In 1965, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. published his now-classic tribute to John F. Kennedy. “A Thousand Days” recounted the triumphs and tragedies of Kennedy’s brief presidency, but the book was primarily an exploration of his character, which Schlesinger summed up with a single word: cool.
“Cool” was an emotional style, emphasizing detachment and self-control. A cool person had feelings, of course, but he didn’t wear them on his sleeve. Instead, he drew a firm line between his inner and outer worlds.
“The Kennedy style was the triumph, hard-bought and well-earned, of a gallant and collected human being over the anguish of life,” Schlesinger wrote. “His ‘coolness’ was itself a new frontier.”
I thought of these words as I read the recent attacks on President Obama, who has supposedly displayed a lack of emotion amid the oil-spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Across the political spectrum, pundits are blasting Obama for his coolness in the face of crisis.
Consider the New York Times and Fox News, which are typically at loggerheads about Obama’s policies. But when it comes to the president’s feelings — or his apparent lack thereof — they stand united: Obama should be our emoter-in-chief, and he’s falling down on the job.
Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Obama “bloodless,” while her colleague Charles M. Blow urged him to “openly empathize with the anger of others.” Over at Fox, meanwhile, Sean Hannity was also squealing for some presidential feeling. He said that some say, "[Obama’s] so cool under pressure that he hasn’t been able to show enough emotion to the American people.” Hannity said, “I don’t think it’s going to fly.”
I hope they’re wrong. By demanding that Obama show his emotions in public, the critics reinforce the very worst parts of our political culture. We can never know what the president is “really” feeling, and — most of all — we shouldn’t want to know. So why do we? The answer lies in three broad and mutually reinforcing trends in contemporary American life: confession, celebrity and cynicism. Together, these “3 Cs” threaten to bury our politics in a shallow, superficial gauze. And we should laud President Obama — not lambaste him — for trying to resist them.
Our cult of confession holds that everyone should express their most intimate feelings, preferably on the Internet or a reality show. Never mind that the public display of emotions erodes intimacy itself, which is premised on the idea that certain feelings should be reserved for the private realm. Everything is public, or should be.
That line of thinking makes everyone a celebrity, in ambition if not in fact. By airing all of your laundry, dirty and otherwise, you too can achieve a status formerly reserved for Hollywood stars and professional athletes. Dispense with the idea of a firm or stable self. In the new “reality,” we are what we post, blog or Tweet.
And that makes all of us cynics, too. Deep down, we know that we can’t be anything that we want. So we become arch and ironic, about ourselves as much as each other. In a land where everyone is manipulating their images, unmoored from fact or authority, whom can you trust? Nobody.
In their plea for President Obama to show his “real” feelings, then, Obama’s critics are actually moving our politics away from a shared reality — and into the zone where nothing is true. And by making politics about feelings — rather than about ideas — they make it harder to maintain the reasoned argument that democracy demands.
After all, who can argue with feelings? The quest to discover our leaders’ “real” feelings reflects what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has called “emotivism,” which holds that all judgments are simply “expressions of attitude or feeling.”
They’re not. The best arguments are the ones that reflect logic, evidence and — yes — reason. So we should applaud the president for keeping a lid on his emotions, which would simply interfere with a clear analysis of his policies. Has Obama extracted too little from BP or too much? Has he used the tragedy constructively — to promote a wiser energy policy — or is he simply trying to score political points for his party?
I don’t know the answers, but they have nothing to do with Obama’s emotions. And that brings us back to Kennedy. “Only the unwary could really suppose that his ‘coolness’ was because he felt too little,” Schlesinger wrote. “It was because he felt too much and had to compose himself for an existence filled with disorder and despair.”
That’s a pretty good characterization of the situation in the gulf right now: disorder and despair. It’s also, I suspect, a pretty good depiction of Barack Obama. We need a president who can compose himself and put aside his feelings, at least for the moment. Let’s see if the rest of us can do the same.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author most recently of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”