The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance In The White House By James David Barber

From the 2017 edition, Introduction:

* Activity is the level of energy that a president devotes to the job, and affect is the level of satisfaction the president obtains from it. He divides each dimension into two categories (active-inactive and positive-negative), creating four possible combinations of character-oriented tendencies.

* For Barber, self-esteem underlies character. The better people feel about themselves, the more likely they will be able to accept criticism, think rationally, and learn on the job. Thus, he maintains that the degree and quality of the president’s emotional involvement in an issue are powerful influences on how he defines the issue itself, how much attention he pays to it, which facts and persons he sees as relevant to its resolution, and what principles and purposes he associates with the issues.

The most well-known aspect of Barber’s analysis is his argument that active-negative presidents experience a common pattern of rigidification resulting from the relationship of a situation they face to their innermost feelings. In other words, these presidents, who are fundamentally insecure, persevere in disastrous policies when opponents threaten their self-esteem, especially their power and rectitude. Always in pursuit of inner phantoms, active negative presidents respond to threats in ways that Barber finds inappropriate for the objective political situation.

* If character forms the inner core of personality, then style is its outer garb. It is a coping mechanism, a means by which people deal with their environment. In Barber’s words, “style is how a . . . President goes about doing what the office requires him to do—to speak, directly or through media, to large audiences; to deal face to face with other politicians, individually and in small, relatively private groups; and to read, write, and calculate by himself in order to manage the endless flow of details that stream onto his desk.”

* Once developed, character, style, and world views tend to persist over time, while issue positions may shift with the public mood and election potential. As a consequence, personality factors may be a better predictor of how people will perform in office than what they say they will do if elected.

James David Barber: My argument comes in layers. First, a President’s personality is an important shaper of his Presidential behavior on nontrivial matters. Second, Presidential personality is patterned. His character, world view, and style fit together in a dynamic package understandable in psychological terms. Third, a President’s personality interacts with the power situation he faces and the national “climate of expectations” dominant at the time he serves. The tuning, the resonance-or lack of it-between these external factors and his personality sets in motion the dynamic of his Presidency. Fourth, the best way to predict a President’s character, world view, and style is to see how they were put together in the first place. That happened in his early life, culminating in his first independent political success.

* In everyday life we sense quickly the general energy output of the people we deal with. Similarly, we catch on fairly quickly to the affect dimension-whether the person seems to be optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or skeptical, happy or sad.

* Active-positive Presidents want to achieve results. Active-negatives aim to get and keep power. Passive-positives are after love. Passive-negatives emphasize their civic virtue.

* In 1916 he [Woodrow Wilson] confessed he had not read a serious book in fourteen years.

* Wilson was an orator who devoted his energies to explicating his views. He had little use for homework-“research”-and in his interpersonal relations he combined a lecturing style with rejection of opposition and a strong seeking after free affection.

* In the depths of personal grief, Wilson indicates in these passages that he seems to want to use his public life to blot out his private feelings. He tries to believe that he, as an individual with his own hopes and fears, his own identity, no longer exists, that he has disappeared into something larger than himself. He turns violently away from self-contemplation to the tasks Providence has allotted him.

* In a 1914 speech, Wilson revealed what he often felt like inside: “If I were to interpret myself, I would say that my constant embarrassment is to restrain the emotions that are inside of me. You may not believe it, but I sometimes feel like a fire from a far from extinct volcano, and if the lava does not seem to spill over it is because you are not high enough to see into the basin and see the caldron boil.”

* Colonel House had found Wilson “strangely” lacking in self-confidence. That lack seems confirmed as we review Wilson’s character. His very frequent depression and discouragement, his self-punishing working habits, his inability to laugh at himself as President, his continual defensive denial that his own preferences were involved in his decisions, and particularly the extremely high standards he set for his own performance-standards which never let him be satisfied with success-all reveal a person gripped by an extraordinary need to bolster his self-esteem. Suspended in a kind of purgatory between God and the people, Wilson everlastingly sought to justify his choices on “principle,” thus adding to the force of purpose the highest of callings. He experienced in severe form the fight against the temptation to quit, to give in and leave the field to enemies who would subvert all he believed in. Instead, Wilson found a way to fight off despair and to express anger by trying to force his attention away from himself and by devoting all his talent and energy to political leadership. The instrument for that purpose was his impressive oratorical skill. Through his voice Wilson could express his bottled-up anger, could appeal for love and power, and could bring to heel the evil men who opposed him. For that to work there always had to be an issue which he could invest with moral fervor and to which he could devote his “single-track mind.” In short, Wilson attempted to compensate for low self-esteem by dominating his social environment with moralistic rhetoric.

