It is a tension that’s launched many sappy holiday movies and songs. What happens when trouble in the workplace, the family, the world, hits “the season to be jolly?”
In Love the Coopers, the perpetually single daughter, trying to give her mom the “perfect Christmas,” asks a man she just met to masquerade as her fiancé. In “Christmas Blues,” Canned Heat sings “Well, it’s Christmastime, everybody, but it’s raining in my heart.” Such situations, with the gap between forced holiday cheer and sobering realities, amid the suffocating scrutiny from intimates, are difficult enough for normal people. Imagine being president, America’s designated holiday cheerleader, facing a cranky Christmas in the White House.
Abraham Lincoln’s first White House Christmas was one big bummer in 1861. This first Christmas of the Confederate rebellion hit as the Civil War threatened to mushroom into world war. In November, a U.S. warship stopped the British mail steamer the Trent. Captain Charles Wilkes detained two Confederate diplomats—James Murray, the envoy to England, and John Slidell, the envoy to France—and their secretaries. This assault on their national sovereignty infuriated the British. Laborious communications in that pre-Internet era meant that only on Dec. 23 did the British ambassador deliver his government’s message threatening war unless Lincoln released the envoys and apologized.
Lincoln feared “having two wars on his hands at a time,” his biographer David Donald reports, but he also feared looking weak. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, his Cabinet debated their options. Eventually, between family time that afternoon and a holiday dinner that night, Lincoln decided to cave, telling a friend after the party “there would be no war with England.” Sadly, that would be the last Christmas for thousands of Americans doomed to die that coming year, including Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who succumbed to typhoid fever in February.
Some 112 Christmases later, Richard Nixon brooded at his western White House in San Clemente, California—with fewer Christmas lights illuminating trees that year because of America’s energy crisis. Although Nixon told reporters the Watergate scandal was “water under the bridge,” he and his lawyers were deliberating how to respond to subpoenas demanding tapes of conversations Nixon had recorded secretly. Even as they decided not to release the tapes, even with three Christmases left in his second term, Nixon scribbled in his notes for Dec. 23: “Last Christmas Here?” Nixon released transcripts of the tapes, with the infamous expletives deleted, that April. He resigned that August 1974.
Bill Clinton also faced scandal around Christmas time. After a rollercoaster beginning, the president had enjoyed a successful autumn, passing a $496 billion deficit-reduction package, pitching a health-care overhaul with his wife, and muscling the NAFTA treaty through the Senate. Bill and Hillary Clinton planned to celebrate their triumphs at 32 Christmas parties.
On Dec. 20, 1993, Clinton’s presidency unraveled. The evening before, CNN broadcast interviews with two Arkansas state troopers describing then-Gov. Clinton’s sexual escapades, and charging that the president tried silencing another trooper with a job offer. That day, the American Spectator published a lurid exposé, “His Cheatin’ Heart,” describing a libertine governor with countless conquests, including one named “Paula,” and his profane, neglected wife who yelled during one of their many shouting matches: “I need to be fucked more than twice a year.” The Clintons had “more a business relationship than a marriage,” the then-right-wing “hit man” journalist David Brock charged.
The president found it particularly hard to endure such accusations with his mother and mother-in-law visiting the White House for the holidays. Paula Jones’s resulting sexual-harassment suit, based on Brock’s article, would ultimately criminalize the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, providing the legal rationale for Clinton’s impeachment.
Each of these presidents coped with a gloomy White House Christmas in ways modern therapists would applaud. One piece of advice many give is “acknowledge your loss,” understanding that “feelings don’t obey the calendar.” Lincoln’s Christmas Cabinet meeting was necessary strategically and helpful psychologically. Rather than denying the tensions with false holiday cheer, Lincoln faced the problem and solved it.
Nixon also acknowledged his troubles and devised a useful strategy. Even if it failed by the spring, it soothed him that winter. When lighting the national Christmas tree, Nixon also displayed remarkable psychological acuity, considering his infamous obtuseness. To conserve energy, only the star was illuminated on the national tree. But refusing to call this “a very dreary Christmas,” Nixon insisted “the spirit of Christmas is not measured by the number of lights on a tree. The spirit of Christmas is measured by the love that each of us has in his heart for his family, for his friends, for his fellow Americans, and for people all over the world.”
And despite whispered glances on 32 holiday receiving lines in 1993, Bill Clinton didn’t hide. “Do what you love,” therapists preach—and Clinton loved being president. “Don’t wallow in it,” psychologists teach—and Clinton was often too overprogrammed to obsess. “Look for connection,” counselors counsel—and both Clintons drew together when attacked, while turning their opponents’ hatred into partisan glue that united Democrats against the Republican onslaught.
Every day that 1993 Christmas season, Clinton threw himself into his job. Five years later, aides marveled at Clinton’s work ethic throughout the Lewinsky scandal. By refusing to cave—and staying in office—Clinton helped heal his scarred psyche and preserved his reputation. Today, people are more ready to assess Clinton’s entire presidency, moving beyond his indiscretions, which would have defined him had he quit.
In the 19th century, Americans called their president the nation’s “ideal man.” Today, we know these hyper-ambitious pols are rarely “ideal,” and by January 2017 may not even be male. Still, their coping mechanisms can be illuminating. In our 24/7 media universe, in our therapeutic culture, presidents often serve as models, teaching by example what to do and what not to do, in good times and bad, in exceptional times and during everyday moments when “it’s raining in [our] hearts” as everyone expects us to sing “fa la la la la.”
Gil Troy is a historian and the author of a new book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.