experience of the last half-century suggests that the First Lady has greater potential to hurt than help."

Any first lady must struggle with conflicting demands from the voters, who want her to have an active public role but don't want her to have any real power. Whatever course she takes, she will run into criticism. When Pat Nixon played it quiet, detractors mocked her as the passive "Plastic Pat." When Rosalynn Carter openly discussed policy issues, Newsweek asked whether "Lady Macbeth" lurked "beneath the soft voice."

Some first ladies have coped with the dilemma less adeptly than others, and Betty Ford gets a particularly harsh review. Noting that she wanted a salary for her duties, Troy observes: "If Betty Ford had received a salary, she would have been docked pay for dereliction of duties. Between her osteoarthritis, her chemotherapy regime, her periodic depressions, her daily tranquilizers, and her drinking, her aides never knew if the First Lady would show up to an event–or what her mood would be." Troy speculates that her liberal social attitudes may have cost President Ford the 1976 election. Here he uncharacteristically reaches too far. Mrs. Ford surely offended some Americans when she went on 60 Minutes and made tolerant remarks about premarital sex. But her impact was trivial compared with the bad things that had happened during President Ford's tenure: the Nixon pardon, the 1974 recession, and the American defeat in Vietnam.

Troy is on firmer ground when he identifies another pitfall of first couplehood: People think poorly of presidents as spouses. George Bush, the joke went, reminded every woman of her first husband–and had Bob Dole won in 1996, he would have reminded every woman of her first husband's divorce lawyer. Nixon fared terribly on this point: "[W]hile his wife often made him look good, their marriage often made him look bad." With his aversion to public displays of affection, he often seemed to treat Pat with condescension or even coldness. This appearance had basis in fact. In planning his first trip to China, Nixon privately said that if Pat "goes, she goes solely as a prop."

It figures. Most presidents reach the White House only after many years of "public service," a euphemism for pursuit of power and position. In campaign after campaign, politicians learn to put their ambition ahead of everything else and to treat people around them, including their spouses, as "props." When scandal or defeat forces them from office, politicians claim they look forward to spending more time with their families. That's usually a lie. If they really wanted to spend time with their families, they would not have entered politics in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower was the lone "nonpolitician" among the postwar presidents, but even he does not come across as an inviting marriage partner. "Mamie, there's one thing you must understand," he told his wife early in his military career. "My country comes first and always will. You come second." No wonder she drank.

Despite all the problems surrounding presidential marriage, a number of chief executives have depended heavily on their wives, none more so than Bill Clinton. As Edith Efron pointed out in these pages nearly three years ago ("Can the President Think?," November 1994), Hillary has served as the first Vulcan, a cool, rational check on the president's undisciplined mental habits. "To an inordinate degree, Hillary Clinton thinks for Bill Clinton," Efron wrote. "Specifically, she is Bill Clinton's access to the laws of logic, without which no thinking is possible."

This dependence has led to embarrassing consequences. "Hillary certainly was the leftist ideologue her conservative critics made her out to be," Troy says, so she was an odd choice to direct policy in a supposedly centrist administration. But Clinton could not do without her, so he put her in charge of his major domestic initiative, a "restructuring" of health care. The product was, of course, a disaster.

Just as important, however, the policy making process raised questions about the first lady's standing. Soon after she convened the health care task force, opponents sued. Since she was not a federal employee, they argued, the task force constituted a "federal advisory committee" that by law had to do its business in public. The Justice Department countered that she was the "functional equivalent of a federal employee." But when Republicans suggested that her health-related investments raised ethical questions, the White House counsel said she was exempt from the conflict-of-interest regulations covering federal employees.

This case suggests a larger point. It's wrong for the president to delegate real authority to a spouse, because power without accountability is dangerous. White House aides have to abide by a variety of statutes that sharply circumscribe their political activities (at least, that's the way it's supposed to work). Officials in the Cabinet and subcabinet have to account for their activities at congressional hearings, and the president himself has to answer to the voters. But the president's spouse is not subject to any such restraints. Indeed, courts cannot even compel husbands and wives to testify against each other in criminal trials, a bit of legal doctrine that may assume great importance in the next couple of years.

To remedy the mischiefs of White House marriage, Troy makes modest and pragmatic recommendations (e.g., "Support each other, rely on each other, but don't forget who's boss"). He assumes that the presidential spouse will be a woman, but a future edition of this solid book will undoubtedly have to address the status of a first gentleman.

Troy wisely recognizes the limitations of his subject matter. "The marriage tells us some things about the man and the president, but does not tell the whole story." For a broader (if less satisfying) view of the presidency, one may turn to Thomas S. Langston's With Reverence and Contempt. I opened the book with some hesitation, because its cover bears a blurb from the notorious Michael Lind (see "Power Puff," January 1997). Lind praises the book's "fascinating analysis," which is about as promising as William Shatner's lauding a fellow actor's "subtle and convincing performance."