* Hoover’s demeanor affected his political relations. His inability to enter into genuinely cooperative relations with others-relations involving compromise, an appreciation for the irrational in politics, a sense of the other man’s position-meant that his endeavors to induce an enthusiastic response were doomed to failure. He could lead an organization of committed subordinates-as in the Belgian relief work-but he could not create that commitment among leaders with their own bases of power and their own overriding purposes.

* Like Wilson, he appears as a President trying to make up for something, to salvage through leadership some lost or damaged part of himself.

* When Johnson dealt with a person not under his control, he was often flattering and helpful. As with the newsmen, he would try to give the other what he wanted, or at least some of it.

* Once aboard, once clearly under Johnson’s control, his people experienced the second version of the Johnson Treatment. From that point on, Johnson expected complete conformity to his will-expressed and unexpressed. His bullyragging, domineering behavior advertised itself throughout Washington. Snarling at telephone operators, threatening his Secret Service guards, Johnson behaved at times like a drunken tyrant. “It isn’t that he’s mean to important people,” one Kennedy man said sorrowfully, “he’s mean to his servants.”

* Back in 1956, Johnson decided he needed James Rowe, an old friend then in a profitable Washington law practice, to run his staff outside the Senate. Rowe was reluctant. Johnson got Rowe’s law partner and another close friend to put the pressure on, and finally Rowe was astonished to hear his wife chime in, urging him to give Lyndon a hand. Rowe began to melt. He offered to work for Johnson two days a week. Not enough. Four days? No, said Johnson, he wanted Rowe full time. In fact, he went on, Rowe should resign from his law firm. Rowe protested. Johnson, sensing victory, offered personally to call up Rowe’s clients to explain. With tears now welling from his eyes, Johnson begged and cajoled. How badly he needed Rowe! Rowe finally surrendered.

The mood changed abruptly. Away went the tears. “Don’t forget,” Johnson told Rowe, “I’ll make the decisions.”31 In less than a year, Rowe, who never did establish command of the Johnson staff, was back in his law firm.

* The third Johnson Treatment appeared at exit time. When Bill Moyers left to become publisher of Newsday, Johnson let his bitterness out: “When Moyers became my Press Secretary, my popularity was at an all-time high and nobody ever heard of Bill Moyers. When he left I was at an all-time low and Bill Moyers was a world hero.” Leaving Johnson was, to him, a sign of disloyalty. When Eric Goldman departed, Johnson refused even to acknowledge his resignation and let out the news that the historian had worked mainly for Mrs. Johnson. McNamara was derided when he left. But perhaps the most striking feature of phase three of the Johnson Treatment was his abandonment of lifelong intimates when they got into trouble.

* In conference, Hoover was a fact machine grinding out careful plans. Wilson made addresses to small audiences. But Lyndon Johnson was, in all three versions of the Treatment, out to use whatever technique would confirm his own power. Basically he took advantage of a phenomenon threaded through all of politics-pluralistic ignorance. Divisions of labor create barriers to communication across specialties; the man at the top can develop a certain amount of play in the system by varying his message as he relates to one segmented subdivision after another. He places himself at the center of the information process, interpreting reality for officials only loosely linked to one another. They learn to come to him because he is the man who knows, and he in turn fosters this dependence and works to inhibit any extraneous horizontal communication.

* But the crux of Johnson’s interpersonal style was his habit of turning occasions for mutuality into occasions for domination. His rhetoric was too much an extension of his interpersonal style to be wholly effective. Clearly he never quite grasped the art of dealing with the press, never really understood the difference between a reporter and a politician.

* The press responded by telling what happened in such encounters and by embroidering the whole affair with sarcasm; Johnson was, they said, “the first President since Roosevelt who enjoyed pulling the wings off flies” -and lifting beagles by the ears. When his control over secrecy and surprise leaked away, or when the press caught him in some obvious falsehood, Johnson responded furiously with barrages of equally incredible explanations. “Even as the credibility problem deepened,” writes Hugh Sidey, “Johnson could not break himself of his habits. He persisted in staging his playlets, and almost always they backfired.”

