Politics & Policy

The Bigmouth Tradition of American Leadership

From left: General Sherman, General Grant, and President Lincoln. Detail of The Peacemakers by George P.A. Healy, 1868 (via Wikimedia)
To everything, there is a season.

America has always enjoyed two antithetical traditions in its political and military heroes.

The preferred style is the reticent, sober, and competent executive planner as president or general, from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter.

George Marshall remains the epitome of understated and quiet competence.

The alternate and more controversial sorts are the loud, often reckless, and profane pile drivers. Think Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt. Both types have been appreciated, and at given times and in particular landscapes both profiles have proven uniquely invaluable.

Grant/Sherman

Both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were military geniuses. Grant was quiet and reflective — at least in his public persona, which gave scant hint that he struggled with alcohol and often displayed poor judgement about those who surrounded him.

Sherman was loud. He was often petty, and certainly ready in a heartbeat to engage in frequent feuds, many of them cul de sacs and counter-productive.

Sherman threatened to imprison or even hang critical journalists and waged a bitter feud with the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

Too few, then or now, have appreciated that the uncouth Sherman, in fact, displayed both a prescient genius and an uncanny understanding of human nature. Whereas Grant could brilliantly envision how his armies might beat the enemy along a battle line or capture a key fortress or open a river, Sherman’s insight encompassed whole regions and theaters, in calibrating how both economics and sociology might mesh with military strategy to crush an entire people.

For all of Grant’s purported drinking and naïveté about the scoundrels around him, his outward professional bearing, his understated appearance of steadiness and discretion, enhanced his well-earned reputation for masterful control in times of crises.

The volatile and loquacious nature of Sherman, in contrast, often hid and diminished appreciation of his talents — in some ways greater than Grant’s. To the stranger, Grant would have seemed the less likely to have had too much to drink and smoked too many daily cigars, Sherman the more prone to all sorts of such addictions.

Truman/Eisenhower

Harry Truman talked too much. He swore. He drank. He played poker. He was petty to the point of stooping to spar with a music critic who dismissed his daughter’s solo performances. His profanity was an open secret, as well as his temper. His advisers constantly cautioned him to tone it down.

As a Missourian who had once gone bankrupt and recouped with a political career though the help of the corrupt Prendergast machine, Truman carried a chip on his shoulder throughout his political career on the East Coast.

In some sense, Truman was an accidental president — a workmanlike senator appointed as running mate in the 1944 reelection campaign to the sure fourth-termer FDR — out of justified fears that an ailing Roosevelt would soon die in office and his socialist vice president, Henry Wallace, would soon become wartime president.

“Give Them Hell” Harry’s fiery and often grating personality and infamous feud with General Douglas MacArthur helped to explain why he left office with the then-lowest presidential ratings in modern history. His Internal Revenue Bureau (the precursor of the IRS) was scandal-ridden, and many of his aides were buffoonish.

Yet “plain-speaking” Truman proved a great or at least a near-great president. He precluded either a horrific ground invasion of Japan or a murderous escalation of LeMay’s incendiary air war, by controversially dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Truman soon jettisoned the Democratic party’s institutional naïveté about Joseph Stalin’s postwar ambitions. Truman was mostly responsible for saving Berlin and South Korea, integrating the military, ensuring the Marshall Plan, NATO, the birth of Israel, and the entire postwar policy of deterrence and containment against Soviet-sponsored global Communism.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was likewise a successful president, though his foreign-policy achievements, derivative of Truman’s, were never as path-breaking.

The beloved Ike’s signature trait was competent administration. It was honed by a professional willingness to listen and compromise, with assurances to all parties that, while capable of temper, Ike was discreet and would never lose his head when those around him might. Ike avoided a major war with the Soviets abroad, continued deterrence, and oversaw general prosperity and relative calm at home.

Whereas Truman’s bouts of uncouth candor tended to mask his landmark accomplishments, Eisenhower’s sobriety only enhanced his less monumental achievements.

It is hard to envision any other comparable figure herding together all the Anglo-American three-star and four-star egos during the race across France and Holland into Germany in 1944–45. Whereas Truman’s bouts of uncouth candor tended to alienate potential admirers and mask his landmark accomplishments, Eisenhower’s sobriety only enhanced his arguably less monumental achievements.

&Ike left office as popular as Truman did despised.

Bradley/Patton

Omar Bradley today is still known as “the GI general” and “a soldier’s general.” “Brad” was steady if not, on occasion, obsequious to his superiors in public and haughty to his inferiors in private.

Ike relied on Brad’s predictable discretion in promoting him over his former superior, the volatile George S. Patton. It is difficult to cite any major military decision that Bradley made in the critical year 1944 that proved either inspired or shrewd.

The failure to close the Falaise Gap was largely his own. Bradley appeared resentful of and inconvenienced by, rather than supportive of, Patton’s wild advance of August 1944. Bradley never foresaw the problems waiting for his subordinate, General Courtney Hodges, in the Hürtgen Forest.

He seemed bewildered by German thrust in the first few hours of the Battle of the Bulge, and initially had little idea of how to repel the assault. Bradley’s general feeling of inferiority prevented him from appreciating the genius of the cruder Patton, much less the valuable professional competence of the otherwise egomaniac and abrasive British General Bernard Montgomery.

