Of all the false intimacies of modern life, the promise of a presidential campaign may be the most misleading. We think we know these men well enough to judge them. They come into our living rooms every night, plying us with insight and confession; we know the prayers they say and the beer they drink, their tics, their tastes, their talismans.
But both John McCain and Barack Obama insist that there are things a campaign can't tell you about the temperament of an aspiring President. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain asks, as he runs ads attacking his opponent's "bad instincts" and dangerous lack of judgment. Obama argues the reverse: You can't trust McCain because the one thing you know is that you never know what he'll do next. He's an impulsive hothead who is "erratic in a crisis." Is that really the guy you want steering through a storm?
That Obama's fortunes rose as the markets sank shows how central temperament has become in the homestretch of the presidential race. Only weeks ago, you might have expected that McCain's greater experience and his courage in the clutch would lift him as a leader in a moment of crisis. Yet the turn of the polls suggests the reverse; without taking a dramatically different approach on substance, Obama won this round on style and disposition. Both candidates supported the bailout, and both call for tax cuts and policing of markets, but in tenor, they were polar opposites. Temperament is in the eye of the voter. Is one response evidence of composure and self-possession — or of being too laid-back and unassertive? Is the other response a sign of urgency and decisiveness or a frantic lack of control?
A funny thing happens when you sit down with historians and ask them what presidential temperament is and when it matters and whether voters make a mistake to let it count for much. What emerges is that temperament is as elusive as it is essential. George W. Bush probably wasn't lying in the 2000 campaign when he promised a humble foreign policy. He just had no idea what was coming. F.D.R. probably was lying when he promised the anxious parents of 1940 that "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Always be sincere, Harry Truman said, even if you don't mean it. The presidency is less an office than a performance: Who saw the gloom and glower behind Eisenhower's incandescent grin? This is why temperament descends easily into caricature: the feisty Give-'Em-Hell Harry, the cool-as-crystal Kennedy, the Vesuvian Lyndon Johnson. "We've taken temperament and turned it," warns presidential historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, into "vaudeville."
So at this crucial moment, what do we make of the two men before us, the passionate Maverick and the cool-handed Hopemonger, Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice? Does the crucible of a campaign actually give you a glimpse of their souls? And does anything that happens on the trail have any bearing on what would happen after they take the oath of office?
What Qualities Matter?
Meeting Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill said, was like opening your first bottle of champagne. "Knowing him was like drinking it." Temperament is a special subcommittee of character: it is less intellect than instinct, more about music than lyrics — the quality voters sense when they watch a candidate improvise or when he thinks no one is looking. It's why newspapers run profiles quoting kindergarten teachers; temperament is formed early. "You can call it balance. You can call it a sense of proportion. You can call it maturity, good judgment," says historian David McCullough. "One of the clearest lessons of history is that there's no such thing as the foreseeable future, and particularly in traumatic times such as we have now, temperament is of the utmost importance."
But what type of temperament matters, especially in a time like this? The idea that anyone can grow up to be President is an American gospel, but that's about honoring equality not excellence. It's good to be smart, but that's no guarantee of success; Woodrow Wilson, the only President with a Ph.D., never won over a majority of voters. More important is the confidence that lets you welcome smart people around you — and hope they disagree. Hence Lincoln's famous "team of rivals," says biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. "How can you do this?" people asked him when he stocked his Cabinet with former adversaries. "He said, 'Look, these are the strongest and most able men in the country. The country's in peril. I need them by my side.' He had the internal self-confidence to know that if he could get them working together as a team, it would be exactly what he needed for his leadership."
Perhaps even more important than intelligence is vitality: Tigger beats Eeyore any day. F.D.R.'s success, argues Goodwin, reflected as much his infectious optimism as his eloquence: "To have gone through his own adversity with polio and still remain optimistic and upbeat — all of that was what he projected to the country during the Depression," she says. "They had faith in themselves because he had faith in them." McCain had his fortitude forged by fire in a prison camp; he throbs with an energy of someone who has never stopped making up for lost time. He burns more calories sitting in a chair than most people do shoveling snow. Obama is upbeat but never giddy, sunny without being blinding.
Resilience helps too; every President will get thrown back against a wall and need to come back stronger. Just ask Bill Clinton. So do steadfastness, persistence, conviction. But as soon as you make the list, it mocks you, for history is a dance of luck and intent, and sometimes they trip each other. Wilson was strong enough to win a war but too stubborn to save the peace. Herbert Hoover was "the Great Humanitarian" who saved Belgium from starvation; under the right circumstances, he could have been a great President. But his temperament undermined his talent; he never understood that politics was more art than engineering. He later recalled that after growing up in Iowa as a Quaker orphan, he was 10 years old before he realized he could do something for the sheer joy of it without offending God. "Now that's a lesson from his early days that I think crippled him temperamentally," says Smith, "particularly as the kind of empathetic leader that we desperately called for after 1929."