* When Johnson’s rhetoric seemed to go well with public audiences, he felt euphoric. He was, he said in 1964, “the most popular Presidential candidate since Franklin Roosevelt.” The campaign lifted his heart: “When I get out of that car, you can just see them [the voters] light up and feel the warmth coming up at you …. Those Negroes go off the ground. They cling to my hands like I was Jesus Christ walking in their midst.” The people, he thought, “have a baby-like faith in me.” And when he was high in the Gallup poll he carried copies in his pocket and would say, “The reason I love so many polls is that over the years I’ve learned that they’re pretty accurate.”

Then when the credibility gap yawned ever wider, Johnson turned irascible. “I never used to have trouble with the press. I don’t understand it.” To him the problem became mainly one of technique, of mechanical projection. Photographers were forbidden to photograph him with glasses on or from the right profile. Some forty White House aides were instructed to join the Congressional audience for his State of the Union message and lead the applause; they would be watched from the balcony to see who clapped and how much.

* The problem at its base was that Johnson tried to treat crowds the way he treated individuals in the Oval Office, by dazzling them with a storm of scattered talk. “To Johnson, a crowd was to be breathed on, shouted at a bit, poked, amused, overwhelmed,” and “each assemblage became like a single person seated across his desk.” The result was bored amusement. Combined with the merciless intensity of television coverage and the inevitable inconsistencies as Johnson suited his messages to different audiences, his rhetoric merely complicated a life already tied in too many knots. Roaring on like “a combination of John C. Calhoun and Baron Munchausen,” Johnson never got across to the generation attuned to Kennedy’s cool rhetoric.

Still another aspect of his rhetoric gave Johnson trouble: his inconsistency of rhetorical mode. Not only was the message frequently full of contradiction, but he also would shift-even in the same speech-from a mode of toughness to one of conciliation, from dignity to vulgarity, from gaping vagueness to tight precision. Asked at a White House press conference what he was doing to negotiate a settlement of the war, he could go on for a long stretch of Johnson the peacemaker, in a tone of saintly pliancy. When the next question asked about military operation, he would switch to the stern Commander in Chief, in crisp control of his forces in the field. Like Wilson whose condescension belied his offers to enter a partnership with the press, like Hoover whose gloomy demeanor contradicted the optimism he wanted to convey, Johnson’s shifting mode of expression undercut the believability of his claim to passionate conviction. The message could not correct what the mood communicated.

This was the insensitivity [Hugh] Sidey called “one of those minor tragedies in the make-up of Lyndon B. Johnson …. He just does not become engaged with the people he meets. He does not respond to their overtures, does not pick up opportunities to endear himself. … His mind is on Johnson, not Pago Pago.”

Johnson’s style in the management of detail-his Presidential homework-also suited his emphasis on personal relations. The details he was always most interested in concerned persons-especially their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their prides and fears. “On the Hill he had been a virtual encyclopedia of the fallibility of his fellow legislators.” In the Dominican crisis he spent hours going over the credentials of various leaders. And as President he could draw on and deepen his incredible memory for what specific men wanted. His other subject of continuing scholarship was himself. Apparently he read one book during his Presidency, Barbara Ward’s The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations-read it “like the Bible,” he later said. But in his lifetime he admitted that since college he had not read “six books all the way through.” Yet he was an avid reader, listener, and viewer of three television sets at once, when it came to commentary on Lyndon Johnson.

* As Johnson moved into the Presidency in 1963, one of his Senate colleagues gave this prediction: “Lyndon’s ideas were set in thick concrete by World War II. Every big action he takes will be determined primarily on the basis of whether he thinks any other action will look like a Munich appeasement. The reasons he will give publicly for his actions will not be those he really believes, because in the Senate he said what he thought you wanted to hear. And he will not change course even when he knows he is wrong, because he has a preposterous idea he is bound to lose face if he does. The only advisors he will listen to are those who will tell him what he wants to hear, for he is not a man who tolerates listening to both sides of a problem. In addition, Lyndon sees the Cold War as permanent, the enemy unchangeable, and every anti-United States activity anywhere on the face of the earth as a deliberate act controlled by an international monolithic Communist network operating from the Kremlin in Moscow. He will pay lip-service to an East-West detente, but he doesn’t believe in it. Furthermore, since his entire training has been that of a politician trying to overpower other politicians, he will rely on personal diplomacy to buy off, threaten and coerce other nations.4”

