Greatness in the White House: Rating the Presidents

By Robert K. Murray; Tim H. Blessing | Go to book overview

FOUR
Character and Personality as Rating Criteria

HISTORIANS HAVE FREQUENTLY made qualitative statements about the nature of presidential success on the basis of past presidential polls even though no concrete data was offered to support them. Following his 1948 survey, Professor Schlesinger claimed his results showed that great presidents were strong moral leaders of sound character, were expanders of executive power, and were connected with some turning point in the nation's history. Commenting on the United States Historical Society poll of 1977, Professor Henry S. Commager stated that American historians saw great presidents as being intelligent, having integrity of character, and being on "the side of the people" (defined by Commager as always pushing for progress through reform). 1

In almost all such statements, presidential personality and character occupied a central theme. In attempting to validate such assumptions, the Murray-Blessing survey ran into numerous problems, discovering that although the connection between personality, character, and presidential success was indeed important, it was also very difficult to delineate.

Presidential personalities have varied widely. Jackson was impulsive and autocratic; Benjamin Harrison rarely showed any emotion and was referred to as a "human iceberg"; Coolidge possessed a vindictive streak and wore a vinegar countenance; Franklin Roosevelt was often devious while exuding great charm; Eisenhower frequently displayed a violent temper; and Lyndon Johnson was a whole bundle of contradictions -- cruel and kind, generous and greedy, crafty and naive. In short, every president presented a different and unique face to the public.

Complicating any assessment of the linkage between personality traits

-37-

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