The tweet above from the President as he doubled down on his unusually stupid attack tweets against Joe and Mika got me thinking. He’s not entirely wrong. Trump is the first President to use social media personally and for candid statements and observations, bypassing the news media, and almost all of the previous Presidents had no choice in the matter. Fourth of July weekend always gets me thinking about the Founders, and the Founders get me musing about the Presidents, and I found myself playing this mind game: Which of our Presidents, had they has access to Twitter, would have used it in a Trumpian manner?
I should clarify some issues at the outset. None of the Presidents would have used Twitter in a stupid, juvenile and boorish manner like President Trump, because none of them were that stupid, juvenile and boorish. (On the other hand, none of their critics, being comparatively responsible and sane, would have argued that stupid, juvenile and boorish tweets were justification to remove the previous 44, as Keith Olbermann thinks.) By using Twitter in a Trumpian manner, I mean using it…
…for the purpose of by-passing the news media and White House spokespersons…
…in order to make declarations of intent, emotions or satisfaction, or
…to attack, accuse, denigrate, compliment, rebut, defend, joke, troll, or otherwise
…communicate directly with the public.in an unfiltered manner.
One other caveat: Trump would definitely be establishing new Presidential norms were his tweets less obnoxious and embarrassing. By the time his term(s) are over, he mat have given Presidential tweeting such a bad reputation that no future POTUS will dare use Twitter for fear of being compared to the Mad Tweeter of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
All right, on to the inquiry!
Which of our previous Presidents would have used twitter in one or more of the ways Trump uses it. based on what we know of their character and leadership styles?
George Washington: Never. A man with a keen understanding of leadership and naturally reticent, George would have regarded such casual and informal communication diminishing, intrinsically rude, and a great mistake. He wouldn’t be wrong.
John Adams: I’m pretty sure Adams would be a twitter abuser. He would be more articulate and restrained than Trump, of course—who wouldn’t?—but John seethed with resentment, felt that he was badly treated by the press, and tweeting out insults and defenses would be irresistible to our second President. The 140 character limit would be a problem.
Thomas Jefferson is an interesting case. Tom was introverted except when pushing a pen. He loved words, and like Adams, often resented what others wrote about him. He would be a careful Twitter user, but a frequent one.
Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams: Unlikely. Madison and Monroe were too canny to show their thoughts to the world, and John Quincy Adams would find social media degrading.
Andrew Jackson, in contrast, would be a Twitter menace. The seventh President was a killer with words as much as with a pistol; he did not suffer fools or opponents gladly, and he would have welcomed the availability of making his fans cheer as he verbally accosted others.
Van Buren, W.H. Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor and Millard Fillmore all seem unlikely Twitter users. Tyler might be the most likely of the batch: he was isolated, a Democrat heading a Whig administration, and he could be a defiant and ornery statesman. Still, he was a Virginia country squire, like Washington, Madison and Monroe, and my guess is that tweeting would not be his style. Polk was a Jackson follower but completely unlike Jackson in style and temperament. He quietly planned and plotted, and maintained as low a profile as any successful (and ruthless) President in history. He would have viewed tweeting as pointless and counter-productive.
Franklin Pierce might have tweeted Trump-like bile, but only when he was drunk, which was often.
James Buchanan is a cypher. He was immensely intelligent, but devoid of leadership ability. His approach to every problem seemed to be what he called “restraint,” and he courted conflict by trying to avoid it. (The 15th President thought that the Dred Scot decision would settle the issue of slavery, for example.) I have no sense of whether he would have resorted to tweeting as all sides turned against him.
Abraham Lincoln, one of the handful of bona fide political geniuses we have had as President, would have certainly used Twitter as a political tool, and would have used it brilliantly—for jokes, witticisms, pin-point rebuttals of his critics and cagey spin.
Andrew Johnson would have undoubtedly been one of the most Trump-like tweeters. Insecure, over his head, impulsive, choleric, as his war with the Radical Republicans became more personal and vicious and the national press turned against him, he would have used Twitter as a final, desperate, futile tactic to build public support.
Ulysses Grant was the Hemingway of Presidents, which would have made him a Twitter auteur, but I greatly doubt that he would have used it. Grant was neither outgoing nor politically astute, and was insecure enough that he would avoid the intimacy of candid tweets.
