Monday, November 8, 2010

A first-class temperament

Gratuitous advice follows electoral defeats like buzzards follow the gut wagon, and since last Tuesday the experts have appeared in their customary thick flocks to tell President Obama where he went wrong: He attacked the Republicans too much or too little, he failed to communicate or failed to offer substance, he was too solicitous of his base or too neglectful of it, he set his sights too high or set them too low. He has been told he made a lame mistake in blaming George W. Bush for the nation's economic woes because people's memories are short; he has been told it was a fool's errand to try to work with Republicans rather than taking his case to the people; he has been told he erred in politics or in substance in letting a second-order priority like health care come to dominate political events for a year and distract, either in message or in substance, from the focus on the economy.

My previous post about FDR has had me musing for the last couple of days about the elusive nature of political leadership in a large and complex democracy. Franklin Roosevelt undeniably had circumstances in his favor: no one could forget the devastating proof the Great Depression had provided of the failed Republican policies of economic Darwinism, and even 12 years later, running for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, FDR could land a hard jab at his foes simply by uttering the word "depression."

It was also a time when the president's voice spoke far louder than any president's can today in this age of blather overload; FDR's famous "fireside chats" reached an audience modern presidents can only wistfully dream of.

But FDR had something that no amount of advice can instill; that lazy word "charisma" doesn't come close to capturing the essence of it, for what he had was a character and temperament perfectly attuned to the simultaneous, and almost diametrically opposed, demands of high office and of rough and tumble politics. He had the patrician's unflappable self-confidence in himself without a hint of the pomposity of other aristocratic presidents (George Washington, a prime example); he had a hide as thick as a rhinoceros without a hint of the insensitivity and aloofness that usually accompanies that otherwise envious trait (Calvin Coolidge, a prime example); he had a sense of unshakable moral destiny without being troubled in the least by the fact that there were those who did not share his moral certainties (something that destroyed a moralist like Woodrow Wilson); he loved the intellectual details of policy without ever being consumed by them (the way Jimmy Carter or James Madison was).

And the reason FDR was such an absolutely skilled politician was that he unabashedly loved politics: he wasn't exaggerating in the least when he said, "I love a good fight." In retrospect it's easy to think that FDR had it easy, with a large Democratic majority in Congress and broad public demand for swift action, but reread how he handled Congress in the famous first "hundred days" and it's clear he played them like an accordion: working disparate constituencies, sending up tactically crafted measures to build momentum, sensing political timing and opportunity day by day. (James MacGregor Burns's Rendezvous With Destiny is still one of the best accounts of this.)

The more I study history and human nature the more I find myself convinced that (all of the political pundits and business schools and self-help gurus notwithstanding) the essential qualities of leadership simply cannot be learned; I'm not saying they are genetic — it's hard not to believe that part of FDR's remarkable character, particularly his extraordinary blend of self-confidence, equanimity under pressure, and fellow-feeling, owed much to his personal struggles with polio — but that they do stem from intrinsic temperament and character more than any other factor.

There was a passage in one of Anthony Trollope's "political" novels in which one of his characters is comparing three different prime ministers and how each responded to the burdens of office that I thought grasped this essence well: the leaders who can not only bear up under the pressures of vast responsibility, not only handle the practical politics of the job, but actually enjoy it too, do not come along every day. "The amount of trouble" that a man endures in the premiership, Trollope's character begins, "depends on the spirit and nature of the man":

Do you remember old Lord Brock? He was never troubled. He had a triple shield — a thick skin, an equable temper, and perfect self-confidence. Mr Mildmay was of a softer temper, and would have suffered had he not been protected by the idolatry of a large class of his followers. Mr Gresham has no such protection. With a finer intellect than either, and a sense of patriotism quite as keen, he has a self-consciousness which makes him sore at every point. He knows the frailty of his temper, and yet cannot control it. And he does not understand men as did these others. Every word from an enemy is a wound to him. Every slight from a friend is a dagger in his side. But I can fancy that self-accusations make the cross on which he is really crucified. He is a man to whom I would extend all my mercy, were it in my power to be merciful.