* Johnson in the midst of struggle-developing a secret arrangement or pumping hands in a crowd-could feel a burst of elation, but not for long. Success in gaining power gave him no pause; he felt compelled to go on. “Often at this desk I don’t do what I really want to do. I do what I have to do,” he said, and trying to find out what that was gave him his major frustration, turned him into “the loneliest” and “the most denounced man in the world.” He would wonder aloud just what it was people liked about Jack Kennedy, and “Why don’t people like me?” (To which Dean Acheson replied, “Because, Mr. President, you are not a very likable man.”) He felt a stranger among his inherited advisors, extraordinarily sensitive to slurs by all the “overbred smart alecks who live in Georgetown and think in Harvard.” And he wondered continually about his adequacy to be what he so desperately wanted to be, a Great President.

* President Johnson’s manipulative maneuvering, his penchant for secrecy, his lying, his avid interest in himself, his sense of being surrounded by hostile forces, and his immense anger all indicate, I think, a profound insecurity-not so much about his “intelligence and ability” (he knew he had those), but precisely about his “heart” and “guts.” His heart symbolizes his consciencebound need to be loving and generous, to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” His gut symbolizes toughness, the press for power, the need to do it to the other guy before he can do it to you. Caught between those forces, Johnson thrashed about for some ground in the middle, loosing the tremendous tension he felt in a flood of talk.

Activity provided him with distraction; he found the Presidency “a hell of a whirl” with himself at the center, cool in crisis: “When the bullets start whizzing around my head, that’s when I’m calmest.”

* By definition, the active-negative character, compared to the characters of other Presidents, displays a high expenditure of energy on political tasks and a continual, recurrent, negative emotional reaction to that work.

* The active-negative type is, in the first place, much taken up with selfconcern. His attention keeps returning to himself, his problems, how he is doing, as if he were forever watching himself. The character of that attention is primarily evaluative with respect to power. Am I winning or losing, gaining or falling behind? It is, secondarily, evaluative with respect to virtue. In the struggle, am I being a good person or a bad person? The active-negative’s perfectionistic conscience lends to his feelings about himself an aU-or-nothing quality. He wavers between grandiosity and despair. Similarly there is little incorporation of a sense of the self as developing in time, progressively growing through experience; rather, there is a now-or-never quality. Similarly, the perfectionism imposes unclear guidelines for achievement; one is supposed to be good at everything all the time. Therefore there is a resistance to self-definition, a lack of clarity in the person’s commitment to shared loyalties and to particular sequences of achievement building toward special goals.

* These two themes-the denial of self-gratification and the struggle to control aggressive impulses-come together in the active-negative’s perennial temptation to fight or quit. Images of breaking out, attacking, releasing free anger compete with fantasies of abandoning effort for quiet, relaxation, ease-even death.

* The active-negative lives in a dangerous world-a world not only threatening in definite ways but also highly uncertain, a world one can cope with only by maintaining a tense, wary readiness for danger. The prime threat is other people; he tends to divide humanity into the weak and the grasping, although he may also, with no feeling of inconsistency, idealize “the people” in a romantic way. In struggling to understand social causality, he restricts the explanations to conspiracy or chaos, fluctuating between images of tight, secret control and images of utter disorder. He strives to resolve decisional conflicts by invoking abstract principles in order to render manageable a too complex reality.

The active-negative’s political style is persistent and emphatic. That is, he shows a stylistic specialization more markedly than other Presidents do (as in Wilson’s oratory, Hoover’s homework, Johnson’s interpersonal relations}, and he tends to inflexibility in shifting his stylistic repertoire. Furthermore, he is likely to extend his primary stylistic emphasis into his total style, to treat all occasions as if they were amenable to mastery by means of his main political habit pattern.

While the active-negative’s character is taken up with his own performance, he continually seeks confirmation of his self-esteem from other people; in this sense he is highly dependent upon positive response from the environment. He feels confirmed in his expectations by vigorous opposition, but is disconcerted by and strongly threatened by ridicule, contempt, or personal denigration. His tendency over time is to focus anger on a personal enemy, usually an opponent who treats him, he feels, with condescension.

But the most pervasive feeling in the active-negative’s makeup is “I must.” He is a man under orders, required to concentrate, to produce, to follow out his destiny as he sees it. At any given moment, he feels bound by what he has already undertaken, already promised, already committed. The central conflict between virtuousness and power-seeking is never resolved, but is massively denied in the feeling that whatever one does, one has no choice. The tragic sacrifice in such a personality is the sacrifice of will. Not only others, but the man himself is reduced to an instrument. He finds it hard even to see alternatives to the course he “must” follow, much less to change that course when it proves unproductive.

