Temper is normal, temperament unique

By Alvin S. Felzenberg, 11/14/99

wise man once observed that the ''size of a man can be measured by the size of a thing that makes him angry.'' Adlai Stevenson so liked this line that he frequently evoked it to counter what he considered petty attacks from critics.

As the presidential campaign year takes shape, voters seem understandably attuned to questions of character, and much is being made of candidate tempers. US Senator John McCain is known for losing his, some from his home state of Arizona recently confided to the national press. Texas Governor George W. Bush recently lost his cool (perhaps justifiably) when he failed a very public pop quiz on world affairs.

Should voters care? Does a bad temper necessarily presage a bad presidency? As is often the case, history offers some lessons. Among them: It is temperament, not temper, that matters.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was known for his hot temper. One of his advisers likened it to a volcano in that it erupted on short notice and quickly subsided. Eisenhower routinely counseled those around him never to lose their tempers except by intent, yet he just as routinely failed to follow his own advice.

But however quick to flare up he was, Eisenhower never let it interfere with his decisions as chief executive. He bore no grudges and harbored no resentments. It is inconceivable that he would have kept enemy lists, ordered an illegal coverup, or tried to use the Internal Revenue Service against his opponents - actions that forced President Nixon from office - as it is to imagine Eisenhower striking a soldier, an action for which he himself had reprimanded General George Patton.

Ike usually blew up over important things. Poor staff work and interservice rivalries particularly annoyed him. He once became enraged at an Army general who gloated after the Navy's Vanguard rocket failed.

Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, could explode at things small as well as large. Before he entered the White House, Jackson had participated in more duels, fistfights, shooting matches, and brawls than anyone except his opponents could remember. They distributed a ''Catalogue of General Jackson's Youthful Indiscretions, between the Age of Twenty-Three and Sixty,'' detailing 14 of them.

As president, Jackson made policy as much on the basis of personal pique as out of philosophical conviction or even in accord with the law. He destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, precipitating the ''panic of 1837'' primarily because he did not like its ''imperious'' president, Nicholas Biddle.

He refused to enforce a Supreme Court decree defending the rights of Cherokee Indians to their lands. He forced the resignations of several Cabinet officers after their wives snubbed the spouse of one of his favorites. He said after leaving office that he regretted not having hanged his first vice president, John C. Calhoun.

Harry Truman is remembered for the caustic letter he fired off to Paul Hume, a music writer who dared criticize his daughter Margaret's singing. But Truman did not lose his perspective; he kept, close at hand, a bitter letter from a family whose son had been killed in Korea the very evening he indulged his anger at the music teacher. It represented an important reminder.

Most of the time, Truman's anger was well placed. Often, he directed it at those his own size or who thought themselves his superior: Joseph Stalin, during the Berlin Airlift; General Douglas MacArthur, who disobeyed his commander in chief's orders. But in partisan scraps, Truman could be as petulant, petty, and demagogic as his hero Jackson.

When it came to weighing the impact of temper and intellect on presidential performance, none understood better than Oliver Wendell Holmes, longtime Supreme Court justice. Holmes proclaimed FDR ''a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.'' How many have since said identical things about Ronald Reagan?

Many consider Woodrow Wilson to be Reagan and Roosevelt's opposite. Because he considered few his intellectual equal, Wilson kept his own counsel. He did not suffer fools well and compounded his difficulties by letting those he encountered know what he thought of them.

Informed of his election by the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Wilson replied, ''Before we proceed I wish it clearly understood that I owe you nothing; God ordained I should be the next president of the United States. Neither you nor any other mortal could have prevented that!''

Having refused to compromise with the Senate to secure passage of the Versailles Treaty, Wilson in his last public address conveyed a sense of anger and even vindictiveness worthy of Jackson. ''I have seen fools resist Providence before, and I have seen their destruction,'' he declared.

Holmes recognized that when it came to presidential success, temperament trumped intellect every time. He observed this long before he encountered either Wilson or FDR. As a young officer in the Civil War, Holmes escorted Abraham Lincoln around a fort outside the District of Columbia that was under enemy attack. As the president stood up to inspect the shooting, Holmes grabbed him and impulsively shouted, ''Get down, you fool.''

Holmes spent the remainder of the afternoon awaiting discipline. It came as Lincoln departed. ''Good-bye, Captain Holmes,'' he said. ''I'm glad to see you know how to talk to a civilian.''

Such came from a man who received not more than a year of formal schooling and whose sole experience in national politics consisted of a single term in the US House of Representatives. Given the stresses and strains he endured - both at the office and at home - Lincoln had ample reason to give way to anger. He resisted.

Which of those contesting to fill his chair is most capable of displaying such proportion, if not majesty? As we watch the campaign unfold over the next year, it's a question worth keeping in mind. And as we do, we can rest assured that - if history is any guide - a candidate's occasional flash of anger is not a disqualifying characteristic. It's the broader question of temperament that's worth keeping an eye on.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes and lectures on the American presidency.