Again, however, Bradley was a loyal and professional general. He could be trusted to administer military affairs competently and to explain to associates and the public questions of strategy and policy carefully and prudently — projecting a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart “aw-shucks” simplicity and earthiness that did wonders in cloaking his considerable strategic and tactical limitations.

Little need be said about the iconic Patton. Whereas Bradley was a faithful husband, plain-spoken, and reserved, Patton was a philanderer, profane, mercurial, bombastic, unsteady — and perhaps the most gifted American field general in U.S. history.

His genius for war saved thousands of lives. Patton’s instincts, cunning, and prescience might have saved even more had he been listened to.

Ike, Bradley, and Walter Bedell Smith were all prone to hector Patton on his character flaws, understandably warning him that his mouth and unsteady comportment would ensure that “Georgie” was constantly in trouble of his own making — from slapping a sick soldier to voicing clairvoyant but supposedly reckless predictions about America’s wartime Soviet allies. Patton, with herculean efforts at censoring his thoughts and actions, for a time was able to placate his superiors.

Yet the net result of Patton’s volatility was predictable. Even today some continue to buy into the myth that the studious, learned, often generous, and considerate Patton was more a buffoon than our nation’s signature military genius. We forget that Patton enhanced his natural talents through relentless preparation and hard work, and often displayed a magnanimity born from confidence completely lacking in the insecure and occasionally mean-spirited Bradley.

Sober vs. Volatile

We can think of lots of American stereotypically loudmouth and unsteady talents — from Samuel Adams to Curtis Le May — and even more discreet and professional administrators of the sterling caliber of George Marshall and Chester Nimitz.

Of course, not every leader must in Manichean fashion be either sober and judicious or profane and uncouth.

Of course, not every leader must in Manichean fashion be either sober and judicious or profane and uncouth. Perhaps the greatest brilliantly combined both personas.

Perhaps the greatest, such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan, brilliantly combined both personas — adroitly turning on the emotion and passion to rev up the public while keeping a quiet and steady hand on the tiller in stormy weather.

In his encomium on Pericles, the historian Thucydides long ago outlined this rare dual character of a great democratic leader. Their exuberance and passion were properly married to calmness and steadiness, each to be expressed at the appropriate time and mostly calibrated to the depression or reckless exuberance of the masses.

Mercurial Is Not Always Wrong

Nonetheless, the mercurial and uncouth style enjoys an ambiguous role in American cultural, political, and military history. It is an ancient crux perhaps captured from Homer to John Ford as the essence of the tragic hero, whose very excesses are precisely what both saves others and dooms himself.

The most creative artists always remind us of the role of irony and paradox — that great things can come from sometimes less than great men, that what appears dangerous is actually what is safe, what should seem good in theory proves awful in fact, what is supposedly proven beyond a doubt only all the more proves groupthink to be asininity.

Outsiders who do not fit — and perhaps should not fit in civilization’s status quo — are sometimes the only ones who can save it from itself. They possess uncivilized talents that are as critical in crises as they can become bothersome if not dangerous in calm.

In March 1945, we were lucky to have a Curtis Le May. In 1968, we laughed at our now Dr. Strangelovian running mate of George Wallace, an easily caricatured but nonetheless authentic American hero who had saved both the B-29 program and the Strategic Air Command.

So the public is always confused by the loud and rambunctious style. It usually prefers predictable competence to unpredictable singularity — at least until realization hits that the accustomed and status quo cannot continue.

Whereas we rarely pray that the reticent become more talkative (who now wishes that Ike or Brad was louder?), we constantly lament that the loud and profane had not been more self-controlled. Had Sherman been less outspoken, might he have been more heralded or found high command earlier?

But then would a reticent Sherman have been a better General Sherman?

Would a Truman who kept his temper always have been the Truman who rightly blew up at Stalin and MacArthur? What would the Normandy front in June and July 1944 have looked like, had Patton, not Ike and Bradley, exercised senior command: utter chaos across the Rhine by October 1944? Or was Patton’s mouth not merely the price of, but essential to, his turning up at Bastogne when others could not?

There Is a Season

The point is that it is hard to ascertain to what degree flamboyance and excess, even the self-destructive sorts, are integral to genius. And to what degree in extremis do we need to make allowances and exemptions for the former to allow expression of the latter?

The state of affairs obviously determines the degree to which a public is willing to take risks with the unconventional. The peacetime army of the late 1930s would have had no real place for a General George S. Patton.

We, of course, live in lesser times (though, we can cringe at the idea what Sherman or Truman, or Churchill, might have tweeted had Twitter been at their late-night fingertips).

For all his first-year achievements, an unpopular Trump is hardly yet an accomplished Patton or Truman. Nonetheless, we need to take a deep breath and concede that sometimes past mellifluous appeasement is more dangerous than present flamboyant deterrence — just as the sober and discreet can be more adroit in warping the Constitution through distortions and corruptions of the Justice Department, the IRS, the FBI, and the FISA courts than are the profane and rambunctious.

Finally, we should remember that different sorts are suitable for different occasions — for seasons of recouping and for the seasons of disrupting; for times of consolidation and for the times of expansion, and for the moments of quiet conciliation and loud delineation.

READ MORE:

Learn American History to Make America Great

The State of American Leadership

Victor Davis Hanson — Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. © 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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