From the inside, then, the active-negative type generates tremendous energies for political domination. From the outside, he seems at first extraordinarily capable and then extraordinarily rigid, becoming more and more closed to experience, including the advice of his ardent allies. Over time, he has a powerfully disillusioning effect, because so much was expected from him when he started but these expectations have been disappointed continually as the man stubbornly adheres to his course and waxes so moralistic in its defense.

* For the active-negative Presidents, the central hypothesis is this: having experienced severe deprivations of self-esteem in childhood, the person develops a deep attachment to achievement as a way to wring from his environment a sense that he is worthy; progressively, this driving force is translated into a search for independent power over others, pursued with intense dedication, and justified idealistically. Whatever style brings success in domination is adopted and rigorously adhered to; but success does not produce joy-the person is frequently depressed-and therefore ever more striving is required. The shape of this character-based pattern is clear by the completion of the man’s first independent political success.

* In Tommy’s mind from an early age was an image of himself as weakminded but, potentially at least, strong-willed. The answer was work-work to gain success, work to distract himself from dangerous thoughts, work to confirm his worthiness, and work to turn his life outward. But to provide relief for the volcanic passions inside him without violating the stern commands of conscience, work required another quality: it must be hard. He must suffer with it. Meanwhile, Tommy’s mind was moving toward a view of the world compatible with his inner needs.

* One’s life must be guided by “a standard set for us in the heavens … the fixed and eternal standard by which we judge ourselves.” The fight was life or death: “In the war with human passions and the war with human wrong, every man must do battle for the forces of light against the forces of ignorance and sin …. For a man who has lost the sense of struggle, life has ceased.” There could be no deal with evil: “God save us from compromise.” And no space for waverers: “He who is not with me is against me.”

Before he was twenty, Thomas Woodrow Wilson had a faith too high to be questioned. The Christian life for him was a war, a perpetual striving upward toward perfection, that did not admit of degrees, ambiguities, falterings, or worst of all-“compromise.”

* His path was through speaking. Wilson ’79 was a talker; as he made friends they found him “companionable, friendly, genial, generally popular in the class,” thanks in part to his fund of amusing stories, his good singing voice, and his performance as Marc Antony in a spoof called “The Sanguinary Tragedy of Julius Sneezer.” But he also talked seriously, increasingly so, raising for discussion topics of the day so he could test his ideas against those of the other students. Wilson excelled at a special type of oratory: extemporaneous debate. Though he threw himself into reading and reciting great orations, his record in formal contests, which stressed “an ornate, pompous, vapid style of declamation,” was one of modest success only, and he regularly paid a fine rather than take part in essay competitions. He wanted to mean what he said and to bring others around to his point of view. “Oratory is persuasion,” he wrote, “not the declamation of essays. The passion and force of oratory is spontaneous, not carefully elaborated.” “What is the object of oratory?”, he asked. “Its object is persuasion and conviction-the control of other minds by a strange personal influence and power.”

* Again and again, Wilson stresses success in parliamentary debate as the key to power in his reformed American system. As Bragdon concludes, “Wilson proposed such changes in the structure of the government of the United States as would provide an outlet for his special talents and a field where he might realize his high·ambitions. He was in effect demanding that the entire American political system be radically altered so that he might realize his aspirations for public office and public service.”

* By the end of his student days at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson had revealed his political personality. As a little boy he had felt weak, unattractive, and stupid, especially in comparison with his overwhelming father. In the family circle he was forever being told that he should do better, and he was forever failing to live up to the standards of perfection set for him. But the frustrations such a regimen inevitably engendered in Tommy could not be expressed against a father and mother who gave him so much love and protection; they were too good to fight. Therefore, with his parents’ encouragement, he learned to repress anger, not to think about it, not to worry or dwell upon his feelings. Nor could he intellectualize conflict with his parents by dissenting from their strong Calvinistic beliefs: religious principles were beyond debate in the Wilson family, where faith meant the prohibition of doubt. Instead he turned against himself and developed that sense of fundamental inferiority which was to haunt and depress him throughout his life. Tommy’s first decade stamped into his character the feeling
that his troubles were his own fault.

Slowly he began to seek out ways to escape from the painful trap built by his upbringing. In fantasy he imagined himself a hero, a powerful dashing English Lord Commodore, magnificent orator, leader of Christ’s Army. At play he dominated the action; in his imaginary world he always established himself as the man in charge. That accomplished, he focused his attention on precise detail-on exact descriptions of ships, on the loops and whirls of phonographic writing-which served to occupy a mind uncomfortable with introspection and also to enhance a sense of control over his mythical environment that he could not achieve in his real one. At the dinner table he could never seem to get his words right. Sitting in his own room, he dreamed of becoming a Gladstone.

* I have argued that clearer clues are visible in the earlier life history; character is discernible in childhood, world view in adolescence, and style in the period of first independent political success. The last of these is most important for our purposes, in part because the evidence of style is usually better there than for even earlier times, and in part because style draws together in a more or less integrated package the earlier themes, making the total picture easier to see.

* For the active-negative Presidents, the central hypothesis is this: having experienced severe deprivations of self-esteem in childhood, the person develops a deep attachment to achievement as a way to wring from his environment a sense that he is worthy; progressively, this driving force is translated into a search for independent power over others, pursued with intense dedication, and justified idealistically. Whatever style brings success in domination is adopted and rigorously adhered to; but success does not produce joy-the person is frequently depressed-and therefore ever more striving is required. The shape of this character-based pattern is clear by the completion of the man’s first independent political success.

Find these intense young men struggling to prove their power and virtue, working much and laughing little, and you will have found your future Wilsons, Hoovers, and Johnsons.

* The pattern was there [for Woodrow Wilson]: deprivation, low selfesteem, a turning to external achievement, a confirming world view, a definitive style rigidly adhered to, a sequence from persuasion to domination, and the search for new worlds to conquer.

* The primary risk in electing an active-negative character to the Presidency is the risk of disaster, of one man’s personal tragedy plunging the nation into massive social tragedy. Conceivably that risk could be worth taking, as for example when the danger of drift or inaction is even greater. But the potential for grievous harm will nearly always overshadow the positive possibilities.

* The picture of the active-negative President appears in layers. First there is the perseverance in following a policy despite strong evidence that it is proving counterproductive. Second, there is the fact of the President’s strong emotional investment in the failing policy, a matter readily observable to staff men and reporters. Third, there is the realization that the policy line in question is not an isolated item but part of a wider pattern, that it is linked dynamically to a political personality with its own configuration of style, world view, and character…

* The Wilson, Hoover, and Johnson stories show, amid wide stylistic contrasts, certain common elements. In each case the boy was subjected to strong deprivations of self-esteem. From the child’s perspective, these deprivations were imposed by parents who denigrated, abandoned, or failed to provide for the child. But the family situation was such that the anger such deprivation inevitably engenders could not be expressed directly to the parents. Wilson’s were too loving, Hoover’s were dead, Johnson’s were too dominating. Rather, the anger was turned inward, against the self, repressed and denied for a time, except perhaps in fantasy. The child developed an extraordinarily demanding conscience which required at once rigid self-control and superior achievement.

In each case the child was able to find in his culture sources of support for his view of the world as power-ridden, dangerous, and yet amenable to control through disciplined effort. He adopted fragments of belief confirming his sense that he could and should take himself strongly in hand, that he should force his world to help him implement his version of righteousness. Closed to introspection or unable to question his need-fulfilling beliefs, he focused his mind on the problem of manipulating practical forces for change.

Eventually opportunities for political action (in the broadest sense) appeared and furnished an arena in which he could devote immense energies to projects which would gratify his need of both power and righteousness. He was able to develop there a special cluster of techniques for winning dominant positions legitimately-Wilson through words, Hoover through work, Johnson through persons. Because this stylistic pattern satisfied very strong personal needs, he fastened on it, treating it not as a flexible instrument for a particular task, but in many ways as a magic answer. Once power was achieved, the power needs emerged more clearly from behind the style; dominating behavior became more pronounced and aroused resistance.

* To the active-negative mentality, ridicule is not funny. It is too close to the truth. It helps freeze a man.

