On Friday, the New York Times hosted a roundtable discussion with Harold Holzer, Jonathan Alter, and Ted Sorensen. It was a beautiful, cold day looking over the Hudson River from the 15th floor. The panelists discussed how Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy dealt with crisis and war during their presidencies. (Christie’s also displayed the original copy of Lincoln’s victory speech of November 10, 1864, which can be yours for $3-4 million. The text of the speech itself is free.)
Jonathan Alter trucked out the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quip that FDR had a “second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” After observing that Barack Obama has a “first-class intellect,” he noted that Obama’s temperament, in the face of our current crises, is as yet untested. ”All presidents are blind dates,” Alter said, which got a laugh from the audience of jaded reporters and ad-salesmen.
Now, the idea of a date with Obama sounds like something Amber Lee Ettinger would say. She just couldn’t wait for 2008. But 2008 was just an election—now it’s 2009, and the guy’s got to run the country. Alter’s comment calls to mind this interesting New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell on the difficulty of predicting who will be a good professional quarterback or public school teacher. The same is true of picking an elected leader. Can Obama keep his cool even when the pocket starts to close in?
The electorate’s expectations for Obama are pretty high. Obama ran an impressive campaign in 2008, which is a pretty grueling executive responsibility in and of itself. So there’s every reason to think that the temperament of “No-Drama Obama” will suit the country just fine. On the other hand, the United States faces some pretty big challenges—and Obama can’t overcome them all with just, well, temperament.
The NYT chose three panelists who had written about Lincoln, FDR, and JFK. The take-away theme was: history gives us reason to hope. But then again, they cherry-picked three pretty good presidents for the discussion.