Rutherford B. Hayes may well have embraced tweeting. Hayes was the first President to have a telephone in the White House, he first to use the typewriter, and he had Thomas Edison come to the White House to demonstrate the phonograph. He was forward-looking regarding new technology, and might have been equally bold with social media.
I can find no solid evidence that Garfield, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison or Grover Cleveland would have issued combative, humorous or strategic tweets. Perhaps Arthur would have tried tweeting to rally public support as he increasingly became a Man Without A Party by turning against crony politics and patronage. Harrison has no enthusiastic base to tweet to, and was a staid statesman. Cleveland was secretive and careful by nature (he had a lot of secrets to be careful with); perhaps he would have used Twitter during the Panic of 1893 and the resulting Depression to calm the public and the business sector. Grover was a talented leader, and a talented leader could use social media well in a crisis.
William McKinley would never have touched Twitter. This man never left his front porch to campaign: I can’t see him invading the nation’s Twitter accounts.
Theodore Roosevelt, in contrast, would have been a twittering maniac, probably to his detriment. Self-restraint was not one of Teddy’s virtues, and his verve in attacking political foes once got him sued for slander. The public loved him, he knew it, and as with Trump, even TR’s imprudent and impolitic tweets would get a lot of applause. Roosevelt thought he was smarter than the press, and would have loved a device that allowed him to get his point of view to the public without having to make a formal speech.
William Taft would not be a tweeter. He was judicious by nature, not outgoing, dignified and placid. He thought careful before he spoke, and would have believed that nothing of value or depth could be expressed in 140 characters
Woodrow Wilson is generally regarded as one of our most narcissistic Presidents (Teddy is #1). Professorial, pedantic, and doctrinaire, he might well have used twitter as a political weapon, particularly when he was battling the Senate to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified with the his baby, the League of Nations, included.
Warren G. Harding was a gregarious man, affable but not unusually smart, charismatic and shallow. Sure he would have tweeted. That’s almost the text book definition of a social media addict.
Calvin Coolidge..hmmm. The idea of Coolidge tweeting amuses me greatly. When this was a more ambitious effort, I was going to compose a theoretical tweet for each of the tweeting Chief Executives. Cal’s would be dry comments on re-tweets, like Glenn Reynold’s arch “Unexpectedly,” or a sarcastic “Suuure” or a deadpan, lower case, “yay.
Herbert Hoover: no.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have used social media and twitter as deftly as he used radio. (As would Winston Churchill.)
Harry Truman? See John Adams, but without the nastiness. Harry would have loved Twitter, and his down-to earth observations and pronouncements would have probably made him popular enough that Dewey wouldn’t even have made the headlines.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was properly called the “hidden hand President,” and Twitter Trump-style is all bout showing your hand. The General would abstain.
John F. Kennedy: No. Kennedy’s strength was in his mystique and personal charisma. He would not tweet.
Nor would LBJ. President Johnson was an old school politician, and remote contact was alien to him. He was a master of the phone call and face-to-face arm-twisting. I can’t see him spending his time and energy on Twitter.
Richard M. Nixon would tweet to get around what he saw as a hostile press. I think he would be prone to going too far, too, but unlike Trump, Nixon had competent and trusted aides who would put a stop to his tweeting if it got out of hand.
Gerald Ford? Who would read his tweets? I can’t see it.
Jimmy Carter is a narcissist for sure, and Twitter attracts narcissists. He might have embraced Twitter as part of his “common man” persona.
Ronald Reagan was like Kennedy, great at playing President. As an actor, he would know the dangers of going off script. I think he’d eschew the risks of Twitter.
George H.W. Bush was not the most technologically savvy of our POTUSes to say the least, and not especially fond of public contact, either. I find it hard to believe that a man who was about a decade behind in his knowledge supermarket technical innovations would use Twitter in the White House. Wouldn’t be prudent…
Bill Clinton would have been a Twitter Jedi in office.
George W. Bush knew and knows his limitations, and off the cuff statements are among them. A certain Twitter abstainer.
And we know about Obama, who could have used Twitter for more than canned, ghost-written political pablum, but didn’t. I bet he wishes he had thought about its potential, but he needed the precedent.
Summing up, I think fourteen Presidents, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, A. Johnson, Hayes, Teddy, Wilson, Coolidge, FDR, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton would have used Twitter for one or more Trumpish purposes had they had the opportunity.
None of them, however, would have embarrassed the office and the nation while doing so to the extent that President Trump does regularly.