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The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates.

The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates. By Stanley Renshon. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 515p. $34.95.

In an innovative and pathbreaking book, Stanley Renshon provides a detailed analysis of how psychological assessments of presidential candidates can be done and why it is imperative that they should be done. As Renshon explains in his introduction, presidential elections increasingly revolve around issues of character and leadership reflecting growing public awareness that the character, judgment, and leadership qualities of its leaders count.

Renshon opens by analyzing the concept of psychological suitability and the type of ethical and theoretical dilemmas posed by such an assessment. In the first part of the book, he examines psychological suitability from the perspective of traditional concerns with the "mental health of presidents." In this context, two chapter-length case studies are presented: Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign and Thomas Eagleton's 1972 vice-presidential nomination.

During Goldwater's campaign, members of the American Psychiatric Association were asked to assess his mental health and psychological suitability. The low level of consensus and the wide diagnostic variability reflected, in Renshon's view, the biases and political preferences of the assessors. In the second case study, Eagleton's nomination and subsequent withdrawal on the grounds of repeated hospitalizations for depression, Renshon argues that two problems made his psychological suitability questionable. First, the length of his hospital stays could well have had a negative effect on his ability to carry out the responsibilities of office. That may have been true in 1972, but Renshon does not address the effect that antidepressant medications such as Prozac are having today in significantly improving the day-to-day functioning of depressive personalities, thus eliminating hospitalization. Renshon may feel that no one who is taking antidepressants could be a suitable candidate for president, but he ought to have addressed this issue.

Second, Eagleton's response to the situation also raised questions regarding his psychological suitability. He did not tell the McGovern campaign about this aspect of his medical history and, when the information leaked out, was clearly evasive in providing details. Renshon suggests that Eagleton's intense political ambition coupled with his low self-esteem produced this example of poor judgment, thus raising doubts about his future presidential performance.

To remove much of the subjective and political element in judgments concerning respective presidential candidates, Renshon offers a framework that links a theoretical approach to the study of character with an analysis of the important requirements for effective performance in the presidency. He argues that three aspects of character--ambition, integrity, and relatedness--are critical in influencing the caliber of presidential performance. While the choice of these three dimensions appears to be strongly influenced by Renshon's particular psychoanalytic perspective, that of self-psychology, and thus is open to charges of being somewhat restrictive in scope, these components do seem to be particularly suited to a character analysis of political leaders.

Renshon then formulates a theory of presidential performance that targets two basic tasks any incumbent of that office will face: leadership and decision making. In his discussion of the latter, Renshon emphasizes the importance of the quality of judgment exercised by an incumbent as opposed to the nature of the procedures followed and the technical "rationality" of the decisions taken. As for presidential leadership, Renshon notes that it should manifest itself in performing three tasks: mobilization, orchestration, and consolidation. Linking character and presidential performance, Renshon points out that each of these leadership tasks requires different skills and that each engages the three components of character differently.

To illustrate the above theoretical material, Renshon explores the role of character and judgment in two additional case studies: Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. Hart was forced to withdraw his presidential candidacy owing to revelations of an extramarital affair. Renshon is not interested in offering any moral judgments; rather, he asks "what is the connection, if any, between such relationships and presidential performance" (p. 246)? In a persuasive analysis, he suggests that Hart's conduct of this and other such relationships revealed flawed judgment that was the product of a narcissistic sense of entitlement. Renshon might also have considered an alternative hypothesis, namely, that Hart suffered from an unconscious sense of guilt which was manifested in self-sabotage and, in Freud's terminology, was one of "those wrecked by success" (vol. 14, 1914-1916, p. 316, 2d ed. 1957). In both cases, however, the prognosis for high-quality presidential performance would not have been strong.

In his analysis of Clinton, Renshon goes beyond his three dimensions of character to add the useful concept of character-based personality traits, such as "persistence," "empathy," "the need to be appreciated, even admired, as someone special," and "the wish to have it both ways" (pp. 288-96). While Renshon seems to have felt a need to enlarge upon his initial three dimensions, character-based personality traits are not part of his earlier theoretical chapter on character.

Renshon finds that Clinton's decision-making style, which gives each opposing party the sense that he agrees with them, is less a function of his need to be liked and more a product of his dislike of limits and his expectation that because he is special, he need not be bound by them. Renshon correctly observes that this is the hallmark of a narcissistic personality, which suggests his theory of character cannot entirely escape the more global constructs of the DSM IV categories of personality types.

This book is enormously valuable in providing other researchers with detailed checklists and appendices of questions that should be asked of any presidential candidate in order to measure ambition, integrity, and relatedness as well as leadership potential. Renshon's analytical framework, moreover, can be easily applied not only to presidential candidates but also to incumbent political leaders across a wide spectrum of political systems. Anyone interested in either the U.S. presidency or character analysis and its relationship to political performance would be extremely well advised to read this theoretically sophisticated and engaging study.
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Author:Steinberg, Blema S.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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