He Smirks; He’s Too Stiff . . . Which Is the Winning Personality?

Eighteen months ago, Bill Clinton was battling impeachment and the country was obsessed with presidential character. Now, as the country prepares to choose his successor, attention has shifted–to George W. Bush’s smirk and Al Gore’s stiffness.

The Texas governor and the vice president fire off competing position papers on retirement income and educational testing standards. They pledge to slice taxes, save the environment and give every grandma a computer. Ho-hum: What voters, many in the media and political insiders seem fixated on is personality.

Far from Bush’s views on a “Star Wars” missile defense or the national debt, voters appear infatuated with the casual ease of an overgrown fraternity boy in cowboy boots. True, some are bothered by his facial eccentricities and by the fact that this son-of-a-president can seem arrogant and seldom reads books. But many others are charmed by his nonchalance and see him fondly as a rich kid who may not be the brightest guy but who got a lot of breaks and made the most of them.

Gore’s Stolidity Inspires Fascination

Gore’s determination and intelligence are seldom in question, and many people give him points for dogged persistence. With all those beautiful children–and now, a gorgeous grandchild–he’s got “family man” written all over him. But his straight-arrow stolidity seems to evoke a perverse fascination of its own. Does he ever lighten up? How many times can he remake his wardrobe?

Presidential politics always is something of a popularity contest, and ever since George Washington (perhaps the father of political stiffness), personality has played an undeniable role. But in the first presidential election of the new century, that role seems, for now, to be greater than ever.

An era of contentment–no wars, a robust economy–has stolen the sense of urgency that drives many elections. Party affiliation is perfunctory for most, and the ideological differences between two centrist candidates sometimes elude even their strongest supporters. Plus, the national attention span has shrunk to the blink of an eye. A fat and happy electorate has little patience for subtleties, and unlike policy, personality is simple to grasp.

“Look, I’m 64 years old,” said historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who has met every president since Truman. “All my life, this country has either been in a depression or at war, so that who we elected as president was important to every single family in America. It was life and death. It’s a new era, and a feature of the new era is that the presidency isn’t all that important. So what the hell else are you going to concentrate on except personality?”

In several recent focus groups, voters were happy to do just that. Which candidate would make a more desirable date? Women said Gore, because he would pay more attention to them. For a guys’ night out, men in the same group chose Bush as more fun.

Polling specialists say these questions matter because they help measure how candidates connect with the voting public. Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that in his recent research “nobody’s been talking about Social Security, taxes, education. None of the issues comes up. What people want is a straight shooter.” What kind of person the next president is “outruns every other issue in this election.”

Personality has also claimed center stage because politics has become a form of entertainment. Voters expect a chief executive not just to govern but to share his predilections in music, books, even lingerie. “Both Gore and Bush are being evaluated as television personalities,” said Democratic media consultant Dan Payne.

Both campaigns are well aware of the significance of personality politics and are hoping to use barrages of paid advertising and the coming conventions to underline and dramatize their man’s strengths and to shore up their weaknesses. Which raises a fundamental question: What can a public figure do to change the perception of his personality?

The candidates’ personality quirks have become deeply ingrained in the popular media. Jay Leno recently talked about a mock Barbara Walters interview with Al Gore: “She asked, ‘If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?’ Al Gore got mad. He said, ‘What do you mean if I were a tree?’ ”

When Syrian President Hafez Assad died, Leno took aim at Bush: “You know who was most devastated by his passing? George W. Bush. Not because he was close to Assad or anything, but just last week he learned the president of Syria’s name. Great, all that work for nothing.”

Political humor notwithstanding, a poll from Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center showed that in late June, about 70% of voters were paying little or no attention to the campaign. Newspapers and magazines are full of articles about Bush and Gore, and a quick trip to the Internet brings up either candidate’s position on anything and everything. But plenty of voters appear overwhelmed.

“The level of complexity is such that most people really can’t handle it, even if they make the attempt,” said Shawn Rosenberg, director of the political psychology program at UC Irvine. Rosenberg’s studies have shown that only about 30% of eligible American voters are able to position a candidate relative to their own specific interests. “Even among those people, the understanding of politics is relatively crude.”

Yet humans are hard-wired to make judgments about people based on minimal information. Reactions to personality are generally quick, and usually long-lasting. Impressions of a candidate’s personality come most often from television–and in some cases, public gatherings where a candidate is inspected with less precision than cattle at the county fair.

It’s neither art nor science, said former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. “You’re looking at a guy, and he looks stiff and formal, you form a negative impression. It may be totally unfair, but that’s what happens.”

Personality preferences are vital because “if you like someone, you’ll tend to give them more of the benefit of the doubt when it comes to either negative attacks or comparison to other candidates,” Democratic media consultant Jim Margolis said.

One political personality who fell victim to negative attacks noted also that in the harsh glare of television, some personalities just don’t translate well. In real life, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis insisted, “I have a reputation for a pretty good sense of humor, believe it or not.” As the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, “I don’t think that came through.”

