David Stokes

As the Democrats prepare to go the distance, with the protracted battle for their party’s nomination not likely to be resolved for many months, their drama is the page-one political campaign news story these days.  Most of the stuff about John McCain is on page-two.  

Except for that TEMPER thing. 

Senator McCain’s propensity for volatility is a persistent albatross around his neck, as Rev. Wright’s rants SHOULD be to Senator Obama. 

Just this past week, the GOP standard-bearer-to-be addressed this issue yet again; dismissing speculation that his mercurial tendencies may “hinder his ability to serve as President of the United States.”  McCain, in fact, considers his temper a “minor thing” – especially when compared to the totality of his life and record.

His strategy seems to be to turn a lemon into lemonade by suggesting that there may very well be a role for anger in a McCain administration.  He thinks people might even want it that way.  He told one interviewer: “When I see corruption in Washington, when I see wasting needlessly of their tax dollars, when I see people behaving badly – they expect me to get angry, and I will get angry.”

That’s pretty novel – a campaign promise to get mad – sort of a “read my lips, but be prepared to delete the expletive.”

The fact is that we have a long history in this country of electing leaders who have a capacity for anger.  And John McCain may have more in common with past Presidents than the other would-be occupants of the White House this year.

It’s up to Americans to figure out whether or not that’s a good thing.

Lyndon Johnson’s temper was so much a part of his persona that he was considered by his devoted aide Bill Moyers to be a “tormented man.”  He said that the tall Texan “would just go within himself, just disappear – morose, self-pitying, angry.”  And the late journalist Hugh Sidey once said of LBJ that “there was an increasing worry about the President around town - a fear that his personal eccentricities were affecting policy.”

Some who worked closely around Ronald Reagan, the classic presidential Mr. Nice Guy, have told me that he had quite a temper.  He just managed to keep it out of public view most of the time. 

Of course, Richard Nixon’s anger-laced musings were captured on the infamous tapes. But his temper was well known by that time.  The anger didn’t surprise most Americans; the language did. 

Speaking of language, the winner of the “Presidential Anger Profanity Prize” would most likely be Harry S. Truman.  He took “colorful” language, not to mention the temper tantrum, to an art form.  He wrote many “longhand spasms” (his term) while in the White House and biographer David McCullough suggests that “there appears to indeed to have been something sudden and involuntary about them.”

In this age of YOUTUBE, when a momentary lapse of judgment (or sanity) can be seized and transmitted for the world to see, the mind fairly boggles when considering how such an impulsive and spontaneous leader would fare politically today.  Decades ago news didn’t travel nearly as fast - or far.

Consider what happened in December of 1950.  Truman’s daughter, Margaret (a wonderful woman who passed away a few months ago at the age of 83), gave a vocal concert at Constitution Hall in Washington.   The next morning Mr. Truman, while enjoying his breakfast at Blair House (the White House was being renovated at the time), read a harsh review that appeared in the Washington Post.

The article really pushed Harry’s buttons.  The Soviets messing around in Berlin was one thing – but this was his daughter!  So he did what every dad wants to do on occasion – to a teacher, or coach, or any other clearly intelligence-deficient critic of our kids – he wrote a scathing letter.

In those days, such a letter was the old-fashioned equivalent of something that made national news a few months back, when the wife of a Fairfax (VA) County school official (who happens to work less than a mile from my office) called the voice mail of a student who had left a protest message at their home.  The adolescent was upset about not getting a snow day he thought he deserved.  

The woman’s rant, including the energetically delivered epithet “snotty-nose brats,” was played via the internet for days on end.  A singular ill-advised auditory snapshot was captured forever and her momentary lapse of judgment became late-night talk show fodder.

Back to Truman – in his 150 word handwritten letter, he referred to the reporter, Paul Hume, as an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay” and waxing more indignant he told Hume that he was clearly “a frustrated old man who wished he could have been successful.”  He even added: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for your black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” 

Years later, Harry would refer to this as his worst such written “spasm.”  But at the time he wanted to make sure the letter got sent, knowing his staff would try to stop him.  So he actually walked out of the White House to a drugstore and, affixing a 3-cent stamp on the envelope, mailed it personally.

Of course, his mad missive made the front page of the very same paper the next day and there was a media storm, such as they could have in 1950.

All these years later, however, what we seem to remember and admire most about Truman is this “feisty” quality, the part about the stopped buck and hot kitchen. 

I’m not sure having a temper is necessarily a disqualification for the Presidency.  I know some seem to want to trump up concern about John McCain and incite fear about his finger on the trigger and all of that, but I think the issue is overblown. 

As Richard Nixon wrestled with the issues of Vietnam in the early days of his first term, he posited what he liked to refer to as his “Madman” theory.  This included a deliberately conjured aura of unpredictability as a weapon for use in the war.  The idea was that:  “…you know Nixon is obsessed with Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry.” 

Whatever the merits, or lack thereof, of that approach at that time, I very much think that we need someone with the capacity for appropriate indignation in the Oval Office these days, rather than someone who might “go wobbly” at the crucial moment. - DRS


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared