Sunday, May 4, 2014

Character and a Flamingo-colored HQ

Eighteen years ago, I was serving as the press secretary for a congressional campaign.  The candidate, simply put, hated being a candidate…with an passion uncommon among those who operate at that level.  The Governor asked him to run against a long-time incumbent who belonged to the other party.  In the previous election cycle, a challenger who could have been described, charitably, as the proud possessor of a thin resume almost knocked out said incumbent Congressman.  The logic flowed that if a lightweight almost succeeded in ’94, surely a Heavy could finish the job in ’96.  So, dutifully, he gave up his position as the head of a state agency and entered the race.

To say that he barricaded himself in his campaign office at one point would be an over-statement…  but not by much. It is safe to say that he found the experience grueling.   He wasn’t a political animal; he was an expert on transportation issues who found himself on the campaign trail.  It was a bad fit from “go.”  Too bad though…he would have been a good, thoughtful U.S. Representative. 

It’s been a long time since I sat in that campaign office, a small bright pink building off Dixie Highway in Waterford, Michigan.  I hear it housed a clothing boutique once, but that is only an apocryphal tale.   The place had character, as did the candidate.

Character is a fascinating attribute. Political scientist James David Barber, in his work, “The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House,” focused on what it could tell us about a presidential aspirant, and what particular challenges a Chief Magistrate – if you permit the usage of a rather archaic descriptor - might face based on the amount of energy he or she exerted in executing the duties of the Office…and his or her outlook on life, the world, and the role of the Presidency.

Barber categorized U.S. presidents into one of four groups based on two criteria: their energy levels (active/passive) and their attitude or “orientation” towards the job (positive/negative). So there are four possibilities: active/positive, active/negative, passive/positive, and passive/negative.

I’m not a particular proponent of this heavily psychological classification scheme, but let’s adapt & simplify the concept and explore the space a bit…

An active/positive would be a president with a high energy level who enjoys the responsibilities of the office.  They are adaptive and strive for “rational mastery.”  They may experience issues dealing with the “irrational in politics.” As is the case for all four clusters, some achieve more success than others. Two recent examples of this type of character would be Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford.

An active/negative is also high-energy, but derives “low emotional reward” for their effort. They tend to be less flexible and they endure bouts of pessimism, exacerbated by a disconnect between their political ambitions and the “condemnations of a perfectionist conscience.” President Woodrow Wilson is of this group, as are Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

A passive/positive tends to be reactive, but possesses a “superficial optimism.”  They are driven more by a “search for affection” than the other types.  This need for external approbation can be a source of strength and a considerable weakness. Looking at recent presidents, Barber places President Ronald Reagan in this bloc.  Personally, I believe that Reagan’s optimism was not merely superficial and that his energy levels, at least for a significant part of his first term, were somewhere between active and passive on the energy spectrum.  His politics and policies aside, I do not think Reagan is the archetype of this group.

A passive/negative is also reactive, not an initiator.  They are duty-focused, with a tendency to “withdraw, to escape from the conflict and uncertainty of politics by emphasizing vague principles…and procedural arrangements.  They become guardians of the right and proper way, above the sordid politicking of lesser men.”  Barber cited President George Washington and President Dwight Eisenhower as two examples of this character type. Again, these are Barber’s classifications and even he recognizes that his characterizations are rather broad tendencies.

So what does this all mean?  Well, let’s take it from “president” to “local office-seeker.”  Understanding that greatness, or massive ineptitude, can spring from any of the four groups, several questions leap to mind.  Among local public officials and candidates, who falls within what categories? What can that tell us about what they might do and how they might serve?  What should we, the voters, consider when thinking about their character? What challenges should they keep in mind? How can their energies and worldviews be harnessed to bring out the best in them? 

Academic? Perhaps.  But a fun thought exercise nonetheless.  Definitely much more engaging than trying to coax a candidate to unlock a door so they can meet up with a local precinct delegate they can’t stand.   

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

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