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Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents.

Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents. By Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer. London: Brassey's, 2004. 385 pp.

This book is part of a larger project on personality in history, in which the authors attempt to objectively assess the personality characteristics of a wide variety of public figures in history and contemporary life. In this volume, they describe the personality characteristics of all U.S. presidents.

Rubenzer and Faschingbauer are critical of efforts to describe the personalities of presidents, especially biographies, which they refer to as "highly subjective" and guided by "idiosyncratic standards" (p. x). They call for an objective approach built around "science and technology" (p. xii). Their scientific approach is to provide "experts" on presidents a questionnaire that allows them to describe "objectively" the personalities of U.S. presidents. They received responses from 117 out of an initial list of 1,200 academics, biographers, and others who had some knowledge of either one or more presidents. These persons were provided a questionnaire containing 620 individual items that were used to describe a particular president. A second group of "generalists" was recruited. Seven of these completed a much briefer questionnaire on all of the presidents, and ten completed a presidential performance questionnaire.

The items for the main questionnaire were taken from several sources, including the Revised NEO Personality Inventory, Jack Block's California Q sort, and various adjectives from other sources. Items were rated on either a five- or nine-point scale. The most important component of the questionnaire is the NEO personality inventory (which the book does not provide) that contains scales to measure "the Big Five personality traits": neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Each of the traits also includes six "facet scales." For example, the facets of neuroticism include measures of anxiety, anger/hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability. Thus, each president receives a score on each of the big five traits as well as on each scale. An important benefit in using these established scales is that "norms" have been developed so that the presidents can be compared not only to one another, but also to the general population. In addition, the authors create several scales to measure character, and make frequent comparative reference to Dean Simonton's book, Why Presidents Succeed.

When all of these data are analyzed, presidential personalities can be assessed, comparisons made between presidents and the mass public, a typology developed, and the characteristics associated with presidential success determined. Relative to the general population, one discovers that presidents are lower in character and agreeableness, less open to experience, more neurotic, extraverted, and conscientious. Looking at individual presidents, John Adams, Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson were the most neurotic; Teddy Roosevelt and Clinton were the most extraverted; Jefferson and J. Q. Adams the most open to experience; Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Jackson the least agreeable; and Wilson and Washington the most conscientious. Some differences appear between Democratic and Republican presidents; recent Democrats, for example, tend to be more extraverted, more open to experience, and lower in character. Twentieth-century presidents are much more extraverted and more variable on conscientiousness and character than their nineteenth-century counterparts. Presidents ranked more "successful" by historians tend to score high on assertiveness and achievement striving and low on straightforwardness.

Rubenzer and Faschingbauer group presidents with similar personality characteristics together to produce a typology of eight presidential types: Dominators (Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Jackson, Polk), Introverts (John Adams, J. Q. Adams, Hoover, Coolidge, Wilson), the Good Guys (Hayes, Taylor, Eisenhower), the Innocents (Harding, Grant), the Actors (Reagan, Harding), the Maintainers (McKinley, Bush I, Ford, Truman), the Philosophes (Garfield, Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Carter), and the Extraverts (both Roosevelts, Kennedy, Clinton). The remainder of the book is a detailed discussion of the major presidents in these categories.

Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House is a quite ambitious effort that provides important information about presidential character. It will be of value to individuals with interests in the presidency or in individual presidents as well as to those in political psychology. The book, however, is not without limitations. In general, it devotes much attention to justifying the "objective" nature of the questionnaire, but places far less emphasis on alleviating suspicions about the potential subjectivity of the raters. After all, some would argue, traits do not exist in the mind of the subjects, but are categories observers use to describe behavior. Hence, the raters themselves deserved more sustained discussion. For example, the conclusions depend upon the knowledge of the persons selected to rate the presidents. Although the responding experts may be well-suited to the task, the authors need to make a better case that they selected knowledgeable persons to assess presidents. Moreover, the number of experts varies considerably from president to president, and in some cases only one or two rate a particular president. At the same time, raters of specific presidents often display substantial disagreement. Even though some disagreement is to be expected, more attention needed to be paid to what such differences suggest about the data and about the subjectivity of the rating process. In contrasting their "objective" methods with the "subjective" methods of biographers, Rubenzer and Faschingbauer show a generally weak understanding of the processes biographers use, and they vastly overrate their own method's ability to operationalize the ultimately subjective nature of presidential character.

--Larry Baas

Valparaiso University
COPYRIGHT 2005 Center for the Study of the Presidency
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Baas, Larry
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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