Right Opinion

The Most Successful Presidents Keep to Themselves — Not Twitter

Michael Barone · Apr. 26, 2019

“The Mueller report makes Trump look vain, ignorant, inept, and astonishingly dishonest.” So writes my Washington Examiner colleague Quin Hillyer, never an enthusiast of President Donald Trump.

He refers to many passages of the report: one that shows the president ordering his White House counsel to arrange the firing of the special counsel and then ordering the counsel to state in writing he never said that; one suggesting that Trump was dangling pardons to cooperative aides; and others in which Trump vents his rage at the protracted investigation, which eventually, after almost two years, found no evidence that he or his people colluded with Russia.

House Democrats are looking hard to find something a bare majority of House members will find a plausible basis for impeachment. They will ignore the fact that Trump’s aides — notably, former White House counsel Donald McGahn — refused to carry out his orders or ignored his suggestions. They will call this obstruction of justice, even though it’s nothing more than thinking bad thoughts — out loud.

That’s not an offense that will get him removed from office by two-thirds of the Senate. But it is a species of political malpractice, one that may lead the voters to remove him in November 2020.

And it’s very different from the modus operandi of the three most successful presidents of the last 90 years, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, who won their second terms with an average of 59 percent of the popular vote.

Donald Trump shares all but his innermost thoughts with us. Moments of irritation and elation prompt instant tweets, full of execration and exultation, respectively.

Not so with Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan. Each of them projected an image of friendliness and cheer. Each seemed to have shared the tastes and gut instincts of ordinary people.

But none of the three had any really close friends, any aides or companions with whom they shared their plans and to whom they revealed their reactions to people and events. Each had gone through a long period of enforced idleness, an enforced hibernation in what are, for most professionals, their peak years — Roosevelt bedridden with polio, Eisenhower stuck as lieutenant colonel, Reagan with his declining movie career. Each then suddenly gained great fame, Roosevelt and Reagan as governors of the nation’s largest states, Eisenhower as commander of the nation’s largest military operation.

Each came to the presidency used to great responsibility and accustomed to long loneliness. As president, each kept his strategy and most of his tactics to himself. None seems to have fully trusted or confided in anyone for any extended period. None seems to have wanted the public to know how knowledgeable and well-read he was, and each managed to fool historians on that point as well.

There are some, but only a few, resemblances between these three presidents and Donald Trump. Trump did enjoy success and gain fame early, and perhaps there was a form of enforced hibernation during his near-bankruptcy in the 1990s. He seems to share the tastes and instincts of many ordinary people.

But he has nothing like the self-discipline apparent in the determination of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan to keep their long-term strategies and as much as possible of their short-term tactics to themselves. Roosevelt cordially disliked some political allies; Eisenhower had a volcanic temper; Reagan had his pet hates — but they all kept these things secret from the public and, mostly, from their closest aides as well.

The contrast with Donald Trump is obvious. You can get his instant responses to just about any public events or political developments by signing up for his Twitter feed. Former aides, political allies and rank-and-file supporters have all suggested, multiple times, that someone grab and hide the cellphone on which he tweets. No one has done it.

It’s obviously foolish for Democrats to follow the advice of Trump haters in the media and impeach Trump for making comments and threats he and his subordinates never acted on. Nor is expressing rage at an investigation evidence of guilt, as CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin argues, even after special counsel Robert Mueller found no collusion with Russia. Vagrant musings should not be the basis for overturning the result of a presidential election.

But neither is the dismissal of charges evidence that Trump’s undisciplined self-exposure is the best way to govern. Maybe he should click off cable news and read a few books to see how his three most successful recent predecessors managed to keep to themselves.

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