Is He Presidential (And What in Heck Does THAT Mean)?

Roundup: Media's Take

Delia M. Rios, for the Newhouse News Service (March 5, 2004):

Is he "presidential" or isn't he?

In important ways, the campaign for the White House -- the debates, the ads, the machinations of the Republican and Democratic parties, the millions of dollars -- all come down to that question....

Only 42 men have held the nation's highest office. To be mentioned in the same company as the four enshrined on Mount Rushmore -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T.R., the first Roosevelt called by his initials -- is intoxicating indeed. But what is it that gives Kerry, in the eyes of some Americans, that presidential aura?

What, for that matter, gives it to George Bush? The current commander in chief won the Oval Office in 2000 with only 48 percent of the popular vote. But whatever happens in November, history will record that after Sept. 11, Bush sustained Dwight Eisenhower-like approval ratings longer than Eisenhower himself.

Lyndon Johnson, as beleaguered a leader as any, said outright what the others in his exclusive club must have felt: "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands."

The history of the office weighs on them, as do their own expectations of being the right kind of president. "They carry this vision with them; they're not outside of it," said Harry Rubenstein, curator of the Smithsonian exhibit "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden."

Every four years, the voters make their judgments: Is he or isn't he? The standards are not immutable.

Edmund Muskie's 1972 bid faltered after he appeared to shed a single tear in public. But when Bush choked back tears in the Oval Office after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a remote Pennsylvania field, no one questioned his manliness.

Elizabeth Dole's run in 2000 and the tireless speculation about Hillary Rodham Clinton's ambitions have broadened the gender parameters.

All those "Deaniacs" saw something presidential in Howard Dean. However, when the former Vermont governor wanted to take his disintegrating campaign on to Wisconsin after his screeching concession speech in Iowa, which even Dean conceded was not presidential, labor leader Gerald McEntee called him "nuts."

Today's candidates engage in salesmanship that would have appalled earlier presidents. Kerry was photographed bowling with oranges on his campaign plane, a way of humanizing himself for voters. George Washington, on the other hand, "icily removed" an associate's arm from his shoulder after he "greeted Washington like an old drinking partner," historian H.W. Brands wrote.

"Every conceivable kind of man has been president," said David McCullough, author of "Truman" and "John Adams." The presidency is so impossibly complex that perhaps no one is of the right caliber, he said.

So how have we done in matching candidate to job?

"I'd say the batting average is well over .500," McCullough said. "But it's not a foolproof intuition."

Herbert Hoover, as McCullough noted, was "a five-star success" in all he did. But he failed a country beset by the Great Depression. Harry Truman, in his loud Hawaiian shirts, was roundly thought to be too small for the job, even vulgar. But he surprised America.

Calvin Coolidge, sporting a 10-gallon hat, rode horseback up Mount Rushmore in August 1927 to dedicate "a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty." But the presidents immortalized there were not gods.

"Because they were human," McCullough said, "they had the capacity to do the unselfish thing, to do the noble thing, to rise to the occasion under extreme adversity and to think of the best interests of the nation."

Whether a candidate is presidential mirrors the debate over presidential greatness: One concerns hopes, the other a job completed.

Lou Cannon's biography of Ronald Reagan is subtitled "The Role of a Lifetime," alluding to Reagan's Hollywood career. But the analogy offers a helpful framework for considering other presidents, too.

"It was commonly said that he looked and acted like a president," presidential scholar Fred Greenstein said of the 40th president. "He came in after the public was underwhelmed by Jimmy Carter and Gerry Ford, and had bottomed out on the Nixon and Johnson presidencies."

Reagan's early political idol, Franklin Roosevelt, also looked the part. So did Woodrow Wilson; his closet, still immaculately kept in his S Street house in Washington, testifies to that. The 6-foot-tall, perfect size 42 president was pronounced the best-dressed man at the Paris Peace Conference ending World War I. The ability to convey this stature is what Greenstein, author of "The Presidential Difference," means when he notes talk that "Kerry looks ready to be put on Mount Rushmore."

"I think gravitas is the common denominator," Greenstein says.

Harry Rubenstein suspects what we're really looking for is the mythic George Washington, a strong personality who has "weathered the storm."

To these qualities, McCullough adds common sense and the ability to work hard, do one's best, and own up to mistakes -- as well as a talent for language that, if not eloquent, is forceful and believable.

We want presidents to relish the job. Theodore Roosevelt did. "The country loved that about him, and because he was having a good time they felt they were having a good time," McCullough said.

Bush loves being president, too; he has unabashedly said so. In this contest, he's running on his stewardship of the country as a wartime president, while Kerry brings his reputation as a Vietnam war hero and his Senate experience.

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steven james rubenzer - 4/13/2004

For anyone interested in this topic, we collected the first major data set since Dean Simonton and report our findings in our upcoming book, Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents.