Demythologizing an Elite: American Presidents in Empirical, Comparative, and Historical Perspective

Demythologizing an Elite: American Presidents in Empirical, Comparative, and Historical Perspective

Demythologizing an Elite: American Presidents in Empirical, Comparative, and Historical Perspective

Demythologizing an Elite: American Presidents in Empirical, Comparative, and Historical Perspective

Synopsis

This study seeks to resolve differences among various types of political leaders and to link broad historical patterns with the idiosyncratic circumstances of individual lives and careers--to integrate the micro and macro levels of understanding in the field of leadership studies. To accomplish this task, a vast array of previous scholarship and primary documents has been assembled. Comparison with parallel data developed for other types of leaders permits U.S. presidents to be analyzed in comparative perspective for the first time. Against this background, the study creates a unique collection of medical and psychological profiles for the entire set of presidents--a body of data that allows us to discover new patterns in presidential traits.

Excerpt

In both the popular and scholarly imagination, the American presidency is surrounded with awe and veneration -- perhaps even reverence. Although individual presidents have come in for critical treatment, as a group or a collectivity American presidents are typically glorified. The presidents are seen as heroic figures, their flaws and shortcomings glossed over. As Cronin (1970) put it, the textbook president is commonly idealized as superman: omniscient, omnipotent, courageous, virtuous, benevolent, highly moral.

This book departs from this tradition in its investigation of American presidents. We treat the presidents as human beings (with identifiable characteristics and traits), as fallible, as subject to physical and mental disorders. We seek to place the presidents in empirical, comparative, and historical perspectives and, in so doing, to demythologize understanding of an important group of political leaders.

King and Ragsdale assert that The modern American presidency is the most scrutinized political institution in the world (1988, p. 1). Yet, empirical studies of presidents as a collectivity are rare, and comparative studies (comparing the presidents to other elite groups) are nonexistent.

In an early work, Hyman (1954, Ch. 10) briefly discussed some of the physical characteristics of the presidents: height, weight, size, looks. He discussed as well physical stamina and energy, longevity, health, and death in office. He also discussed bachelorhood, divorce, and remarriage. He further noted the northern connection, the English connection, the Protestant connection, the military connection, the smalltown connection, the wealthy-family connection, and the legal-profession connection.

In a journalistic and anecdotal account, Cormier (1966) discussed the following characteristics of the presidents: childhood and youth, love and marriage, military service, prepresidential activity and occupation, presidential campaigning, attending to the affairs of state, protocol and patronage, social life, presidential pastime, presidential temper, presidential humor, presidential ribaldry, and the like.

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