WASHINGTON -- Iraq. North Korea. Terrorism. Tax cuts. The stock market. The shuttle. The president?
If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," the test of a successful presidency may be the ability to multitask in crises. In fact, it's more or less the definition of the job.
Sure, President Bush had a full week: a space disaster and a wrenching memorial service, a $2.23 trillion budget proposal to Congress, a North Korean threat of "total war," a dramatic showdown at the United Nations over Iraqi defiance of weapons inspections, a stepped-up orange-level terrorism alert based on ominous intelligence rumblings. But the current confluence of challenging events is hardly new. Harry Truman faced almost nonstop crises from the moment he took office after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945. Roosevelt himself managed the Depression, then a global war, not to mention paralysis.
In 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the middle of a crisis over desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, a silver satellite the size of a beachball, setting off a panic about preparedness in the Cold War. By his own account, Richard M. Nixon managed "Six Crises" before he ever reached the White House, then created a doozy of his own in Watergate. Bill Clinton complained that it was his bad luck to be president in placid times of plenty, when greatness cannot easily emerge, then managed to become the second president in history to be impeached.
"This is what a president is -- a crisis manager," said the historian Robert Dallek, who wrote a two-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson and has just finished another on John F. Kennedy. "Of course, what suffers in all of this is any domestic agenda a president has. A standard reality is that war kills reform. The Spanish-American war killed populism, World War I killed Progressivism, World War II killed the New Deal, Korea killed the Fair Deal, Vietnam the Great Society."
"The thing that gives ground is the domestic agenda, and that's what you may well see here," Dallek said.
Bush is not the first president to govern in a 24-hour news cycle, but the endless drumbeat no doubt worsens the sense of perpetual crisis. The media, and sometimes the politicians themselves, have a tendency to inflate every event, from a school shooting to a sniper on the loose to the prospect of nuclear war, into a round-the-clock happening.
"It plays into the story line that we are now living in this immensely more dangerous, unpredictable world," said professor Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian who leads the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. "I don't mean to make light of what we're going through now, but I do suspect that in ways difficult to quantify but impossible to ignore, that the media echo chamber is at least partially responsible for inflating a more or less permanent sense of crisis. History has gone the way of politics in becoming theater. It's the 'Oscarization' of history, overly produced, overly packaged."
To hear television anchors most days is to think that disaster is perpetually at hand.
"It is certainly a challenge for the president, balancing the exigencies of the day," Peter Jennings intoned on ABC last week. "Two critical situations, in Iraq and North Korea, and an epic battle over financing the activities of the federal government, with the very real need to provide leadership at a time of national mourning."
Daniel Schorr, the veteran broadcast journalist, acknowledged on NPR last week that Washington has a hard time managing multiple problems and tends to be a "one-thing-at-a-time type of town." Attention spans are short, politicians rise and fall, issues come and go.
Smith said, "Buried deep within it all is a continuing, albeit discreet, concern on the part of opinion leaders, real or imagined, about Bush's capacity."
To all appearances, Bush often seems the calmest one in the storm. For months, he has remained steadily determined to disarm Saddam Hussein, first in the face of warnings that doing so without a Middle East peace risked Arab rage, and now despite worries that North Korea is the more volatile threat.
"The old saying in FDR's Washington was 'Keep all the balls in the air without losing your own,"' said the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. "As Kennedy said after the Cuban missile crisis, 'I earned my pay last week.' You know, it's your job. Hysteria is the last thing to be recommended."
Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt after just weeks in office, then went on to face recession, survive the Iran-Contra scandal and help end the Cold War. Lyndon B. Johnson fared less well waging the Vietnam War while trying to build a Great Society, and was ultimately consumed by wrenching public division.
Harry C. McPherson Jr., who was Johnson's special counsel, said he marked the toll of White House crises in the annual albums of photographs that the Johnsons gave the senior staff at Christmas. "I got there in '65, and by '67 I looked pale and overtaxed and Johnson looked very gray."
He remembered a lunch on the White House lawn in March 1968, just a couple of weeks before Johnson's surprise announcement that he would not seek re-election. "You could hear the chants from the other side of the building from the demonstrators," McPherson recalled. "At one point, Johnson said, 'Why should I run?' I said, 'Well if I were you, I wouldn't, because there's so much grief in the air.' It was a moment in which the mistrust, the anti-war sentiment, the anti-civil rights sentiment in the South, the sum of it just seemed enormous."
There are costs and casualties for failing to keep up with events. The elder George Bush soared to stratospheric approval ratings after the Persian Gulf War, but was seen as out of touch with a faltering economy and unemployed Americans.
Jimmy Carter micromanaged the White House tennis courts but could not manage to confront a national malaise and the failure to rescue American hostages in Iran.
Sometimes the price is more personal. Everyone remembers Truman's acid letter to Paul Hume, The Washington Post music critic who panned the singing of his daughter, Margaret. Less well remembered is the week that led up to Truman's outburst.
On Nov. 28, 1950, Truman received word that the Chinese had plunged into the Korean War, with a quarter-million troops in a furious assault. Two days later, Truman set off a worldwide firestorm by suggesting at a news conference that the United States was prepared to use the atomic bomb in Korea. The man responsible for trying to calm that crisis was the president's press secretary, Charlie Ross, who was also his longtime friend.
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, Ross dropped dead of a heart attack, hours before Margaret Truman's concert at Constitution Hall. The president kept the news from her until afterward. The next morning, when the president read Hume's assessment that Margaret Truman "is flat a good deal of the time," he reached for paper and pen.
"Some day I hope to meet you," Truman wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"
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