Once again, American voters are preparing to elect a president. The summer political conventions gave many voters their first real impression of Al Gore and George W. Bush. Now, as the fall campaign intensifies, the public will be subjected to a blizzard of campaign spin and television ads that have replaced honest political debate. Some people will vote issues; others will vote their visceral assessment of the candidates. Even then, many uninspired voters will have doubts and wonder if they have missed something consequential about a candidate's character or personality. The answer probably is, yes, something not easily discernible to most of us.
A president's effectiveness is not just a matter of intelligence, political prowess and communication skills. A prominent presidential scholar contends that as important as those qualities are, nothing has a greater bearing on presidential leadership than the emotional strengths and weaknesses of the person in the Oval Office.
In his latest book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton, Fred I. Greenstein, a professor of politics at Princeton University, examines the successes and failures of 11 American presidents and concludes that it is the nature of the person in the Oval Office that matters most. He offers some fascinating insights into the triumphs and tragedies of the modern presidency that voters would do well to consider in taking measure of this year's major party candidates.
Greenstein rates modern presidents on six qualities that bear on their leadership and effectiveness _ communication, organization, political skill, vision, cognitive style (a president's capacity to process "the Niagara of advice and information that comes his way") and emotional intelligence, which he defines as "the president's ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership."
No president comes to office with all of these attributes, some of which are more important than others, but the most successful chief executives have possessed the right combination of the ones that matter most. According to Greenstein, no leadership quality matters more than emotional intelligence. In its absence, he writes, the presidency becomes "a defective instrument of democratic governance."
In his view, only three of the presidents he studied "stand out as fundamentally free of distracting emotional perturbations" _ Eisenhower, Ford and Bush, none of whom was considered a particularly strong president, although each had strengths that Greenstein maintains are not fully recognized or appreciated. Four others _ Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan _ "were marked by emotional undercurrents that did not significantly impair their leadership." These four presidents would make most people's list of the last century's dominant chief executives, even though Truman was not a great communicator and Kennedy's brief presidency was defined more by style than substance.
You don't need a lifeline or a hint from Regis to know which presidents Greenstein found to be the most emotionally impaired of the lot _ Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, each in a different way. These presidents had impressive intellects and defective temperaments. "Clinton's foibles made him an underachiever and a national embarrassment," Greenstein writes. "Carter's defective temperament contributed to making his time in office a lost opportunity. Johnson and Nixon presided over some major policy breakthroughs, but also over two of the most unhappy episodes of the 20th century (Vietnam and Watergate)."
He goes on: "The Vesuvian LBJ was subject to mood swings of clinical proportions. Jimmy Carter's rigidity was a significant impediment to his White House performance. The defective impulse control of Bill Clinton led him into actions that led to his impeachment."
Nixon, of course, was the most emotionally flawed of the presidents Greenstein studied. "His anger and suspiciousness were of Shakespearean proportions," he writes. "He more than any other president summons up the classic notion of a tragic hero who is defeated by the very qualities that brought him to success. It has been argued that the tortured psyche of a Nixon is a precondition of political creativity. This was the view of Elliot Richardson, who held that if Nixon's "rather petty flaws' had been taken away, "you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his rise.' "
Greenstein says it is a mistake for future presidents to assume they have nothing to learn from Nixon. "It would be difficult to imagine a more positively, as well as negatively, instructive chief executive," he writes. "Nixon's stunning international achievements illustrate the value of strategic vision in presidential leadership. His self-destructive qualities demonstrate the capacity of a dysfunctional psyche to sabotage even the most proficient political leader."
The professor has given voters something worth thinking about. He concludes: "Beware of the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence, all else may turn to ashes."