On his 92nd birthday, March 8, 1933, retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was paid a surprise visit by the newly inaugurated president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two men chatted for half an hour and, after Roosevelt departed, a young clerk asked Holmes what he thought of the new man in the White House.
“A second-class intellect,” Holmes said. “But a first-class temperament.”
A good temperament has generally proved to be more important than brains in an American commander in chief. That is why Ronald Reagan, a man of modest intellect but sunny disposition, proved to be a very successful president, while the presidency of the brainy but brooding and paranoid Richard Nixon ended in scandal and shame. A first-class temperament guided John F. Kennedy through the Cuban missile crisis, while the intellectual Woodrow Wilson wound up a broken man after the failure of his grand plan to forge a peaceful, democratic international order following the First World War.
If the great Holmes were alive to render judgment on the current president of the United States, he would almost certainly sign on to the opinion being reached by more and more people, including many Republicans and conservatives: Donald Trump has a third-class intellect paired with a temperament that borders on mental instability.
Last week, the wild swings in mood and rhetoric displayed by Trump in a series of public appearances seems to have tilted public assessment of the president even more substantially toward this highly alarming view. Last Monday night, he read stiffly from a script as he outlined a rather undramatic but reasonably coherent shift in American engagement in Afghanistan, but, the next night, Trump ranted for well over an hour at a campaign rally in Phoenix, attacking the free press and members of his own political party, baying and barking like a wounded hound as he defended his contradictory comments about neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Va.
After Trump’s Phoenix tirade, former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper went on CNN to question Trump’s fitness for office, calling the speech “downright scary and disturbing” and saying, “I worry about the access to nuclear codes.”
In a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, Peter Wehner, a veteran of the Reagan and the two Bush administrations, urged congressional Republicans to think of themselves as a “shadow government” to compensate for Trump’s “moral ugliness and intellectual incoherence.” He said Republican members of Congress acknowledge the rolling disaster that is the Trump administration. Those Republicans, Wehner said, are privately declaring the president a “child king” who is incompetent and unfit for office.
A few of those Republicans have gone public with their disdain. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake have both offered tough critiques of Trump — and have been slammed by Trump in response.
"The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Corker said in a TV interview. “He has not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great and what it is today.”
Flake put his own thoughts in a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” that calls out Trump for his reckless tweets, his disturbing attraction to bogus conspiracy theories and his wild bursts of anger. He also decries Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, as well as his betrayal of the Republican Party’s long-standing commitment to vigorously oppose oppressive regimes around the world.
Flake may well pay a price for his bold critique of Trump’s instability when he runs for reelection next year. The president has already given encouragement to three possible right-wing challengers who want to go after Flake in the primary. But Flake says he could not, in good conscience, keep quiet.
“The stakes, for the future of conservatism and for the future of our country, are simply too high,” Flake wrote in his book.
When even members of the president’s own party begin to ask themselves if the man they have put in the White House is borderline insane, it is hard to imagine the stakes being any higher.
Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter