PRUDEN: Presidents in the Age of Twitter

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

Thomas Jefferson collected old books and French wines, Warren Harding collected poker buddies, and FDR collected stamps. Harry S Truman collected sheet music and played the piano.

But not so long ago, wife-collecting was regarded as over the line. Cats do it, dogs do it and even educated fleas are said to conduct serial impermanent romances. But presidents were held to a tougher moral standard.

Newt Gingrich, the latest Republican flavor of the fortnight, is testing the theory that Americans have outgrown making such moral judgments about politicians and their amours. Nelson Rockefeller thought he was on his way to the White House in 1964 when he divorced his blue blood wife to marry a lady named Happy. This was a mighty scandal, as difficult as that may seem to our randy, rowdy and enlightened age, but Mr. Rockefeller was regaining traction in the primary campaign when Happy birthed their child on the eve of the California primary. Barry Goldwater won a narrow victory and the rest, like Nelson Rockefeller, is forgotten history. Mr. Goldwater was swallowed in a November landslide, but his candidacy reshaped both his party and the nation’s politics.

We’ve reduced our presidents since to mere celebrities, making them compete for public attention with the likes of Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen and the usual assortment of hip-hop “artists.” Moral standards are for sissies. The presidential debates have further reduced the candidates to pretenders to “Comedy Central,” competing with puns, one-liners and bon mots, often auditioning for cable-TV talk shows. Mike Huckabee didn’t make it to the White House but got a TV show, and he still gets an occasional mention as somebody’s prospective running mate.

Since celebrities are celebrated for their easy banter about fluff, this is a rich environment for a talented big talker. Newt Gingrich, for example, who shoots with a blunderbuss that enables him to hit an occasional target even without aiming. Twittering was once what only crows and magpies did, but the politicians love it because it enables them to deposit sound bites in numbers big enough to splatter sidewalks and windshields from coast to coast. Newt claims 1.3 million Twitter “followers,” while Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have only 200,000 followers each.

A president with a noisy enough gift of gab might Twitter and execute the office of president at the same time. “I think I will probably teach a course when I’m president,” Newt told a New Hampshire audience the other day. “I will probably try to do something that outlines for the whole country what we’re going to try to accomplish. It will be free.” He expect to “use Twitter frequently,” he told NBC News, “and speak to the country less.” He thinks Americans “would like you to only bother them when it really matters.” This is a fascinating vision of how a White House would work: The president Twitters away the country’s troubles with all the free time on his hands.

“The idea would be, why wouldn’t you want a president in the age of social media to methodically, in an organized way, share with you what they’re going to accomplish so that those people who really won’t understand it can understand it.”

This would work, however, only if the rest of the world cooperates. John F. Kennedy once asked Dean Rusk in a moment of frustration why there was so much trouble in the world. “That’s easy,” his secretary of State told him. “At any given moment half the world is awake.”

The Middle East alone, populated with demons and worms, supplies trouble enough that would put President Gingrich’s Twitter account on hold. The uproar in Pakistan over the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an errant NATO helicopter strike on a Pakistani border post demonstrates just how an unexpected event can impose on a president’s Twittering time.

The Pakistani generals are not worth much as reliable allies, but they’re all we’ve got. Like all rented allies, they’re sometimes willing to help a little so long as the United States continues to supply then with weapons - just in case they get into a war of their own. There’s no morality among nations, as Newt the Historian knows well. Chipping at the margins of a threat is enough to keep any president too busy to Twitter. Only someone divorced from reality would expect more than that.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Wesley Pruden

Wesley Pruden

Editor Emeritus — American journalist legend and Vietnam War author James Wesley Pruden, Jr. is Editor Emeritus of The Washington Times. Pruden’s first job in the newspaper business dates back to 1951 as a copyboy at the now defunct Arkansas Gazette where he later became a sportswriter and an assistant state editor. In 1982, he joined The Washington Times, four ...

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