The problem for voters today is that crisis comes in triplicate: Would McCain be better suited to the challenge of another terrorist attack? Is Obama's deliberate style more likely to yield progress against a challenge like climate change? And who can navigate a path through an economic crisis hardly anyone understands? Not only can't you know what a President will face, but his reflexes in one crisis may not be typical of how he responds to another. President Kennedy's temperament has been defined by his ingenuity and cool head during the Cuban missile crisis. "That's not necessarily representative of how he was during his Administration," notes historian David Coleman of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, citing the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam and race relations. "There was a tendency to put off decisions, whether it was foreign or domestic policies ... to maintain as many options as you can."
Every man is a moon, Mark Twain liked to say, with a dark side he doesn't show anybody. The set speeches and careful debates tell us only how candidates want to be seen. Nixon could be a statesman in public and a hit man in private. Eisenhower was the amiable uncle — except that it was known around the White House that if the President was wearing a brown suit that day, stay away or risk his wrath. His reputation as an indifferent manager evaporated once scholars got a look at his papers, which showed a much more engaged and sophisticated player than the avuncular image he cultivated. It is widely believed that Presidents who are good at handling people, who have high emotional intelligence, stand a better chance of pushing their agendas through. But "we put so much emphasis on character because of Nixon," says David Gergen, an adviser to four Presidents. "Until Bush came along, we'd forgotten how important judgment also is."
Two Early Baptisms
When Barack Obama was 6 years old, he was the only foreign child in his neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. He didn't know the kids, didn't speak the language. At first the locals were a little freaked out, says Zulfin Adi, 47, who as a kid lived a block from Obama. "He was so much bigger than the rest of us." So they decided to haze him. One day a group of children ambushed him, carried him to the local watering hole and threw him in. They had no idea if he could swim. But when Obama came to the surface, he was laughing. He could have broken free and crushed them anytime he wanted, but it was much better to play it cool, ride it out and make friends with his adversaries.
John McCain was not quite 2 years old when his parents despaired of managing his tantrums; he would go into a "mad frenzy," he says, holding his breath until he passed out and fell to the floor. A Navy doctor offered a prescription: whenever McCain erupted, his mother would shout to his father, "Get the water!" Then his parents would fill a bathtub with cold water and drop their fully clothed son in. "Eventually," McCain recalls in his memoirs, "I achieved a satisfactory (if only temporary) control over my emotions."
Those watery tales have now grown into full-blown clichés. Obama is aloof, self-possessed, cool under fire; McCain is passionate, impetuous, hot under the collar. Each one makes a virtue of his temperament as the right setting for the current climate. Americans, McCain says, "expect me to get angry, and I will get angry, because I won't stand for corruption." His impulsive intervention in the bailout negotiations suited his narrative as an action hero: Suspend the campaign! Postpone the debates! His message is practical, real world, get it done; someone around here has to know when to pull the trigger. He sees Obama as a shooting star, all speed and vapor. To McCain, words aren't a form of action; only acting is a form of action. "To encourage a country with only rhetoric," he says, "is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."
But some veterans of Arizona politics paint a more complicated picture of McCain than as just a crusader against corruption. They talk of bullying and intimidation, of meetings when he banged the table so hard they feared it would split. In one case, recalls former Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini, when he refused to fire an aide who had annoyed McCain, "to put it politely, he told me that I could go do something with myself." DeConcini, a Democrat, says that "in my eight years with him, I learned that John just hates it when you disagree with him. If you press it, he just falls back on his patriotism. And then he blows up." The sense that you're never sure which McCain you'll get feeds Obama's case that being an unpredictable "maverick" may not be the model you want in times that call for methodical decision-making. But McCain's defenders cite another soldier turned politician who was legendary for his temper: George Washington. Those who rise in the military, notes Virginia Senator John Warner, "are people of strong will, of brevity, giving orders and commands. I just hope the people that occupy the presidency are people of strong will."
Warner first encountered McCain in 1973 when he was serving as Secretary of the Navy and read the intelligence reports on the young POW. They soon became friends and eventually Senate colleagues on the Armed Services Committee, often working in closed-door sessions where members would not need to moderate their passions for public consumption. "I have not, in all those years, ever witnessed any moment when he wasn't in complete control over what he was saying and doing," says Warner. Several other politicians even suggest that McCain's outbursts are not irrational but calculated for effect, to help him push his agenda.
