Bush plays the charmer who wants to be taken seriously

By Joshua Jipson and Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
January 23, 2000

He’s still the local hero
He’s the hometown pride and joy
He’s the uptown, down-home good ol’ boy

These Garth Brooks lyrics are about a former rodeo cowboy turned businessman. But they could just as easily describe Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

Like a good old boy, Bush is congenial and well-liked — as outgoing, gregarious personalities often are. And, like a good old boy, he has a wild, boot-scootin’ boogie streak — attributable to the adventurous facet of his personality.

These qualities make him a charming candidate who, if elected, will excel at maintaining his popularity and energizing his followers. These very qualities also predispose him to impulsive decision-making based on an inadequate, superficial understanding of the issues at stake.

Just a candidate?

To make a serious run for the presidency, a candidate needs the three C’s of campaigning: cash, charm, and charisma — and Bush has them all.

Not only has he raised more money than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, his sociable personality appeals to a voting public that increasingly favors style over substance (or, in the case of Minnesota’s Gov. Jesse Ventura, piledrivers over policy).

The outgoing element in Bush’s personality makes him a charming and engaging campaigner. Outgoing leaders are gregarious, confident in their social abilities, skilled in the art of social influence, and have a charming, engaging personal style that makes people like them.

Consider President Clinton, another outgoing personality. Despite lying to the entire country about an affair in the Oval Office, his approval ratings have hovered around 60 percent — even after becoming only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached.

Bush’s personality contrasts starkly with that of both Democratic candidates, especially Al Gore. Gore is the tofu burger to Bush’s Texas sirloin. Where Bush is outgoing, Gore is introverted; where Bush is adventurous and expedient, Gore is conscientious and cautious. If these two men advance through their respective primaries, as they seem poised to do, look for Bush’s outgoing qualities to stampede Gore’s more stoic demeanor.

Gore’s best chance is to skewer Bush in their debates — one of the few areas of the campaign where his disciplined, focused conscientiousness will help rather than hurt him.

Wild streak

Much has been written of the irrepressible Bush’s checkered past — including unsubstantiated rumors about cocaine and dancing on tabletops in less than full attire. Bush has referred to this chapter of his life as the “so-called wild, exotic days” of his youth.

While these wild impulses can be tempered by age, experience, lifestyle changes, and political ambition, they still can manifest themselves through more socially acceptable avenues; in fact, the game of politics serves as a perfectly permissible outlet for Bush’s dauntless, venturesome temperament.

Such a disposition can be both a strength and a weakness in a leader. In “The Prince,” his famous analysis of statesmanship and power, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “I certainly think it is better to be impetuous than cautious, for fortune is a woman, and it is necessary … to conquer her by force.”

If he were elected, Bush’s adventurous streak would be conducive to such definitive action, a valuable and perhaps essential quality in crisis situations. But a tendency toward impetuous action, when combined with shallowness — a characteristic of outgoing personalities such as Bush’s — can lead to adverse results.

A less deliberative Bush runs the risk of failing at times to fully appreciate the implications of his decisions or the long-term consequences of policy initiatives.

Furthermore, an outgoing, relatively unreflective Bush may not keep himself as thoroughly informed as he should (for example, by reading briefings or background reports), may force decisions to be made prematurely, may lose sight of his limitations, and may tend to sacrifice effective policy for political success.

Illusory charm

In his book, “The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates,” Stanley Renshon proposes three aspects of presidential leadership: mobilization, orchestration, and consolidation.

Consolidation refers to the interpersonal skills necessary to advance and implement one’s policies. Bush’s outgoing, charismatic personality equips him well for doing just that, and he clearly recognizes this attribute in himself. In his closing statement at the Jan. 10 Republican debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bush said, “I can set agendas; I know how to bring people together to achieve agendas.”

Indeed, Bush’s personality gives him the capacity to accomplish his policy objectives and retain his popular appeal while doing so. But the concern with Bush is that a supportive public risks seduction by a treacherous illusion.

The halo effect of a pleasing veneer of sociability, idealistic concern, and compassion may trick voters into attributing other admirable qualities to him without sufficient reason.

While the three C’s may be critical on the campaign trail, effective presidential leadership often is the function of a fourth: George W. Bush may have cash, charm, and charisma, but unresolved in his candidacy is the content of his character.

Josh Jipson is a sophomore English major from Lakeside, Wis. Aubrey Immelman is an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.