Nevertheless, the book is not terrible. It starts with the sensible argument that Americans have invested "too many meanings within our presidency." They want presidents to embody the nation and reflect its majesty, but they also want them to symbolize a commitment to democracy. Americans want great men and common men all at once.

They also want presidents to lead the "civil religion." Americans have long seen their country as a special place with a providential destiny, so presidents often describe the United States in spiritual terms, invoking God's blessings and praying for His guidance. While Langston broadly describes the intellectual and political difficulties of civil-religious leadership, he gives too little attention to the practical problems that such leadership entails. For one thing, there's a fine line between spirituality and sanctimony. Jimmy Carter crossed that line, which is one reason why people remember his presidency the way they remember a tedious sermon in a crowded church in the middle of August.

If a president wants to acquire an air of godliness by quoting the Bible, he'd better get it right. Langston cites a line from Clinton's 1992 acceptance speech: "Scripture says [that] our eyes have not yet seen, nor our ears heard, nor our minds imagined what we can build." Langston then moves on without noting something important: Clinton misquoted the verse. Says 1 Corinthians 2:9: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" By substituting earthly endeavor for divine providence, Clinton deeply offended fundamentalist Christians.

Langston also errs when he says that Reagan's employment of civil religion was relatively passive: "In the 1980s, there was no demon bank to be subdued, no Senate censure to condemn, no party to build from scratch." What about the Evil Empire? Significantly, Reagan introduced that term in a 1983 address to the National Association of Evangelicals. Reagan told the evangelicals that he hoped the Soviets would someday discover God. "But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world." He urged them not "to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil." That speech was among the most significant and revealing of Reagan's career, and Langston's book suffers badly from neglecting it.

Reagan was trying to get the evangelicals to oppose the nuclear freeze, which suggests another point that Langston misses. For decades, the danger of nuclear annihilation shaped the relationship of the people and the president. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Americans prepared their fallout shelters, stocked up on canned goods, and came to grips with the idea that their world could burn up within a few hours. At the end of the crisis, many believed that John F. Kennedy's skillful leadership had literally saved their lives.

The commander-in-chief thus became the Man Who Kept the Missiles Away. Naturally enough, presidents exploited this stature to rally support for their foreign policy. They also used it to rationalize the growth of the national security apparatus and the invasion of civil liberties. Nixon even used it to justify the sacking of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. "Elliot," he told Attorney General Richardson, "Brezhnev wouldn't understand if I didn't fire Cox after all this."

In another way, however, the prospect of nuclear war made life tougher for presidents and presidential candidates. The chief executive could prevent a nuclear war, people realized, but he could also start one. Politicians and reporters thus gained an airtight reason for probing deeply into a would-be president's character. After all, anyone seeking the White House was asking for the power to kill every human being on earth. Any aspect of his public or private life that could hint at poor judgment was now fair game.

Not coincidentally, the first presidential campaign after the Cuban Missile Crisis featured vicious attacks on Barry Goldwater's stability. Four years later, Richard Nixon's campaign pamphlets said: "This time, vote like your whole world depended on it." In 1972, revelations of electroshock therapy instantly disqualified Sen. Thomas Eagleton as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. And in the following decades, a number of campaign commercials would feature the legendary "red phone" and the message that we needed a steady hand to answer it. As late as 1987, questions about judgment and character could still wreck a candidacy, as Gary Hart learned in the Donna Rice episode.

Bill Clinton, whose personality flaws were just as blatant as his unconcern for foreign policy, could probably not have won the White House during the Cold War. But by the time he geared up his 1992 presidential campaign, the perceived threat of nuclear war was fading, and people expected a good deal less from their president.

In evaluating the chief executive, perhaps we've gone too far in defining deviancy down. Even though we're not on the eve of destruction, a president can still do really bad things, such as collecting hundreds of confidential FBI files on political opponents. In this light, it's disturbing to read Gil Troy's description of how Bill and Hillary reacted to criticism: "The Clintons united in rage. Theirs was the angriest administration since Richard Nixon's."

It's tempting to stretch the Nixon analogy and start speculating about impeachment, but that's beside the point here. Regardless of who's president, abuse of authority will always be a danger as long as the federal government is too big, too complicated, and too intrusive. We should try to keep the power graspers out of the White House whenever we can, but above all we should drain the bureaucratic swamps that gave rise to Watergate and Indogate. The appropriate attitude toward the White House is neither reverence nor contempt, but watchfulness.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.