Obama, meanwhile, is running a campaign with the unofficial motto No Drama Obama. He handles emotion with rubber gloves and tongs, as though he has internalized Napoleon's dictum that the heart of a statesman should be in his head. His body language is restrained, his emotional range narrow: "I don't get too high when I'm high, and I don't get too low when I'm low," he says. "That, I think, is a temperamental strength."
If McCain used the market meltdown to advertise boldness, Obama used it to show steadiness. "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time," he said, dismissing McCain's back-to-Washington gambit as an inability to multitask. Since he hasn't nearly as much experience handling a crisis as McCain does, he's used his campaign itself as a stand-in, one long test of nerves. He resisted calls to take a hatchet to Hillary Clinton a year ago; as McCain gained ground in September, Democrats demanded that Obama get hotter and meaner. But he barely touched the thermostat. It's hard for McCain to charge that we don't know who Obama really is when he has been the most disciplined Democrat voters have seen in years.
But that consistent coolness has a cost. The most successful Presidents have had a gift for projecting warmth during the chilliest times: Teddy Roosevelt, famously coolheaded in a crisis, had his teddy bears; F.D.R. warmed the shivering nation with his fireside chats. When Obama sneered to Hillary that she was "likable enough," when he talks about feelings rather than feeling them, when a voter tells him about a tragedy and he pivots into policy, it can make you wonder where his real passions lie. "You have to have a fire inside," Gergen says, "an ambition for the nation, an internal, fierce desire for change, for new accomplishments, higher goals."
McCain suggests that Obama is risky because he never takes any risks. When has he ever stood up to his own party? McCain asks. "What has this man ever actually accomplished in government?" The questions are legitimate because we know there are times when a President has to gamble, and yet we know very little about Obama's appetite for it. When George H.W. Bush marshaled dozens of allies to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, when Ronald Reagan stared down the Soviets with intermediate-range missiles, when F.D.R. went off on a Caribbean cruise and dreamed up the lend-lease program — and then managed to sell it to a highly skeptical public — all represent moments of leadership that required brinkmanship as well as salesmanship, a flair for grand strategy as well as a fine sense of tactics.
On the other hand, if Obama has run a risk-averse campaign, and McCain at times a reckless one, it may reflect reality as much as reflexes. "Two candidates aren't starting on a level playing field," argues Russell Riley of the Miller Center of Public Affairs. "We hear a lot about John McCain throwing Hail Mary passes. Well, there are certain times in football games when a Hail Mary pass is called for." At a time when the gop is in shambles and its brand worth about the same as mortgage-backed securities, any Republican candidate would need to change the dynamic of the game. You can judge how well he throws the pass, but you have to value him with some kind of discount, Riley says, "as opposed to a candidate who inherits a four-touchdown lead with 10 minutes left to go on the clock."
The Perfect Temperament
Both men have shown they will do what's necessary to win. For Obama, that meant trimming positions on offshore drilling, gun control, nafta, Cuba, public campaign funding, fisa. And in choosing Joe Biden, he acknowledged that when it comes to making change happen, a working knowledge of the old ways may still be useful. McCain has reinvented himself as well, arguing against the Bush tax cuts when they were temporary but now wanting to make them permanent, which is like marrying someone you didn't want to date. Eight years ago, he waffled on Roe; now he wants to overturn it. He now denounces Supreme Court justices he voted to confirm.
This is the first election in our lifetimes, and maybe ever, when almost 9 out of 10 people think the country is going in the wrong direction. We have bridges falling into our rivers and children dropping out of our schools and an abiding sense that the American Century that let us shine as a beacon to the world is giving way to one in which we can't afford the electric bills. And yet the historians sitting around the table are more comfortable with ambiguity than is a voter heading into the booth. Even in crisis, they say, there is no perfect presidential temperament. "You want the right blend of confidence and humility," argues Yale historian Beverly Gage. "And you want someone who has the confidence to make big decisions, to act in crisis, but who also has the humility to listen to other people, to be flexible in those moments. So when does confidence become arrogance, and when does humility become insecurity and inability to make decisions? All of these are so elusive, it doesn't seem that you can come up with a single prescription."
"Well, actually, I think I have," says Riley, with a smile. And now we are listening, as citizens and as students. "Gerald Ford's fundamental decency. Jimmy Carter's discipline. Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism. George H.W. Bush's diplomatic instincts. Bill Clinton's intellectual curiosity. And George W. Bush's dogged determination."
Now all that voters must do is find the candidate who fills that prescription.
With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick/New York, Jay Newton-Small/with Obama, and Nathan Thornburgh/New York
6 months ago