A Tale of Two Presidents

'In the Old World, a leader is criticised — and quits — for being too emotional. In the New World, a leader is criticised for not being emotional enough'

Summer in New York means outdoor theatre: lots of it, in parks, on street corners and at deserted petrol stations. It’s one of the city’s seasonal features. I was surprised, however, to see that politics too had been transformed into the theatre of the absurd. 

So it seemed to me, having a foot on both sides of the Atlantic (which in itself can be an absurd form of mental gymnastics). We have witnessed over the past weeks a tale of two presidents and their temper tantrums. The props: war, oil, clenched jaws and tearful eyes. The question looming over everything: just how much emotion is acceptable in politics?

The ancient Stoics proclaimed that there should be a balance in everything to do with public life, believing strong emotions to be the result of errors of judgment. Whether or not it’s to do with the common pet hate of our time — “new technologies creating ever shorter attention spans” — these days the opposite seems to be required. The ability to show emotion, a human, personal reaction when faced with a crisis, the capacity to convey an individual connection (“I’m with you”) while maintaining the level-headed equilibrium expected from a leader (“I know the way out of this mess”).

The trouble is that you can’t have it both ways without turning into a caricature, as recent political turmoil has shown in two of the world’s largest economies, Germany and America. 

Germany, not usually known for its entertaining politics, delivered the most ridiculous resignation imaginable from a country’s highest office. With the drooping mouth and tight lips of a child who is about to burst into tears or explode in anger, President Horst Köhler resigned in May. The position is exalted but largely decorative: you can be held to account for little, but you have a grand palace in the middle of Berlin. It’s probably as close to Princess Diana as a German official can get: glamorous and influential, but primarily involved with those softer humanitarian issues which require a pair of doe-eyes. Maybe it was a Teutonic take on the role of the diva when Köhler, a member of the ruling CDU party, resigned — with no backing from Chancellor Angela Merkel, and on the peculiar grounds that the German media showed too little respect for his office.

Their offence had been to spark a heated debate about whether his comments — that German troops were deployed abroad because of economic interests — were justified. Certainly, Germany is a thoughtful country that has been mulling over whether it is in a war or a “war-like state” (and whether, given its history, it should be in a war at all). It was, however, its highest representative — Köhler — who had called for a discussion on these matters. 

Whether or not this aborted debate was the real reason for his stunning resignation (the media were rife with speculation about depression, burn-out and marital difficulties), he quit. Whatever the reason, Köhler was too emotional for his own good. This couldn’t be said about his counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic.

Following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a frantic search began in America: where was Barack Obama’s temper? The media tried to get behind the reserved demeanour of a man who takes pride in being Ivy League in manner, as opposed to his predecessor’s go-with-the-gut bravado (which was in itself peculiar, since George W. Bush didn’t exactly attend an unknown state university in the middle of a desert). As one commentator put it, there was something harder to find than a fix for BP’s leak and that was Obama’s boiling point. Jokes were made that the only emotion to surface from the president was a slightly clenched jaw and a furrowed brow while he strolled along an oil-infested beach. Eventually, he promised to “kick ass” — to no great effect.

Where does that leave us? In the Old World, a leader is criticised — and quits — for being too emotional. In the New World, a leader is criticised for not being emotional enough. Is there a lesson in this absurdist play? 

Indeed, but it is not a moral one. Yes, Obama faces considerable political damage, even if BP is to blame for the leak, and not Americans, for stirring up anti-British feeling. Yes, there will be dire consequences for British pension funds. Yes, BP should have picked a different spokesperson. Yes, Köhler left the people of Germany on their own, at least symbolically. This is a classic absurdist situation, the conundrum being: it is what it is. Or, to paraphrase the ancient Stoic Epictetus: freedom is achieved not by the fulfilling of one’s personal desires, but by the restraint of them, for the common good. 

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