Edmund Morris: Presidents Need to Keep Their Distance

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Edmund Morris is the author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," "Theodore Rex" and a forthcomingbiography of Beethoven.]

CINDY Sheehan's attempt to have President Bush tell her - again - how sorry he is about the death of her son in Iraq is escalating into a protest more political than personal. As such, it is a legitimate expression of antiwar sentiment. But the individual cry for attention at the heart of it - "Mr. President, feel my pain!" - is misguided. Ms. Sheehan cannot expect a commander in chief to emote on demand.

I once spent two days at Ronald Reagan's side, for the purpose of seeing what it was like to be president of all the people, all the time. (At least, from his morning emergence out of the White House elevator until the equally prompt moment when, tapping his watch and chuckling, he would say to the host of his evening function, "The fellas tell me it's time to go home.")

Long before that moment - in fact, within a couple of hours - I was so emotionally exhausted that I could hardly stand. It was not that Mr. Reagan, 30 years my senior, set the pace that some hyperactive presidents have kept. What drained me was my writer's tendency to feel what people in the room are feeling. The hundreds who shook his hand (he told me that he averaged 80 new acquaintances a day, for eight years) were avid to make the most of the window granted them in the president's schedule, whether it was an interview, conference, ceremony, drop-by, or photo opportunity....

Some presidents are better than others at handling this relentless demand for a show of personal involvement. Theodore Roosevelt exuded such cheerful charm that one visitor wrote about going home from the White House "to wring the personality out of your clothes." But T.R. did not like to have his deeper sentiments presumed on by "milksops" and "mollycoddles." No weeper himself, he recoiled from public displays of grief. Not so Bill Clinton, who (as a video of Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown's funeral demonstrated) carried his own automatic sprinkler system, responsive to the proximity of any TV camera.

Richard Nixon was not unsympathetic so much as transcendentally awkward. His way of dealing with a situation only half as fraught as Reagan's encounter with the state trooper was a desperate attempt at wit: "Don't worry, soldier, you see too much out of the other eye, anyway."

The allegedly chilly Jimmy Carter was a warm man face to face, curious, a careful listener, at ease with children. Yet he kept a tight rein on his emotions and real opinions. I recall one of his oldest friends saying in bemusement, "The moment he was elected president, a glass wall came down between us."

I have had few chances to observe George W. Bush close up, and can say only that he appears to have Theodore Roosevelt's muscular positivity (what Owen Wister, author of "The Virginian," described as "his determination to grasp his optimism tight, lest it escape him") and Reagan's benign lack of interest in individual human beings - without either man's ability to silently convey that they had, at least in private, pondered the larger questions of life and death.

But who am I to know? He has, after all, the loneliest of jobs.

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