Thu December 23, 2010

TMI, Mr. President! TMI!

Originally published on Tue July 31, 2012 9:30 am

Do you know who recently stopped smoking Marlboros? Here are some hints: He received 12 stitches in his busted lip. He wears a size 11 or so shoe. And his wife says he is sometimes "too snore-y and stinky" to share the marital bed.

Here are some more hints. He collects comic books. He loves shrimp linguini, berry-flavored tea and Moby-Dick. He hates ice cream. He told elementary students this about his dog, Bo: "Sometimes I have to scoop up his poop."

Of course. It's Barack Obama, the president of the United States.

Thanks to these reported facts, we think we know everything about the guy.

But does our increasingly informal relationship with the man in the White House — not just President Obama, but any sitting president — diminish our respect for the man and reverence for the office? Should we leave the uncovering of private and behind-closed-doors habits to the historians?

We're not talking about major scandals here. We're talking about a puff of tobacco or a mild BlackBerry addiction. Do we need to know all of these details? Would we be better off as a country if we focused less on the personal quirks and traits and more on the professional successes and failures of our commander in chief? In other words, when it comes to the most famous politician in America, does familiarity breed contempt?

Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University, believes there are pros and cons to having Too Much Information. "Knowing too much about a president makes them seem more human, but it certainly detracts from some of the prestige that Americans once held for the office," says Zelizer. "If the president is too much like us ... we have more trouble developing respect for the officeholder and we start to find fault, too easily, about issues that don't really matter."

After all, Zelizer says, "we should be more concerned with Obama's economic policies and political strategy than whether he snores."

Sonny And The Duchess: A Whitewashed White House

In days of yore, personal details about the sitting president were hard to come by. When Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920, he promised a "return to normalcy" in the wake of World War I. The man from Ohio was swept into office by the greatest popular-vote differential up to that point.

By all contemporary accounts, life inside the White House during Harding's abbreviated two-year term, from 1921-1923, was prim and proper. Occasional intimate tidbits emerged in news reports. For instance, reporter Kate Marcia Forbes — who was also a close friend of the first lady's — revealed in a 1922 Baltimore Sun article that Florence Harding called her husband "Sonny" and the president's pet name for his wife was "the Duchess." The president liked to eat fudge and popcorn balls, and the couple often sat on a davenport by the fireplace.

Most of the stories of the day, however, provided little detail. There were observations about the "stateliness" of events at the White House and the propriety of Florence Harding's wardrobe. "One thing I most admire in our President and his wife," Forbes wrote, "is the devotion they have for each other." She and other reporters whitewashed the White House, and Harding enjoyed great popularity while in office.

But in fact, according to historians writing much later, the Harding home on Pennsylvania Avenue was a nexus of bad behavior. Behind the scenes, writes James S. McCallops in the 2004 volume Life in the White House: A Social History of the First Family and the President's House, Sonny and the Duchess "were far from the upbeat and optimistic duo they portrayed in public. Petty jealousy, infidelity, illegal drinking, gambling and corruption plagued the Hardings. Yet, in the two-plus-year period the Hardings lived in the White House, the public was kept in the dark about the First Couple's private lives."

Having won 60 percent of the vote in 1920, Harding was able to appoint some of his friends, known as "the Ohio Gang," to his administration. Some of them betrayed him, and his administration was rife with political miscreancy — including the Teapot Dome scandal.

In 1923, Harding died unexpectedly, from a stroke or heart attack. And it wasn't until after his death that more details of his private life were made public. "Only as the scandals began to surface," McCallops writes, "did the American people discard their adoration of the Hardings and replace it with scorn and ridicule."

Harding was a popular president about whom the public knew little. Was he perhaps popular because of that fact?

And Then Came The Details On Bodily Functions

The increasing pervasiveness of media in the post-World War II era changed the relationship between presidents and the public, says Michael S. Mayer, a history professor at the University of Montana who has written extensively about the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"Eisenhower's presidency consequently represented a step in the increasingly invasive nature of coverage of the personal lives of presidents," Mayer says.

