Friday, May 18, 2012

Q Day 3: Interesting Presidents?

Colby asks:
I saw you say on Twitter once that you thought...and I'm doing this from memory...that LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan were the most interesting post-war Presidents. What's your criteria for "interesting", and why do these guys stick out? From a psychological standpoint, I'd think Clinton should be in the Top 3, too...
I do think that Clinton is interesting, too...I suppose I'd rank him #4.

Hmmm....criteria for interesting? I guess it's just personal. I do think that the era of the more personal presidency made personality stand out, and Johnson and Nixon are smack in the middle of that, so that's one factor, perhaps. I mean, Barack Obama has a fascinating life story, but it's not as clear how it affects his presidency.

What else? With Johnson and Nixon, you have elements of tragedy: great abilities and skills, great flaws. I guess I don't see Clinton has having great flaws in the same way. Oh, flaws all right. But difficulty controlling appetites just doesn't strike me as nearly as fascinating as what crippled LBJ and RMN. As for Reagan, I find his relationship with facts just incredible. Some of the Reagan stories about things that he believed were true, or at least stories he told as if they were true...people find them hard to believe. And yet Ronald Reagan was a very successful man, who came from nothing and wound up with three successful careers (radio, Hollywood, politics). How do those things fit together?

I guess I'm sort of answering the question...what I seem to find interesting are contradictions in personality, especially when they seem to be closely related to outcomes in the White House.


  1. Okay, I think I grok where you're coming from. I definitely agree with LBJ and RMN. Just incredible, pathological case studies. What's more, they both ended up shaping their White Houses around their outsized personalities.

    I guess what strikes me about Reagan is that he didn't have that pathological need for the Presidency that LBJ and RMN had. Yeah, okay, everyone who gets there has to want it like oxygen, but even graded on that curve, LBJ and RMN stood out. I'd put Obama in a similar space; we damn well wanted the job, but could have been personally fulfilled without it. Don't know if we can say the same for LBJ and RMN. And on a similar note, I'd argue that Reagan and Obama were both less interested in shaping their WH/staff around their personalities; Reagan of course let the troika really run things, and Obama seems pretty content with a WH modeled after Clinton's last few years.

    And that's kinda why I place Clinton a little higher- plenty of the psychodrama and pathological "need" for the Presidency, along with some interesting dynamics in WH/Staff structure. It just seems like Reagan knew who he was and what his WH was a lot more than Clinton, and was fine with both. Which is kinda boring, IMO.

  2. And yet Ronald Reagan was a very successful man, who came from nothing and wound up with three successful careers (radio, Hollywood, politics). How do those things fit together?

    I think it was his voice. That's obviously what got him into radio, and I've read that it's also what got him into Hollywood (the studio needed to replace another actor with a similar voice). And of course it served him as a TV pitchman, giving speeches and in radio commentaries, which is what drove his political career.

    I think the subtle effects of people's voices on other people is poorly understood and probably a bigger variable in politics than we recognize. For instance, I'm pretty sure the contrast between their voices did Hillary Clinton no favors in her race against Obama. In Reagan's case, it probably helps explain why his loopiness struck many people as merely odd rather than frightening.

    1. I almost never listen to political speeches for this reason. I greatly prefer to read transcripts. It's easier for me maintain my objectivity.

      Bill Clinton also has a lovely voice. I believe the Arkie phrase is, "He can really shuck the corn."

  3. Kennedy, Johnson & Nixon are also seen as interesting in no small part due to the tapes. We simply know far more about them & the context of their decisions than we will ever know about any president again. JFK, while overrated historically, is underrated when we discuss this topic; he had a fascinating personality as well, equally capable of soaring rhetoric or the crassest comment/action.

    It's hard to put anyone else on this list because we really don't know enough to say. The early 1960s to mid-1970s White House tapes put those three in a class all their own.

  4. Nixon is interesting because he engaged in considerable right-wing rhetoric throughout his political career, beginning with his first House race in 1946, but he as President he governed pretty much as a liberal Democrat, instituting wage and price controls and starting affirmative action with his Philadelphia Plan. Even President Ford, a generally moderate Republican, governed well to the right of Nixon, vetoing many spending bills from the Democratic Congress as too spendthrift. Its very odd that Nixon, the anti-Communist crusader against Alger Hiss in the late 1940s, ended up as arguably the least conservative Republican President on economic policy since Theodore Roosevelt.

  5. Agree with Anon 2:54 about the tapes helping.

    Jeff -

    Yeah, Reagan's voice was certainly a major asset (Garry Wills is very good on that). But I don't think it's reasonable to say that the guy's career was simply because he had a nice voice (not that you're necessarily saying that).

    1. No, I'm saying it's the common element among his 3 careers. Obviously, his political success also owed a little something to the breakup of the New Deal coalition and other such factors.

    2. Well, I agree that the voice is a common link.

      But I wouldn't just look to external factors to explain his success. I mean, sure, that he beat Carter had very little to do with him. But that he became the GOP conservative hero and won the nomination -- that's largely him, not external stuff.


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