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‘Best’ U.S. presidents weren’t always likable

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WASHINGTON — George and Al, take note: A team of psychologists has determined that great presidents tend to be take-charge guys. They are smart, energetic and assertive but not necessarily likable or straightforward.

"Agreeableness is highly desirable in a neighbor or spouse," the researchers concluded. But when it comes to ranking the great national leaders, "disagreeable presidents do somewhat better."

"Being straightforward is not good in terms of a president" achieving greatness, but concern for others is, Steven J. Rubenzer of Houston told a session of the American Psychological Association on Saturday.

"Presidents who are not straightforward use a variety of tactics to persuade people and achieve their ends — LBJ and FDR being prime examples," the researchers said in a paper they presented.

"They are not above tricking, cajoling, bullying or lying if necessary. They are politicians playing the right tune to each crowd."

Rubenzer described the research, which he conducted with Thomas J. Faschingbauer of Richmond, Texas, and Deniz S. Ones of the University of Minnesota.

The three consulted with 115 presidential historians who helped rate the nation's 41 presidents on a complex, 600-question psychological scale.

The personality profiles were then compared with various ratings of the nation's best and worst presidents. Special attention was given to two of the best — George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The psychologists found that the best performers could learn as they went along.

"Openness to experience produced the highest correlation with historian ratings of greatness," they said, noting that Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson excelled in this category. Low scorers included William Howard Taft and Ulysses S. Grant.

Being an extrovert also was a trait strongly associated with greatness, as well as assertiveness.

High-assertiveness successes included Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, while Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding were lacking in this area.

Constant striving for achievement was another strong predictor of greatness, they said. "Presidents who succeed set ambitious goals for themselves and move heaven and earth to meet them. Teddy Roosevelt was such a man, Grant and Harding were not."

DNews graphicPersonality typesRequires Adobe Acrobat.

The researchers concluded that successful presidents exercised good judgment and were broadly capable, like Dwight Eisenhower and Washington.

Being a bit disorganized, like Lincoln, was also an asset. Tidiness was not.

Being agreeable did not fit in with greatness. But "tender-mindedness," defined as concern for others, did.

The three psychologists concluded that "great presidents are not cooperative and easily led. Warren Harding was, and it was his downfall."

In their general personality groupings, the researchers placed Harding in a class called the "innocents," with Taft and Grant.

"Innocents are the least successful presidents," Rubenzer said, describing them as pleasant, agreeable, passive. "They really don't belong in the pack of wolves, which is what politics can be."

In their more detailed look at Washington and Lincoln, the psychologists said:

Washington was top of the class of presidents at being conscientious but ranked lower than today's average American in openness, extroversion and agreeableness. He got high scores for striving for achievement, competence, self-discipline and deliberation and showed an exceptional ability to tolerate stress and adversity.

Lincoln scored high on openness to learning and was moderately extroverted, agreeable and conscientious. But unlike other successful presidents, he was neurotic, occasionally suffering bouts of deep despair.

Lincoln was low on straightforwardness, they noted. "He was willing to bend the truth, although he was usually seen as honest and well-intentioned."

Remember, the team added, one of Lincoln's famous witticisms, which began, "You can fool all of the people some of the time . . . ."

On the Net: White House history page on presidents: www.whitehouse.gov/WH/glimpse/presidents/html/presidents.html