‘Consoler-in-Chief’

I don’t blame President Bush for visiting Virginia Tech the day after the shootings. It probably made some people feel better, and it didn’t do any harm.   

However, it is not healthy for mainstream elites to talk about the presidency as they do in this article from Wednesday’s Washington Post:

“At times like this, [says David Gergen, the president] takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief.”

“It’s important for the country to see the one person they decided on as a leader out front and speaking for them in moments like this,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

Leon Panetta, Clinton’s chief of staff, agreed: “In many ways, he is our national chaplain.”

In this case, nothing that comes out of the president’s visit is likely to affect any American’s liberty interests.  But in a larger sense, the expectation that there ought to be a presidential response to any highly visible public event has had a dramatic impact on American liberty over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Here’s an interesting piece from Slate on the Great Coolidge’s resistance to responding to the Mississippi Flood of 1927:

Governors, senators, and mayors asked him to visit the flood zone. “Your coming would center eyes of nation and the consequent publicity would result in securing millions of dollars additional aid for sufferers,” the governor of Mississippi wired. But Coolidge demurred. He declined requests from NBC to broadcast a nationwide radio appeal, and from humorist Will Rogers to send a telegram to be read at a benefit. Taking center stage, Coolidge feared, would feed demands for a greater federal role in dealing with the calamity.

Keeping cool like Coolidge was no longer possible by midcentury. In 1956, political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote approvingly that faced with “floods in New England or a tornado in Missouri or a railroad strike in Chicago or a panic in Wall Street … the people turn almost instinctively to the White House and its occupant for aid and comfort.”

It’s that reflex that makes the solutions to highly visible news events increasingly federal, increasingly presidential, and, in some cases, increasingly military. There’s something to be said for Silent Cal’s Waspy reticence.