John F. Kennedy was a womanizer, maybe a bigamist, a president who bribed his way into office and bungled his way through it. Lyndon Johnson was shallow and callow, a crude and cruel man with huge insecurities and appetites just as big. And Richard Nixon? His presidency was marked by vulgarity, manipulation, cynicism and anti-Semitism - but mostly by desperation.
That’s at least what the books say. The troubles of the presidency aren’t only at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
They’re at your local booksellers as well. For all the difficulties that President Clinton has these days, at least he’s not besieged by the revisionists and the transcribers.
Until relatively recently, the American presidency was more about myths than mischief. Now the mischief itself is the stuff of myth. In both cases, the danger is the larger truth, not only about the presidents America chooses but also about the system that Americans use to make their most intimate political decisions.
You can trace our psychic evolution from national idealism to national cynicism by tracing the myths we use about our leaders. The moral health of our presidents is probably no different in the Clinton era at the end of the 20th century than it was in the McKinley era at the end of the 19th century or even in the single term of John Adams at the end of the 18th century. But the morale of the country is substantially different.
In the old days historians worried about the mythmakers, the ones who, like Parson Weems, put hatchets in the hands of young men such as the ever-truthful George Washington, or the popularizers who, like Carl Sandburg, invested American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln with virtues that even their own handlers never dared imagine.
Now the danger arises with the new mythmakers, people like Seymour Hersh, whose “Dark Side of Camelot” is causing such a row among historians and Kennedy partisans. People in some ways are as narrow in their iconoclasm as the wild-eyed boosters were in erecting statues in mind and memory. The mental marble is misleading, as is the revelatory rubble. It is true, for example, that Theodore Roosevelt was a more complicated figure than the naturalist and Rough Rider of myth. It is just as true that Kennedy is more complete a figure than the lecherous cad Hersh paints.
Roosevelt should be remembered whole, with the myth mixed up with his achievements as a police commissioner, as a naval theorist, as the peacemaker at Portsmouth, as a trust-buster, as the builder of the Panama Canal, and the architect of the Great White Fleet. Kennedy, likewise, should be remembered whole, as a man who savored the finer and gentler things in life but who also did not shirk from the hard work of getting America ready for the modern age and infusing that effort with the idealism and that bore fruit in Project Apollo and the Peace Corps.
The historians who get their fingers dirty in the past know that the nation’s leaders are no saints. Spend some time mucking about in Daniel Webster’s papers and you will find that golden orator of New Hampshire was one part godlike Dan’l, one part Black Dan. The man who, in his day job, saved Dartmouth College and tried to save the Union, moonlighted as the servant of the money interests in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia - and still had time left over for the ladies. (Attorney General Janet Reno would have no trouble turning an independent counsel loose on Webster.)
It raises the penultimate question about history and memory: Why do the moral lapses of earlier Americans seem colorful while those of modern Americans seem sordid?
The immediacy of the knowledge of the private lives of prominent Americans - Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy, for example - shapes our perceptions to a greater extent than the more remote knowledge of the private lives of earlier Americans. That knowledge came well after the the folklore about them was established, while our knowledge of these more recent Americans’ flaws comes as the folklore is only being established.
It’s more than the notion of familiarity breeding contempt. It’s immediacy that’s breeding this contempt.
As a result, it may not be possible to create positive lore anymore. Now we have available to us the most private information about people in public life, extending even to the “distinguishing personal characteristics” of the president. “We live in a tell-all culture, and that culture conspires against hero worship,” says Robert Schmuhl, who heads the American studies program at the University of Notre Dame.
Modern technology (and the decisions to tape presidential conversations) have made it possible to eavesdrop in the White House, at Camp David, and on telephone calls. It has become possible to know, through the transcripts annotated with such grace by Michael R. Beschloss in “Taking Charge,” the fury of the “Johnson treatment,” when LBJ would push his friends, and sometimes his enemies, with brutal but irresistible force.
It has made it possible to know, through the transcripts of “Abuse of Power,” edited by Stanley I. Kutler, that Nixon knew about Watergate earlier than he said and that he was more involved than we thought.
It is, moreover, possible to listen as Nixon seeks to manipulate agencies, bureaucrats, judges, reporters, aides, opponents, senators, U.S. attorneys, FBI nominees, members of a grand jury, a former president, a future president, and a group he refers to as “a few pipsqueaks.” And it is possible to know that, throughout the Watergate period, Nixon believed he would be saved by one man alone: Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
Richard Kleindienst: Hang in there, Mr. President.
President Nixon: Good luck. What the hell, you know. People say impeach the president. Well, then they get Agnew.
In truth, the Nixon tapes hold a morbid and slightly vulgar fascination. You can listen in on the president of the United States as he says:
“Goddamnit, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” (June 17, 1971)
“Anybody that wants to be an ambassador wants to pay at least $250,000.” (June 24, 1971)
“I want those funds cut off for that MIT.” (May 18, 1972)
The only uplifting moment in the entire volume of Nixon transcripts comes in a conversation late in the afternoon of Jan. 2, 1973, when Nixon and special counsel Charles W. Colson hatch a plot and look for accomplices, including Republican National Chairman George Bush.
Nixon: Bush will never do it. He’ll do positive things, but that’s all.
Maybe American presidents aren’t all bad after all. Now, in an era where history and journalism intersect, perhaps to a dangerous degree, that may be an idea that is too quaint, too positive, to survive.
The information we have about our presidents is now greater than ever before. That information should lead to greater understanding, not greater contempt. Now, when we study presidents, we see their humanity - and can study that, too.