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Measuring up the presidents

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Fred Greenstein is a renowned professor of politics at Princeton University. Over a long career, he has written numerous articles and books on the American presidency, the newest and most important being "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton."

In this book, Greenstein suggests a number of practical ways to judge past presidents, as well as ways to help us choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

From his office at Princeton, Greenstein candidly discussed with the Deseret News his findings and recommendations for the future. It is his opinion that historians for more than 50 years have been spending too much time doing surveys among scholars to determine "presidential greatness," based on accomplishments.

Instead, he said, we ought to be examining our presidents with six measuring sticks: The president's gifts at public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence.

Some of these qualities relate to the practical exercising of the office of president, and others are positive qualities that most of us look for in any human being.

"Greatness," Greenstein says, "is in the eye of the beholder. We miss learning from flawed presidencies, such as Richard Nixon's."

When he focused on Nixon's problems with Watergate, Greenstein said, "You could see this man flailing and falling apart, yet he had accomplished so much in his first term, especially in regard to China and Russia. I tried to put him in context."

In Greenstein's opinion, "the presidency is a bully pulpit. John F. Kennedy could play that with great skill and accomplish more than his own performance may have warranted. Or Gerald Ford, who could not communicate very effectively, failed to get support that would have served him well. Dwight Eisenhower had unique and extensive experience in organizing, and he did a lot of things that endured, such as creating the first national security adviser and the first chief of staff."

Greenstein believes the presidency cries out for major skills. "Jimmy Carter had skills but chose not to use them. He used the White House as a podium for virtue. Yet with all his skill, LBJ got the nation immersed in Vietnam. In spite of brilliance, emotions may spill over and sabotage their performances. LBJ tyrannized people. Nixon issued angry orders that his aides often didn't carry out, but some were acted upon, and they did in his presidency.

"Bill Clinton has enormous energy," says Greenstein, "and he can smile in the face of the greatest adversity. He is an extraordinarily smart person. But what do you do to create a Rhodes Scholar who engages in a sexual escapade?" Greenstein believes Clinton lacks emotional intelligence.

He is also convinced that an ideologue has a hard time becoming president. Therefore, if a candidate changes his views over the years, as Al Gore has done on gun control, that is to be expected. Gore used to represent Tennessee, a state not likely to vote for anyone who "wants you to lock up your hunting rifle. Now Gore is in a larger framework of politics," and so he has to make changes.

Greenstein cites the changing views of Lyndon Johnson about matters relating to race. When he was senator from Texas, Johnson supported segregation. But when he became president, he carved out a major civil rights program. On the other hand, Eisenhower's background, as a career military man who fought for national security, worked as president to minimize our defense posture while maximizing the economy.

Ironically, presidential scholars have traditionally criticized military men in the presidency. Greenstein thinks highly of Eisenhower's presidency, yet concedes that "MacArthur or Patton would have been disasters." He asserts that Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George Patton were "very different personas" than Eisenhower, even in the military. "They were from the sword-rattling tradition and acted in a grandiose manner, but Ike had this little short military jacket like the ones gas station attendants used to wear. There was something very unpretentious about him, plus he had a winning smile."

Greenstein noted that Kennedy's highest public approval rating came after the Bay of Pigs disaster when a covert U.S. plan to overthrow Castro failed. "Kennedy had 80 percent approval. He responded to embarrassment with gallantry. 'Failure is an orphan,' he said. 'I'm the man in charge, and I take responsibility.' He did it with such deftness and panache that he helped generate a 'rally round the flag' effect."

Reagan's gift for communicating, said Greenstein, helped "allow for his cognitive problems. The notion of multiple intelligences applies very well to Reagan. While he did not have the intelligence to get a Ph.D., he would have made a great emcee for a talk show."

As for Al Gore and George W. Bush today, Greenstein said, "Centrist candidates often seem bland. The choice that Americans were happiest about was the one they had in 1952 between Adlai Stevenson and Eisenhower. That was the last time we had anything approaching a draft — for both candidates."

In other words, we need a president who doesn't want to be president.

In Greenstein's view, "Neither Bush nor Gore are powerful communicators. Bush looks more promising as an organizer because his campaign is better organized. Both are pragmatic with good political skills. Gore has more innate intelligence and more sense of direction, but Bush can draw on aides in a productive fashion. Neither candidate is frightening, as was the case for some voters with Goldwater or Nixon. But one of them could blow up under the pressure of the campaign.

"The jury is still out."

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com