Personality scrutiny brings fewer presidential surprises

By Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
March 11, 2001

It will be unfortunate if the current investigation of President Clinton’s controversial executive pardons of Marc Rich and others culminates in little more than a partisan game of “gotcha” politics.

Even an outcome that results in better checks and balances with respect to the president’s pardon power would be of questionable value. Do we really want to abridge the constitutional powers and prerogatives of the president on the strength of —  to quote Senate doyen Robert Byrd — the “malodorous” actions of a president no longer in office?

More constructive would be the recognition that political psychology has developed technologies for accurate character and personality assessment of candidates for high-level public office, and for predicting the impact of these personal qualities on political performance.

Far better to evaluate a presidential candidate’s fitness to govern on the campaign trail than a president’s misconduct in impeachment proceedings or a past president’s ethics in a congressional inquiry.

After all, getting to the bottom of matters such as these is, in part, what election campaigns are all about. Like a candidate’s stance on the issues, character and temperament are legitimate public issues.

Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein has formulated what may be the most concise statement of the case for taking the measure of personality in politics: “Political institutions and processes operate through human agency. It would be remarkable if they were not influenced by the properties that distinguish one individual from another.”

But, Greenstein points out, specialists in the study of politics “tend to concentrate on impersonal determinants of political events and outcomes,” or define away personal characteristics, “positing rationality … and presuming that the behavior of actors can be deduced from the logic of their situation.”

The relevance of personality for political leadership is nicely captured in political scientist Stanley Renshon’s contention in his book, “The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates,” that “many of the most important aspects of presidential performance rely on the personal characteristics and skills of the president. … It is his views, his goals, his bargaining skills …, his judgments, his choices of response to arising circumstance that set the levers of administrative, constitutional, and institutional structures into motion.

Ironically, mainstream political science has been stubborn as a mule with respect to acknowledging the pivotal role of personality in politics.

I recently had an exchange with one of the seven academics who unanimously predicted, based on political and economic factors, that Al Gore would handily defeat George W. Bush in last year’s presidential election.

“Forecasting models can be refined,” I suggested, “by including personality as a predictor variable.”

Au contraire, countered the professor, “personality effects tend to cancel each other out” — a widespread fallacy that Greenstein exposed a long time ago as “based on unwarranted empirical assumptions” in his 1969 book, “Personality in Politics.”

Granted, psychology has frequently made itself guilty of despoiling its own political capital. For example, a study of French president François Mitterand, published in the Journal of Psychohistory, attributed Mitterand’s “stiffness, obstinacy, shyness, anxiety, attitudes toward money and time, ambivalence, hesitations, contradictions, and desire for power” to “toilet training and separation during the pre-Oedipal period.”

No wonder there are those who look upon psychology with amusement, suspicion, or disdain.

What I have in mind is not this kind of speculative exhumation of childhood dirt to invent explanations for a leader’s current quirks; I’m talking about scrutinizing the public record for a leader’s typical, distinctive patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting and explicitly linking these attributes to a leader’s likely performance in public office.

The difference is one of retrospective mumbo-jumbo versus forward-looking political forecasting.

Thus, in a paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology before the 1996 presidential election, I predicted the following “worst-case” scenario for a second Clinton term, based on my assessment of his personality:

President Clinton “may commit errors of judgment stemming from a combination of strong ambition, a sense of entitlement, and inflated self-confidence” and may fail in “guarding protocol and morality against violation and … resources against improper and unwarranted use.”

As President Clinton stated in his address to the nation on Aug. 17, 1998 following his testimony before independent counsel Ken Starr’s grand jury, “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. … It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”

In 1996, my “optimistic” assessment was that Bill Clinton in a second term would “continue to bring to the presidency his driving ambition, supreme sense of self-confidence, and a personal charisma with the power to inspire.” But I tempered this resolution with “the sobering caveat that … the seeds of [his] own undoing germinate abundantly in the brilliance of [his] blinding ambition.”

Five years later, writing in the Wall Street Journal (“The first grifters,” Feb. 20, 2001), Hamilton Jordan, White House chief of staff in the Carter administration, had this to say about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “shared ambitions”: Everywhere they go, they leave a trail of disappointed, disillusioned friends and staff members to clean up after them. The Clintons’ only loyalty is to their own ambitions.”

And, concerning what in 1996 I had delicately described as Bill Clinton’s “supreme sense of self-confidence”: “I believe [the Clintons] developed a feeling of invincibility and even arrogance after [President Clinton’s] impeachment trial.”

Jordan got it wrong on one count: personality problems do not materialize from emerging circumstances to afflict presidents. It is a preexisting condition, perhaps undetected, that accompanies a president into office. In its most malignant form, it reveals itself in what John Dean, special counsel to President Nixon, famously called “a cancer growing on the presidency.”

My psychological profile characterized Bill Clinton as being predisposed to “self-centeredness, arrogance, and a sense of entitlement,” and prone to leaving “a trail of broken promises and outrageous acts” and — ultimately — “a fall from grace.”

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that character is destiny. Personality, now as in antiquity, has the event-making power to shape arising circumstance.

Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist, is an associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. You may write to him in care of the St. Cloud Times, P.O. Box 768, St. Cloud, MN 56302.