Global and domestic pressures historically have made policy outweigh personality in presidential politics–but that ratio has been gradually shifting. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected after the Great Depression because the country was desperate for economic salvation. His energetic focus on that endeavor and his reassuring presence saw him reelected as the U.S. entered World War II. As a victorious general, Dwight D. Eisenhower seemed equipped to cope with communism and the Cold War.

But when presidential debates were first televised in 1960, personality became more important. Those who watched the debates gave the victory to the debonair, telegenic John F. Kennedy. Radio listeners called the dour, ill-shaven but serious Richard Nixon the winner.

Perceptions Doom Quayle and Bauer Bids

Already in Campaign 2000, personality has claimed several casualties. If Gary Bauer was annoying, the perception that former Vice President Dan Quayle was a dolt cratered his presidential hopes, said Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio media consultant for Bush.

Sosa warned that, like Quayle, Gore has an unnerving media presence that sends bad signals about his personality. “Gore doesn’t make stupid mistakes, but he comes across as if he’s in front of the mirror, practicing for whatever he’s supposed to be doing.”

That theme has been a favorite for Dan Wasserman of the Boston Globe, who like many political cartoonists has hammered away at the candidates’ foibles. He depicted Bush getting scrambled on the abortion issue, unable to remember if he’s for or against abortion rights. Finally, he declares himself pro-life-of-the-party. Gore, said Wasserman, “seems permanently rooted in the self-help section of the bookstore. Gore’s the guy who always volunteered to clap the erasers.”

Personality is a behavioral skeleton: the innate, enduring and largely immutable structure that shapes individual behavior, said Michigan psychologist John Berecz. Character–learned moral and ethical behavior–resides within that skeleton. Honesty and loyalty, for example, are character traits that may be present or absent in any personality.

Berecz describes the vice president as a classic obsessive-compulsive, someone who successfully compartmentalizes emotion and intellect. Berecz calls Bush a histrionic–or outwardly emotional–personality, not unlike Ronald Reagan. “He’s the back-slapping guy,” Berecz said of Bush.

Politicians also express personality through organizational style, said Charles O. Jones, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. Like his father, George W. Bush “expresses himself through organization, and in connections to others.” As a vice president, Gore hasn’t had a chance to display his decisional style, “and he’s fighting that right now,” Jones said.

Bush’s ‘Sneer’ Is Seen as a Problem

Voters also pick up on body language–what social scientists call nonverbal cues. Once again, Bush’s crooked little smile comes up. “That sneer is not going to help him at all,” said social psychologist Ellen Berscheid of the University of Minnesota. “Another synonym for ‘honest’ is ‘genuine,’ and I don’t think he comes across as genuine.”

For Gore, said political scientist Roger Masters of Dartmouth College, the big problem in this area is that he’s trying too hard to look relaxed. “Incongruent cues of any sort are a problem for a candidate, and, unfortunately for Gore, he has a nonverbal style which involves keeping his head on his trunk in a position that’s too rigid.”

Because personality and body image are so closely linked, social historian Lynne Luciano of Cal State Dominguez Hills said the ongoing effort to repackage the vice president speaks volumes. Luciano is especially troubled by superficial gestures such as dressing the vice president in earth tones and hiring an advisor to tell him to act like an alpha male.

“Does he say, ‘I don’t care if you think I’m dull, here’s my values’?” asked Luciano. “No. He says, ‘Let me change my looks and try to persuade you I’m a nice person–not so I can show you how honorable I am, but so you can find the look you’re looking for.’ ”

Along with–oh, yes–issues, advisors to both candidates say the real work of presenting Gore and Bush to the American public will take place at the conventions.

Until the Republican convention of 1988, a Gore media aide noted, “there were stereotypes and expectations around George Bush that were much lower than his ability to perform.” But Bush “broke out,” said the aide, and soon enough, voters will warm to Gore as “someone they like and can relate to.”

It was the convention of 1992, where the now-famous “Man From Hope” video was aired, doing away with the then-widespread perception that Clinton was a wealthy, Oxford-educated elitist.

Gore, said the aide, has been handicapped in promoting his personality because for eight years he has occupied a job with little constitutional responsibility. Political science professor Nelson Polsby of UC Berkeley agreed, pointing out that “there are certain maneuvers of the soul that one must undertake when one becomes vice president. His was to become dutiful and wooden.”

And Polsby said Gore’s opponent has relied heavily on personality, which may or may not suffice. “Evidently George W. Bush is very friendly, and everybody is trying to peddle his personality as a substitute for character. And it may in his case be so.”

Gore Needs the Focus to Turn to the Issues

So for the Gore campaign especially, the challenge is to move the dialogue to a level where it can stand less on personality. “I think if Gore has a chance to win,” said David Doak, a consultant to California Gov. Gray Davis, “he’s going to have to make it turn on issues.”

It’s a sound enough plan, but consultant Sosa, now working on his fifth presidential campaign, said all the media strategy in the world can’t compensate for what the public perceives to be personality problems. “You don’t overcome it. It’s part of who you are.”

For proof, ask David G. Crane, a psychiatrist and lawyer in Indiana who is also a member of a prominent Midwestern political family. Crane ran for Congress three times. Each time, he kept thinking the voters cared about issues. “Silly me.” He lost, he said, because his opponent was “a very personable young man.”

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Times researcher Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.

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