In September 1955, while Eisenhower was on a fishing trip in Denver, he suffered a heart attack. That event, Mayer says, "seems to me to be something of a watershed."

The administration released daily reports that included details about the president's bodily functions and the color of his pajamas. Newspaper reporters and broadcasters dutifully repeated them.

"Many at the time questioned the taste of such reports," Mayer says. "Others wondered about the limits of the public's right or need to have access to personal matters relating to the president. In the case of the president's health, though, some maintained that the public clearly did have an interest."

Arguably, from that point on, personal details about the president have become more and more commonplace. President John F. Kennedy could not hide the fact that he had a bad back — though the White House was able to keep journalists from knowing about the president's debilitating Addison's disease and his reliance on medications. Journalists also kept the president's extramarital affairs from the public — perhaps more out of respect for the office than for the man.

Lyndon Johnson, according to The Chicago Tribune, became the first president to tell the public ahead of time that he was going into the hospital, for gallbladder surgery. To this day, the image of LBJ showing his scar to reporters is a lasting one. Richard Nixon was plagued by phlebitis. Jimmy Carter had hemorrhoids and Ronald Reagan had polyps.

More and more delicate details were revealed about sitting presidents — and less and less homage paid to the office — by tabloid newspapers and cable television. And then in the mid-1990s, the Internet, with its unruliness and rudeness, let the cat completely out of the bag. Bill Clinton and the two George Bushes lived in constantly scrutinized — and widely reported on — fishbowls.

We seemed to know everything — and more — about Clinton. His health, his skivvies, his sax, his sex, his Socks. The fact that Clinton had a 66 percent approval rating when he left office is an anomaly.

The second Bush, on the other hand, fell from 90 percent approval rating in September 2001 — at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon — to just 34 percent when he left office in 2009.

President Obama's numbers, so far, have the same downward trajectory. At the start of his administration, the Gallup Poll found Obama's job approval rating at 68 percent. The latest figures from Gallup give him an average approval rating of 46 percent for the week — which is pretty much where his numbers have been since September. That's despite Obama's recent string of major legislative victories (though also in spite of his party's "shellacking" in last month's midterm elections.)

Real Men Of Genius

We know that Obama drinks beer. And we know what brand: Bud Light.

That's more than we knew about Rutherford B. Hayes, who professed to be a teetotaler. In fact, according to Barry H. Landau, author of The President's Table: 100 Years of Dining and Diplomacy, Hayes was a private drinker. While president, Hayes would gather favored guests upstairs for a secret cocktail, Landau told Time magazine in 2009, while the first lady, known as "Lemonade Lucy," stayed downstairs with other guests and served nonalcoholic drinks.

We also know about Obama's "beer test." Many political pundits have written that Obama chose Joe Biden as his vice president because the former senator from Delaware is somebody you'd like to go have a beer with. The truth is, as Biden told The New York Times, he doesn't drink alcohol.

Conventional punditry tells us that Americans are drawn to down-to-earth candidates whom they'd "like to share a beer with." But once the people get into office and Americans know that their politicians — even a president — are actually drinking a beer and what kind of beer, they are liable to lose some respect.

Of the seven two-term presidents in the past 60 years, only Reagan and Clinton had higher average approval ratings during their second terms. For the most part, the longer we had the chance to know our presidents, the less we approved of the job they were doing.

"It is healthy not to turn our presidents into kings," says Zelizer, "but too much of this leaves us without enough respect for the most important office in the land."

The disillusionment is in the details.

Maybe it is our thirst for these details that drives the increased amount of details. Or perhaps the White House has learned that giving out a constant barrage of small details keeps Americans from asking really big questions.

Personal details, says reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, "are part of the Theater of the Modern American Presidency. As always, it is the behind-the-scenes that gets closer to the real story. Stitches and Marlboros are part of the sideshow. It is the important decisions and how they are made that matter."

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