The Common Touch, like Common Sense, is anything but Common.
The Elusive Quality of the Common Touch
The Common Touch is one of those rare qualities that must be inborn, natural and absolutely sincere. It can sometimes be affected, but it is usually perceived as such, and scorned.
Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln had the Common Touch; then again, few presidents came from a more common background. But wait! Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover both came from very similar poor and humble beginnings, yet neither of them were able to connect with the public.
But wait again! The Common Touch has nothing to do with background, wealth or upbringing. Both Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, had the Common Touch in abundance – and both were wealthy and pedigreed and privileged.
Moments of Common Touch
This is not to say that moments of the Common Touch have not notably been achieved. Sometimes they are the stuff of legends. When George W. Bush came to New York City a few days after September 11, and one of the workmen hollered they couldn’t hear him, G.W. replied through his bullhorn, “That’s OK. I can hear you.” It was natural. It was spontaneous. It was the perfect response. And it may have been his finest moment.
This, by the way, has nothing to do with the “modern” presidency either. Farm boy Harry Truman had the Common Touch – but it was perceived as a little too common for most people. Farm boy Jimmy Carter never had it, although he knew it existed and tried to make it work for him. He wanted to be photographed in jeans, and insisted that his Presidential documents were signed “Jimmy.” That was too common for most people, too, but Carter does not seem to have cared. The Common Touch was not natural to him. It was an affectation.
Richard Nixon did not have the Common Touch either. He knew he didn’t have it, and he also knew that when he tried, it was awkward and uncomfortable. But he always craved it.
George Washington’s Moment
Our first President was truly beloved and admired by all, but few Presidents were more remote in their one-on-one situations. George Washington was then as now, the “marble man,” seldom seen in his most human role.
Yet one of his finest moments was at the end of the Revolutionary War when his officers were threatening a mutinous march on Congress to collect back pay. They had called a meeting – without their Commander-in-Chief. General Washington got wind of it however, and spent an entire day drafting and redrafting his response to this crucial situation.
What he planned to say, however, did not move his officers nearly as much as the moment the fifty-year-old General put on his spectacles to read his remarks. He begged their indulgence for wearing his glasses (something they had never seen him do before), and said that “he had not only grown gray, but nearly blind in the service of his country.”
It was off-the-cuff. It was exactly what was needed. It moved the crowd to tears. It was remembered forever.
John Quincy Adams’ Moment
Few Presidents were more aloof than the acerbic John Quincy Adams. As a youth at Harvard, he was known to roister happily with his fellows in the taverns, but by the time he was in his twenties and President Washington sent him into diplomatic circles, the crustiness of his disposition had taken hold.
He was, however, a superb diplomat, and his foreign counterparts liked him and admired him. It was only at home where was always at arm’s length. He depended a great deal on the social skills of his wife to “endear” him to the public – efforts which were usually greeted with a resounding thud.
It was at the end of his disappointing Presidency that the sixty-year-old President had his “moment.” He had been invited to break ground for the new Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on the 4th of July. The ground was hard and resistant to the shovel. J.Q. was a man dedicated to physical fitness, and swam a mile in the Potomac River every day – a hard exercise. Despite his age, he was physically fit.
After several attempts to break the hard soil, the aging President did the unthinkable: he removed his coat. (In those days, a man never appeared in public without his coat, no matter how hot it was!) But J.Q. took off his coat, put his shoulder to the shovel, and the ground yielded. The crowd broke into a roar of applause! Mr. Adams had bonded with them, for just a moment. He knew it too. He confided to his diary that “my casting off my coat struck the eye and fancy of the spectators more than all the flowers of rhetoric in my speech.” Perhaps he regretted not doing it years earlier.
Woodrow Wilson’s Moment
Woodrow Wilson was another remote man, scholarly and pedantic. He had been a very popular professor, and most of his students enjoyed his classes. He explained things well; his extracurricular seminars and lecture series were well attended. He loved teaching, he loved oratory, and he loved being in front of an audience. But he had about as much of the Common Touch as John Quincy Adams. He did not take well to familiarities.
But one time when he addressed a large audience, one of the attendees hollered out his encouragement, i.e “You tell ‘em, Woody!” It was not a particularly momentous occasion. At least not to the public.
But it was a moment that Wilson never forgot. “They called me ‘Woody’,” he remarked to a colleague afterward, with a tone of pathetic joy. Nobody called him “Woody.” Not ever. Not even as a boy. And he wanted to be called “Woody” very very badly.
Boller, Paul F. – Presidential Anecdotes – Oxford University Press, 1996
Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – Da Capo Press, 2012