Let Us Talk Now of Mysterious Presidents

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Every so often, America has found itself with a president who was mysterious. Some presidents have had a touch of King Lear in them, a Shakespearean size — in part because the office itself retained a little majesty. In a couple of the worst cases, we got men who were darkly neurotic, fascinatingly opaque.

But we have pretty much left the Shakespeare behind. We are well into the era of Lear's petty, venal, unmajestic offspring, Goneril and Regan, or beyond that, into the era of the children of Goneril and Regan. We not only have no tolerance for Lear, we scarcely have a memory of him. Which partly explains our two current presidential candidates.

Mystery makes better political theater; it may or may not be good for the country. (The recent presidency has supplied its own kind of theater.) In any case, let's divide all presidents since Franklin Roosevelt into two categories — mysteries and non-mysteries.

Mystery may or may not accompany greatness. Franklin Roosevelt was ultimately a mysterious character — so emotionally complex and majestically devious as to be unknowable. But Richard Nixon also was mysterious, in the darkly neurotic way. So was Lyndon Johnson. The mysterious among the presidents are those who attract psychobiographers who rummage in their childhoods, seeking the meaning of Rosebud.

On the other hand, some presidents — good ones, or mediocre ones — are attended by no sense of mystery whatever. Harry Truman — near-great, in certain ways — was not mysterious. Nor was his able successor, Dwight Eisenhower. Jimmy Carter, whatever his virtues or defects, strikes no one as a mysterious man. As president, George H. W. Bush had no mystery about him. You do not (as with, say, Nixon) come away from the elder Bush's personality scratching your head and wondering what makes him tick. And are there any psychobiographers at work trying to plumb the psyche of Gerald Ford?

That much is simple enough. But what of Ronald Reagan? A banality wrapped in a conundrum enclosed in a mystery. One of the great presidents, or a clueless actor, depending on your point of view. What seemed to Reagan's biographer Edmund Morris a baffling interplay of public magic and private vacancy — a flicker effect, now you see it, now you don't — drove Morris to fictional techniques to help him try to explain Reagan in the book he called "Dutch."

And what do we say of Bill Clinton? A mystery or not? An enigma wrapped in a watermelon from Hope, Ark. Perhaps Clinton's resiliency and his luck are the mystery. Such relentless vitality becomes its own astonishment — an effrontery and a wonder, and a lucky charm. Americans believe despite themselves, through a golden age of NASDAQ and Dow. The medium is the message. Bill Clinton saith: "Behold how my enemies flee before my face!" For purposes of classification, let's call Clinton a combination of mystery and banal transparency interbraided. Perhaps the mystery is how he could endure the humiliating transparency — blue dress and all.

Consider Clinton's Rose Garden hero, John Kennedy. A mystery, I would say, of the charismatic class (as Nixon was a mystery of the non-charismatic kind). Kennedy's apparent virtues — the famous wit, the grace, and, in martyred memory, the princeling dreamboat quality, the vulgar Camelot stuff — all of that is contradicted by the darker, subsequently revealed Kennedy, a reckless, sometimes appalling character who seemed to have had almost no character at all, only the tribal will to power that he got from his ruthless father. In the contradiction between the two sides of his character lies the mystery.

Lyndon Johnson was, I suppose, the presidential mystery who most makes us think of Lear — at the end, Lear on the heath. Howl, howl, howl, howl! Al Gore and George W. Bush, as I said, seem far from mystery. Yet it is the nature of the presidency that it may work transformations in the person who holds the office. No one in 1954, would have called Richard Nixon a mystery. He seemed an entirely obvious young man on the make. When Franklin Roosevelt was first nominated in the summer of 1932, he seemed to many a callow and spoiled Hudson Valley aristocrat and mama's boy.

Nearly everyone has a feeling that Bush and Gore represent a falling off from the authority and gravitas of past presidents. But that may change. And we can always count on what the French call "the fecundity of the unexpected."