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The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates.

STANLEY A. RENSHON, The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 438 pp. $34.95 cloth (ISBN 0-8147-7469-5).

Stanley A. Renshon's Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates benefits political science by: (1) analyzing the campaign behavior of a number of presidential contenders against a psychological backdrop, and (2) showing that we do have the means of assessing candidate personalities so as to obtain presidents who are "good enough." Not only does the author conclude that character matters, but he tries to provide a basis for developing a psychologically grounded theory of character and its relation to presidential performance.

Renshon describes the kind of president we ought to have (i.e., the "good enough President") as ambitious, yet possessing "some set of ideals, standards that help him to go beyond his own ambitions," a person who is "able to correct his course, not on the basis of political or personal expediency but on the basis of fuller, deeper, richer understanding." If this portrait of a chief executive sounds too good to be true, "It is perhaps a measure of our current state that this clinically derived characterological outcome, drawn from analytic experience, not from a fantasy of an ideal type, seems so far removed from our realistic expectations."

Renshon's provocative insight is that although America's political machinery succeeds in eliminating psychologically unsuited contenders, it does so just barely. Take the cases of Thomas Eagleton and Gary Hart. Eagleton underwent shock treatment therapy, making him the only major case of a documented mental health problem to reach a major party's presidential ticket. Hart displayed abominable judgment by pathologically lying about his extramarital affairs and throwing away his career for a fling with Donna Rice. Both these episodes came to light by chance, when an anonymous source called the papers. Such happenstance shows, Renshon argues, "how vulnerable the system is to smart (but flawed) leaders." That both of these important stories began, with disaffected tipsters "underscores the need for a more systematic and effective method of evaluating presidential candidates."

The challenge is how to perform a proper assessment of the contenders. Renshon sets out methods by which not only scholars but the press may gauge the psychological makeup of a candidate. Central to this effort are twelve pages of questions which he terms "tentative guidelines for asking questions of presidential candidates." These interrogatories begin with the candidate's early experiences and move through his schooling, early career, and beyond. They ask about his successes and setbacks, his people skills, and his decision-making techniques. In many instances, answering these, queries would require one to speak with people who knew the candidate in the past--not a bad idea given many politicians' eagerness to create a public persona that differs sharply from who they really are.

Renshon deserves credit for essaying impartial methodology. He recalls the first experience with psychological analysis in a national campaign--the 1964 FACT survey in which a sample of psychiatrists were polled about Barry Goldwater. The result was a blatantly flawed set of conclusions that were so unscientific that Senator Goldwater won a libel suit against the magazine.

Someone told this professor that to convince people, tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you've told them. He does so with a vengeance, constantly announcing what "I will show" and "I will argue." Worse yet, Renshon is so intent on leading us by the nose that he devotes large blocks of text to establishing truisms. The reader plows through ninety-five pages just to learn that the book's topic is worthwhile. At one point Renshon presents a psychological examination of Saddam Hussein which (not surprisingly) identifies malignant narcissism and ruthlessness as the attributes instrumental in Hussein's gaining and maintaining power.

At times Renshon's prose gets in the way of his topic. There are too many eel-like sentences such as "A political role or position whose enactment is not severely circumscribed and that encompasses a wide range of role definition possibilities would generally engage a wider spectrum of personal characteristics and would thus reach our third criterion, the leadership enactment threshold." Yes, this is an academic text, but call Gary Hart's affair what it was. Don't write, "Given the context of their meetings, it appears to have been a recreational relationship for Hart, probably tied to his own relaxation and satisfaction."

Even so, many passages make for enlightening reading. The saga of the botched Eagleton nomination is clear and sharp. Renshon all but lights up the fatigue and giddiness that existed among the many advisers who, with minimal time and even less sleep, had to find George McGovern a running mate. His analysis of Bill Clinton provides an excellent profile of a president who claims to empathize with everyone yet whose anger needs to be addressed. He gives telling observations of how Beltway insiders react to neuroses and outright psychoses: Washington mythology holds that VIPs do not become mentally ill. Even when Secretary of Defense James Forrestal believed that the Russians had wired his golf clubs to operate as radio transmitters, staff kept things quiet. This feeds into another of Renshon's insights, that persons with the most direct access to the leader are those with the most emotional and political investment in continuing his leadership role. In other words, how can we be sure who is running the country?

George Reedy observed that the presidency provides a stage upon which personality traits are magnified. The White House is designed "to serve the material needs and desires of a single man." Yet by removing the president from the hard facts of daily life, one creates a situation which encourages "his most outrageous expressions, for pampering his most childish tantrums, for fostering his most arrogant actions." For this reason alone it is worth putting candidates on the couch.

Americans have a right to expect that their political leaders will be individuals possessed of good judgment. That, more than anything else, is central to presidential character. Renshon is grappling with a timely subject that is riddled with pop theories from countless pundits. By keeping his focus detached and academic, he has made a significant contribution to the psychological aspects of politics.

ANTHONY J. MOHR Judge Los Angeles Municipal Court
COPYRIGHT 1997 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 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mohr, Anthony J.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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