Personality Matters

Personality has been given a bad name.  It is frequently used to denote someone famous for being famous.  We use it as a mild compliment when someone's intellect is underwhelming, as in "he has such a nice personality."  In politics pundits use it disparagingly as in "he's got personality but no substance."  This is especially wrongheaded with regard to presidents, leading us to disregard traits which tremendously affect how they may behave and how effective they might be.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. memorably opined about FDR that he had a "second-class intellect but a first-class temperament."  We can quibble about the former but the latter was certainly true. Flexibility, optimism, good humor, energy and charisma rather than specific policy prescriptions or plans carried him and the country through the Depression and the preparation and conduct of World War II.

Ronald Reagan, a great admirer of FDR, embodied many of these traits.  We got a big clue about who he was in the 1980 debates. Unlike Bob Dole nearly a decade later, he didn't snarl at his opponent to stop "lying about my record"; he just winked and told the audience "there he goes again."   Having the good fortune to follow a petty and incompetent man into the Oval office, Reagan convinced us it really was "Morning in America" and then unleashed the American economy and toppled the Soviet Empire.  His blunt-speaking personality ("evil empire") reflected his character. Personality observed under stress tends to reveal the character underneath.

If these presidents benefited from their personalities, Nixon was certainly undone by his. Paranoid, driven by grudges and lacking the good humor and social ease of most politicians he seemed to transform himself into the caricature his opponents had drawn.  It was his inner demons that drove him from office, not a policy failure.

When pundits tell us it is petty or trivial to focus on personality, disregard the advice.  When a candidate tells you not to dwell on that stuff, run the other way.  When you hear whispers that someone is petty, easily angered, vindictive or abusive to subordinates pull up a chair and listen carefully.

The current crop of 2008 contenders is varied.  Do we put our stock in the pugnacious Mayor who demonstrated calm under fire?  Do we embrace the gregarious executive with "flexible" beliefs but a passion for details? Do we go with the steely-eyed and cautious Hillary Clinton who values control and loyalty above all else?  Does Obama have the brains and charisma of JFK or just the good looks?  Is the war hero Senator passionate or explosive and angry?

In a world of YouTube and blogs no moment is private and the public sooner or later figures out who is who.  "I paid for that microphone!" moments make a candidate.  And Dean Screams break them.  There is also the old fashioned way to assess people-look at how they act, not what they say and the friends they keep and people they offend.  In this election it should prove revealing.

If colleagues say the fellow they have served with for years  is abusive toward staff, ill tempered toward hearing witnesses, and explosive when his motives are challenged we should perk up.  If staffers tell us they must draw short straws to deliver their boss bad news don't dismiss it out of hand.  Conversely if the guy has had the same staff and the same friends for his entire political life perhaps he is loyal and decent, not "insular."

Does this leave us at the mercy of disgruntled staff and wounded opponents who gripe anonymously to the reporters scrounging around for petty failings and foibles?

It can, but a greater danger is to avoid warning signs, make excuses for real personal shortcomings and rationalize our affection for this or that candidate because his views tend to coincide with ours. 

Issues come and go and rarely does a campaign anticipate all or even most of the problems and concerns during the four or eight years we will have to live with the winner. 

Personality, at least in mature adults, rarely changes and the strengths and weaknesses of that person will determine in large part whether they succeed or fail.  Issues matter, but personality ultimately matters more.  Choose the sunnier, more optimistic, more magnanimous, least angry candidate and you won't go terribly wrong.       
Personality has been given a bad name.  It is frequently used to denote someone famous for being famous.  We use it as a mild compliment when someone's intellect is underwhelming, as in "he has such a nice personality."  In politics pundits use it disparagingly as in "he's got personality but no substance."  This is especially wrongheaded with regard to presidents, leading us to disregard traits which tremendously affect how they may behave and how effective they might be.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. memorably opined about FDR that he had a "second-class intellect but a first-class temperament."  We can quibble about the former but the latter was certainly true. Flexibility, optimism, good humor, energy and charisma rather than specific policy prescriptions or plans carried him and the country through the Depression and the preparation and conduct of World War II.

Ronald Reagan, a great admirer of FDR, embodied many of these traits.  We got a big clue about who he was in the 1980 debates. Unlike Bob Dole nearly a decade later, he didn't snarl at his opponent to stop "lying about my record"; he just winked and told the audience "there he goes again."   Having the good fortune to follow a petty and incompetent man into the Oval office, Reagan convinced us it really was "Morning in America" and then unleashed the American economy and toppled the Soviet Empire.  His blunt-speaking personality ("evil empire") reflected his character. Personality observed under stress tends to reveal the character underneath.

If these presidents benefited from their personalities, Nixon was certainly undone by his. Paranoid, driven by grudges and lacking the good humor and social ease of most politicians he seemed to transform himself into the caricature his opponents had drawn.  It was his inner demons that drove him from office, not a policy failure.

When pundits tell us it is petty or trivial to focus on personality, disregard the advice.  When a candidate tells you not to dwell on that stuff, run the other way.  When you hear whispers that someone is petty, easily angered, vindictive or abusive to subordinates pull up a chair and listen carefully.

The current crop of 2008 contenders is varied.  Do we put our stock in the pugnacious Mayor who demonstrated calm under fire?  Do we embrace the gregarious executive with "flexible" beliefs but a passion for details? Do we go with the steely-eyed and cautious Hillary Clinton who values control and loyalty above all else?  Does Obama have the brains and charisma of JFK or just the good looks?  Is the war hero Senator passionate or explosive and angry?

In a world of YouTube and blogs no moment is private and the public sooner or later figures out who is who.  "I paid for that microphone!" moments make a candidate.  And Dean Screams break them.  There is also the old fashioned way to assess people-look at how they act, not what they say and the friends they keep and people they offend.  In this election it should prove revealing.

If colleagues say the fellow they have served with for years  is abusive toward staff, ill tempered toward hearing witnesses, and explosive when his motives are challenged we should perk up.  If staffers tell us they must draw short straws to deliver their boss bad news don't dismiss it out of hand.  Conversely if the guy has had the same staff and the same friends for his entire political life perhaps he is loyal and decent, not "insular."

Does this leave us at the mercy of disgruntled staff and wounded opponents who gripe anonymously to the reporters scrounging around for petty failings and foibles?

It can, but a greater danger is to avoid warning signs, make excuses for real personal shortcomings and rationalize our affection for this or that candidate because his views tend to coincide with ours. 

Issues come and go and rarely does a campaign anticipate all or even most of the problems and concerns during the four or eight years we will have to live with the winner. 

Personality, at least in mature adults, rarely changes and the strengths and weaknesses of that person will determine in large part whether they succeed or fail.  Issues matter, but personality ultimately matters more.  Choose the sunnier, more optimistic, more magnanimous, least angry candidate and you won't go terribly wrong.