Traits It Takes to Be Great President

B O S T O N, Aug. 5, 2000 -- Who’s it going to be in the November elections: the donkey, the elephant — or perhaps a mule?  

Presidents tend to be more mulish — stubborn and disagreeable — than the average American, a team of psychologists reported today at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, being held in Washington.

On average, all of our former presidents tended to be less agreeable and less open to experience than most people, but also more extroverted, the study’s authors found.

In a five-year study, “The Personality and the President Project,” psychologists led by Steven Rubenzer of Houston assessed the personalities of the 41 past presidents and then ranked which personality traits were linked to political greatness.

Testing the President

Their findings will be the basis of a book, Testing the President . They hope to finalize a deal with a publisher and have their tome out on the shelves sometime between Election Day and the inauguration, says co-author and psychologist Thomas R. Raschingbauer of Richmond, Texas.

The truly great commanders in chief tended to be commanding: assertive, competent and striving for achievement topped the list of qualities.

But they were also apt to be a bit conniving.

“Interestingly, presidential greatness was predicted remarkably well by low scores on straightforwardness,” the authors say. “Presidents are not above tricking, cajoling, bullying or lying, if necessary.”

On the flip side, great presidents were not likely to be Seinfeld-ian: Neatniks and neurotics need not apply.

The study persuaded 115 presidential biographers to rate their illustrious subjects on a 600-item checklist, including questions about excitement-seeking to morality. The biographers were asked to base their assessments on the five-year period before the person had become president, to better distinguish between their “Prez” persona and their true colors.

The presidents’ personality traits were itemized and averaged to find which traits seemed most common. Then, researchers cross-indexed the presidents’ personality traits against how they were ranked by historians as leaders.

One notable finding was that modern presidents seem to be much more extroverted than earlier presidents. Is this a sign that our society has collectively become a more gregarious bunch? Or do presidents in the modern media era of lights, cameras, action need to have a streak of exhibitionism in them?

Who’s Better Suited?

Still, such an analysis, released in the height of the current campaign fever, almost begs the question: Whose personality is more “presidential,” Republican nominee George W. Bush’s or Democratic candidate Al Gore’s?

“I can’t answer that,” laughs Raschingbauer, explaining that neither candidate was willing to be analyzed by the Texas team. “I just don’t know.”

Others have assessed them, though. In January, the New York Post had a Manhattan psychotherapist perform an armchair evaluation on both Bush and Gore. Her take? Gore’s a “pleaser and insecure,” while Bush is frankly “honest” — both presidential “no-no’s,” according to this research.

But not scoring perfectly makes even politicians more human. For example, Abraham Lincoln was notably depressed and George Washington was humble, both traits the research says portends against greatness — yet they are considered among our greatest leaders.

And while “openness to experience” (which the authors equate with intelligence and intellectual curiosity) was highly indicative of presidential greatness, getting “gentleman’s C’s” in college also doesn’t necessarily doom a politico’s chances.

It Takes All Kinds

Presidents can come from several molds, the authors note: there are the Actors (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), the Extroverts (Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy), the Dominators (Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson), the Good Guys (Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower) and the Innocents (William H. Taft and Warren Harding).

“One of the questions we had was, are we just getting egomaniacs and extroverts in the office?” Raschingbauer asks. “Or are there many types?”