* In June of 1974 the President went to the Middle East in spite of Secret Service and CIA warnings that terrorists might try to kill him there. Pain and swelling in his leg made Nixon call in his two doctors, who saw he had a blood clot that could break loose and kill him in a moment. Both doctors demanded he cancel the trip. Nixon refused. Nor would he heed their urgent counsel that he stay off his feet. Rather, he spent hours standing up and waving in open cars and railroad carriages; he hiked around the pyramids. Unexpectedly he got out of his car and walked into a mob of Arabs, from which he was extricated with some difficulty by the Secret Service agents. He vetoed the use of bulletproof shields. 132 His doctor said: “The President has a death wish.” His main Secret Service guard said: “You can’t protect a President who wants to kill himself.” On the way to Damascus, the President’s plane was closely approached by four unidentified Russian-built MIG fighters. Nixon’s pilot went through violent evasive action for several minutes before the planes were identified.

* In character, Harding displays even more clearly than Taft the typical passive-positive theme: the hunger for love, the impelling need to confirm one’s lovableness.

* If Reagan had acted on the public stage as he acted in his private office, Americans might have paid attention to the prediction that he would be a passive-positive President. They might have voted him down. But public Reagan came on differently, imitating the style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of his early heroes. Reagan the candidate seemed to be a gung-ho leader, an energetic and confident and intense and determined person who would issue his orders to his subordinates and demand that they make those orders actually happen.

* To be sure, he came on as if he were a Mr. Active-looking and sounding like a leader bursting with energy, a fellow who seemed so confident and intense and determined to lead the nation in the right direction that it seemed foolish to suppose he was passive. The natural presumption is “how he looks is what he is,” a thesis worth rejecting if you think hard about persons you have known, as well as Presidents you have studied. After all, Harding and Taft came on to the voters of their times as inspiring leaders. And so did Reagan, the first professional actor to step onto the stage of the White House and win in the age of television. Passive-positives are seldom what they seem to be.

* “For a successful man,” Time reported, “Reagan is very passive, with little fire or curiosity …. Indeed, Reagan makes little effort even to learn exactly what it is that his advisors are up to.” 16 One aide tried to explain the boss’s languor: “He likes to lie dormant and then spring to life.” 17 Compared to the schedules of a Jimmy Carter or a Lyndon Johnson, or even a Jerry Ford, President Reagan’s schedule was Tahitian.

* “Reagan likes quiet, easygoing, collegial people who can submerge themselves in a harmonic whole,” Cannon notes.23 His wife concurs: “He doesn’t function well if there are tensions,” she reports. “He likes everyone to like one another and get along.”2

* Reagan on television did seem like a Roosevelt, but when the camera went off he acted like Taft and Harding-not exactly, but fundamentally. Casper Weinberger saw him as “light-hearted, serene, secure within himself, a happy man who wants to have all the people in the room that he’s meeting with happy, too, and wants to have his countrymen happy and serene.”27 Lou Cannon saw him as “unbelievably passive when not on stage”28, a President who “hugely enjoyed the spectacle of cabinet meetings, even if he did not always stay awake at them.”29 George Will, a friend of Reagan’s, saw him possessed of “a talent of happiness.”30 Nancy Reagan brought out that “Of course he has his moods and his disappointment, but on the whole, Ronnie is the most upbeat man I’ve ever known,”31 and “an affable and gregarious man who enjoys other people…”

* Ronald Reagan was never in any serious or thoughtful way an ideologue of any sort. He had never made any serious study of ideologies; as for economics, he took some courses at a third-rate college half a century ago-and remembered he had to fake exams because he had not studied the material. The course of Reagan’s subsequent “ideological” development is much more clearly explained by the drift of his personal development than by any philosophical pilgrimage or burst of enlightenment. To put it plainly, Reagan’s conservatism has been circumstantial, not visceral. What has remained consistent in his life history is his desire to please the very rich mentors who picked him up and brought him to where he is today. The desire to please is rooted in the passivepositive’s personality. That desire is focused in the course of experience, as the personality, seeking an external orientation, fastens on others to give it the guidance and direction it needs. In Reagan’s case, his world view owes much more to that process of adaptation than to some intellectual or politico-religious commitment.

* Lou Cannon wrote that, “Passive and pleasant, Ronald Reagan was married to a woman who was neither … “76 But she did have two major human relations strengths: she stood watch over Ronnie’s emotional welfare like a Roman soldier and she cultivated rich socialites like a Japanese geisha.

