Obedient to Peter Pan

Russell Baker

January 06, 1993|By Russell Baker

THERE has been a run of boyish presidents sinc Eisenhower, who was not boyish by any stretch of the definition, even though he did care about golf. Neither was Truman, who preceded him, nor Franklin Roosevelt, though Roosevelt could pretend to be boyish when necessary.

Herbert Hoover? Not boyish. Nor Coolidge. Woodrow Wilson? Wilson wasn't even boyish when he was a boy. Taft is harder. He certainly sulked boyishly when Theodore Roosevelt tried to undo him in 1912. On the other hand, he also sired Sen. Robert A. Taft, who couldn't possibly have sprung from boyish genes.

We have to go back to Theodore Roosevelt for a presidential old-timer who was indisputably a boy-man. Now, however, boyish presidents are the rule. Somebody scholarly should do a monograph explaining this curiosity.

Of the seven presidents since Eisenhower, only Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were unboyish, and neither succeeded with the voters. Carter was tossed out after one term, and Ford, probably the most unboyish president since Hoover, was never even elected, just appointed.

To be sure, wanting people to call him Jimmy instead of James Earl was boyish of Carter, but even the most adult men have their boyish idiosyncrasies. Truman, for example, offered to punch out a music critic who wrote ungenerously about his daughter's singing.

Boyishness takes many forms. Usually these reflect efforts to overcome fear of not measuring up to adult responsibilities. For example: Lyndon Johnson destroying his presidency in Vietnam because he was afraid "to be the first president to lose a war."

Nixon's enthusiasm for dirty-pool politics, like George Bush's, reflected a boyish conviction that life is just a game writ large, and that in games so grand, with stakes so high, losing is the only thing that is unforgivable.

Explaining Kennedy's adulteries can best be left for the psychiatrists, but daydreams of beating Don Giovanni in the philandering Olympics -- ". . . and in Spain, already, one thousand and three!" -- are familiar to most people who have ever been boys.

Boyishness was more becoming to Reagan than to any of the others. He had the boyish charm that enables an offending son to win parents' hearts despite offenses for which an unboyish charmer would be cut out of the will.

With such a smile, a jest lifted from some old movie, a charming toss of the head -- how could anyone be angry with a lad for breaking a law or two, and not even very important laws? Even Reagan's hair, that eternally ungray 1937 pompadour, was styled as hair was styled when freckled boys wore knickers and lop-sided grins on the covers of Saturday Evening Posts.

Bush's boyishness is reflected in his farewell tour of the foreign-policy front. It gave him the opportunity to remind the congregation of why it loved him once and, also, to have a last taste of the role he obviously relishes, the commander in chief hailing his troops.

This sentimental journey had a boyishly theatrical quality, merging a chance to dramatize the military might he had directed with a chance to remind the fickle media that he had managed the ending of the Cold War, that he, like tragic Othello, had done the state some service.

It is easy to like this boyish-heroic Bush, as it was easy to dislike the boyishly cruel game-player Bush of the political campaigns. At the end, for a farewell, he was engaged in a boyishly grand gesture reminiscent of the "Viking's funeral" which ends that wonderful old boy's adventure story, "Beau Geste."

An unboyish president would have passed up this trip and contented himself with packing for the move and putting his thoughts in order for a good, honest memoir. An unboyish president, of course, would not have gone to war in Panama to teach the abominable Noriega that gentlemen don't double-cross countries that have been good to them. Boys don't let rats get away with stuff like that.

And now for someone completely different: Clinton is young enough to be a child to a large percentage of the population. He won't have to behave boyishly to please a national appetite for juvenilia. With so many now thinking: "Good Lord! We're now being governed by the people we used to spank!" maybe he will be tempted to leave boyhood stowed in Little Rock.

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