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Presidential Personality and Performance.

ALEXANDER L. GEORGE AND JULIETTE L. GEORGE, Presidential Personality and Performance (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), 287 pp., $75.00 hardcover (ISBN 0-8133-2590-0), $25.00 paper (ISBN 0-8133-2591-9).

In Presidential Personality and Performance, Alexander and Juliette George describe the impact of personality on the behavior of political leaders. In this one volume, they bring together work from their historic psychobiography on Woodrow Wilson, respond to the critics of Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House,(1) discuss attempts to assess presidential character, and explain the relevance of presidential style to decision making. It is simultaneously a handbook on how to write a good psychobiography, a manual on conducting qualitative research, and a book that addresses timeless debates in the study of the presidency. This evaluation of psychobiographies and studies of personality deserves a second look by both the skeptics and advocates of the approach.

In chapter 1, "The Psychoanalyst and the Biographer," the authors argue that the psychoanalytic perspective allows the biographer to empathize with the subject to form insightful hypotheses while allowing enough detachment to evaluate the hypotheses generated by the study. The goal is to understand the man and why he behaved as he did but to still evaluate him. Psychoanalysis, the authors argue, gave them a method of research and an analytic perspective that explained the behavior of President Wilson.

Chapter 2, "Some Uses of Dynamic Psychology in Political Biography: Case Materials from Woodrow Wilson," provides a blueprint on how to conduct a study like this. In the beginning, the chapter tackles the crucial question about the degree to which the situation, the culture, or an individual's personality determines political behavior. Alexander George argues that by looking at the history of behavior (from historical documents and secondary accounts), it is possible to assess the role of situational and personality factors. This makes writing a psychobiography a complex process in which the scholar constantly reevaluates his or her interpretation of a subject's behavior.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss some theoretical and methodological issues raised by psychobiographic work and respond to the criticisms of Woodrown Wilson and Colonel House. In chapter 3, the authors link Wilson's cycle of self-defeating and compulsively stubborn behavior (at Princeton University and as president of the United States) to his childhood experiences, to his desire for power, and to his need for self-esteem. They purposefully avoid linking their study to a specific psychological tradition (e.g., Heinz Kohut, Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson) to escape contending factions in psychology. Instead, Harold Lasswell's description of personality from Power and Personality2 proved to be "a case of theory providing an excellent empirical fit with historical data" (p. 60). Chapter 4 strongly refutes the claims made by Arthur Link, Edwin A. Weinstein, and James William Anderson that neurological disorders rather than personality characteristics caused Wilson's erratic behavior.

Chapter 5, "Assessing Presidential Character," is a reprint of a review Alexander George published of James David Barber's book, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House.(3) Addressing those who define character as the most important requirement of candidates for the highest office, George provides perspective on its relevance to the study of the presidency. In his review, George argues that Barber's hypotheses that character types provide a set of expectations about presidential performance are premature. Despite Barber's famous prediction that Nixon (an active-negative character type) ultimately would fail, George concludes that the jury is still out on the question of whether it is possible to predict presidential performance in ways to satisfy criteria of objectivity, reliability, and validity. Unless we heed his concerns, there is a chance that there will be pseudoscholarly personality studies.

The final chapter, a revision of a chapter from Alexander George's Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice,(4) focuses on the problem every president faces in deciding how to "structure and manage high-level foreign policymaking in his administration" (p. 199). It argues that a president's cognitive style (defining informational needs to make decisions), sense of efficacy and competence in relation to making decisions, and general orientation to political conflict significantly influence the actual workings of government. Presenting the general characteristics of formalistic, competitive, and collegial presidential management styles, the chapter provides a comparison of the management style of presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.

This book covers a broad range of important issues in the study of the presidency and is a valuable addition to the fields of political science and history. It demystifies psychobiography, puts it in perspective, and (hopefully) will generate a new discussion of the proper role of psychoanalysis in the study of the presidency. It is simultaneously a refresher for the presidential scholar and an indispensable reference for the student of the presidency. More broadly, this volume illustrates the value of using interdisciplinary approaches such as political psychology to explain political behavior.


(1.) Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study (New York: Dover, 1964).

(2.) Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Personality (New York: Norton, 1948).

(3.) James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

(4.) Alexander L. George, Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980).


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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Previous Article:Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan: The Making of a President.
Next Article:FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy.

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