* The active-positive Presidents are those who appear to have fun in the vigorous exercise of Presidential power. They seek out-even create-opportunities for action, rather than waiting for the action to come to them. Their enjoyment in Presidential initiative represents a psychological congruence of factors in which the elements reinforce one another powerfully. Fun-in-work
stands for a rare integration, one in which the self need not sacrifice gratification for achievement, but rather grows outward along both fronts simultaneously. Even seen from a distance, these Presidents seem to share a sense of the self as developing. Their apparent happiness in what they do-as Presidents-stands out in contrast to the defenses other Presidents cling to.

* In the examples of active-negative Presidents, Wilson, Hoover, and Johnson, we saw how each infused a particular line of policy, drawn from his special world view, with immense emotional commitment; the destructive rigidity centered on matters of opinion. In contrast, active-positive types see a much more liquid world, a world in which realities and the opinions which reflect them shift continually in no particularly consistent way. The passive-negative Presidents (and their counterparts
in other political realms, I would argue), exemplified by Coolidge and Eisenhower, are less definitely committed to particular deductions from their world views than are the active-negatives. But, while they are more flexible in matters of opinion, they tend to fall back on stylistic continuities, on regularly pursued systems and habits of behavior. The active-positives, in contrast, are freer in their selections from a stylistic repertoire. Passive-positive Presidents and politicians, as Taft and Harding showed, experience their major political difficulties as a result of character rigidity and the tremendous strain of situations pressing them to alter their characteristic habit of compliance and affectionseeking. Investing less of themselves in particular styles and world views, passivepositives are in their way as rigid and restricted as the Wilsons and Coolidges.
Active-positives, such as FDR and the others soon to be discussed, show how a much richer and more varied range of emotional orientations is available to the politician whose character is firmly rooted in self-recognition and self-love. The active-positive not only can perform lovingly or aggressively or with detachment, he can feel those ways. As Roosevelt’s case points out, the genuineness of those feelings can come across powerfully to close associates and to the public at large.

* The great strength of the active-positive type in politics is his hunger for and attention to results. The histories of other Presidencies are surprising in the degree to which they show President after President apparently oblivious of the effects their policies are having on people at home and abroad. Too often their attention is arrested at the level of principle or plausibility or the confirming of some personal theme.

* The critical difference between the active-positive and active-negative pattern in such circumstances is in the former’s ability to accumulate experience without accumulating anxiety, frustration, and guilt. Both sides of the equation seem significant. Truman did not become embittered and morally exhausted. His characteristic grin is there, in photograph after photograph, as added testimony to the verbal reports. He did not experience that sense of progressive diminution that develops in the active-negative mind as it moves through compromise after compromise. Decisiveness meant for him a way of making up his mind how he felt about a matter, a way of confronting it directly and choosing what he wanted; this enabled him to move on with a free will and a whole heart. The active-negative type, on the other hand, is never quite ready to give of himself, risk himself in the same way. He moves on, but he carries with him a residue of resentment and reluctance, of unresolved conflicts which continue to pile up in his mind until he feels tremendous internal pressure to express it. The result has often been a rigid insistence on his own special solution, one clearly at odds with the assumptions of his critics, one which allows him to see himself as a lonely, virtuous, suffering fighter against essentially evil opponents.

* Before a President is elected, debate centers on his stands on particular issues, his regional and group connections, his place in the left-right array of ideologies. After a President has left office and there has been time to see his rulership in
perspective, the connection between his character and his Presidential actions emerges as paramount. Then it becomes clear that the kind of man he was stamped out the shape of his performance. Recognizing this, we ought to be able to find a way to a better pre-figuring, a way to see in potential Presidents the factors which have turned out to be critical for actual Presidents.

* At least by the time the man emerges as an adult, he has displayed a stance toward his experience, a proto-political orientation. The first clues are simple: by and large, does he actively make his environment, or is he passively made by it? And how does he feel about his experience-is his effort in life a burden to be endured or an opportunity for personal enjoyment?

* The affectionate side of politics (much neglected in research) appeals to a people broken apart less by conflict and rivalry than by isolation and anxiety. Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation; the scattering of families, the anonymity of work life, the sudden shifts between generations and neighborhoods, the accidents caused by a wavering economy, all contribute to the lonesome vulnerability people feel and hide, supposing they are exceptions to the general rule of serenity. Politics offers some opportunities for expressing that directly, as when brokenhearted people line up to tell their Congressman whatever
it is they have to tell. But for many who never tell anybody, politics offers a scene for reassurance, a medium for the vicarious experience of fellowship.

* people admire the man- who does the most artful job of conning them.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in America, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.