One top historian says temperament is ‘the greatest separator in presidential leadership.’ Another says all the best presidents had ‘first class temperaments.’ It’s a big question in 2016.
By Peter Grier, Staff writer SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
How much does a United States president’s temperament matter?
It’s a question for the candidates in 2016, though in different ways. That’s obvious in a new Pew study of voter attitudes toward their electoral options.
For supporters of Donald Trump, temperament remains their biggest worry. Thirty-four percent of Trump voters say his temperament and unpredictability concerns them. For supporters of Hillary Clinton, overall temperament is not the issue so much as a single characteristic. Seventeen percent say they’re unhappy with what they see as her dishonesty and secrecy.
So what kind of temperament should a good president have?
That October, faced with new Soviet missile sites in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy and top officials spent long hours in the Cabinet Room debating how to respond. Many advisers urged force. The Joint Chiefs were adamant: Military attack and invasion was the only answer. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay said a naval blockade and negotiation would be “as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”
The young Kennedy let this jibe pass. He worked through the problem out loud, musing why the Soviets would take such a risky move, and what Premier Nikita Khrushchev might want. In the end, the blockade-and-talk strategy, plus a quiet US promise to pull its own missiles from Turkey, worked. World War III was avoided.
“It’s easy to see how a hotter head might have let that spiral into World War III,” writes Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, in an email.
JFK’s character flaws today are well documented. His reckless personal life could have destroyed his political career if made public during his lifetime. But in the Cuban Missile Crisis his temperament – reserved, observant, and deliberative – served the nation well.
Would temperament matter in Syria?
That doesn’t mean all successful presidents should be alike. It means all have had some aspects of their nature that rose to the demands of their time. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently called temperament “the greatest separator in presidential leadership.”
Not all experts agree. Some say temperament is a kind of a partisan fiction: We ascribe presidential actions we like to positive personal qualities, and actions we disapprove of to negative ones. In the end, policies are driven as much or more by hard realities as by personal characteristics, in this view.
Would a president of a different temperament be more effective at devising a resolution for the situation in Syria, say? The options would remain the same, as would their outcomes, and the interests of the parties involved.
“This is not to say that a president’s temperament has no bearing on a president’s performance,” wrote Middlebury political scientist Matthew Dickinson in the Monitor in 2014. “It is to say, however, that when it comes to explaining why presidents make the choices they do, temperament rarely plays a controlling role.”
But other historians tick off basic qualities that are useful in a wide range of situations. Humility, empathy, and patience have been evident in many of the best presidents, said Jon Meacham, author of “Destiny and Power,” a biography of George H. W. Bush, in a recent speech on the subject.
Different presidents face different circumstances during their administrations, and thus may need qualities that vary from those of their predecessors, says David Greenberg, historian of American politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
“Every president who excels does it with a different list,” Mr. Greenberg says.
The good and the bad
Take Franklin Delano Roosevelt: His cheerfulness, pragmatic cast of mind, and creativity all served him well during some of the most difficult crises ever faced by a US leader, says Greenberg.
In contrast, Jimmy Carter’s moral cast and rigidity prevented him from fully trusting the advice of many others and slowed his administration to a crawl.
In many ways, Mr. Carter was dealt a difficult hand but in the end “he wasn’t big enough for the presidency,” says Greenberg.
There are many negative examples. Warren G. Harding was gregarious and eager to please but dim and aware he did not measure up to the demands of the White House, according to Kruse. He surrounded himself with old friends and cronies, who ended up neck-deep in corruption.
Lyndon Johnson was empathetic but insecure and retributive. He pulled the nation further and further into the morass of Vietnam in part because he didn’t want to appear weak.
Richard Nixon remains the most confounding of modern presidents, someone who accomplished great things, particularly in foreign policy, while at the same time indulging in anger and paranoia that led him to subvert the Constitution and eventually lose his office. At the end, he was walking the White House halls at night, musing aloud about his fate to the portraits on the walls.
But overall, all the very best presidents – the indispensables – all have had “first class temperaments,” Greenberg adds. They have had a certain sense of equanimity and confidence that keeps them from being buffeted by bad press or low public ratings. They’ve had a certain joie de vivre that kept them from wallowing in anger or resentment. Liking people is important. So is resilience in the face of adversity.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reportedly said of one Roosevelt – although historians debate which – that he had “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.”
Perhaps no president was more resilient than the greatest of them all, Abraham Lincoln. (Or second greatest, if you’re a Washington fan.) After surviving dark bouts of doubt and depression, personal tragedy, and the tremendous crisis of the Civil War, he turned his thoughts to reconciliation, not revenge.
Writes Professor Kruse: “Lincoln demonstrated an amazing willingness to forgive and forget in the Civil War, as is particularly well seen in the ‘malice towards none’ attitude of the Second Inaugural.”