U.S. leadership style: FDR to Clinton
Geoff Metcalf investigates 'emotional intelligence' of presidents

By Geoff Metcalf
What are the leadership qualities shared by the inhabitants of the Oval Office? How did the men who guided the United States through the last 70 years of history rate in emotional intelligence? A fascinating new book by Professor Fred Greenstein presents many surprising insights into those who took on the "loneliest job in the world."

"The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton" offers a study in management and leadership styles of some the America's most loved and most despised chief executives. WorldNetDaily reporter Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Greenstein -- who has devoted his lifetime to the subject of the presidency -- about his new book.

Question: Other Presidential historians tend to focus on political prowess or personal character. In your analysis of the last eleven U.S. presidents, you survey each one's record in public communication, political skill, vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence. I was surprised to learn you conclude that emotional intelligence is by far the most important.

Answer: Yes, it really is.

Q: LBJ is really interesting on several fronts. He should have been a much better president than he was.

A: Yes, and you give me the chance to bring out what I think is really an important tension -- between political skill and having a substantive sense of direction, a concrete vision of where to go.

Johnson was a brilliant politician. He was like the old movie in which Dustin Hoffman played an autistic brother of Tom Cruise. In "Rain Man," Hoffman was a mathematical genius who was otherwise unable to operate in the everyday world. I can't say Johnson was unable to operate in the everyday world but his major -- and almost exclusive -- talent in the public arena was doing what was once described as dividing by two and adding one. In other words, bringing about majorities.

He did it brilliantly in the Senate. He did it brilliantly in his first two years in the White House -- bringing in civil rights legislation, voting rights, Medicare, terrific domestic policy breakthroughs.

Q: But historically, he is remembered for his monumental failures.

A: Exactly. And they should be remembered. Before he was even finished with those domestic enactments, he embarked on an open-ended military conflict in Vietnam. He never asked the substantive questions: Why are we there? How will we know when we win? How much will it cost? How long will it last?

It had lasted three years by the time his presidency was winding down and there were a half million American troops in Vietnam. His public approval was down in the depths and the protests were so severe, he was literally a prisoner in the White House. So that tells us that skill without a substantive sense of direction can be disastrous.

Q: Probably one of the more discussed, written about, confusing and controversial presidents was Richard Nixon. He is kind of a paradox.

A: He is a paradox because on the one hand he had extraordinary skills that led him to brilliant outcomes during his first term. I talk about vision. He was not a visionary in the gossamer sense of the word. He had very clear-cut strategic vision.

Two years before running for the presidency the second time -- he had been defeated in 1960 and ran again in '68 -- Nixon published an article in a very prominent foreign affairs journal saying that the United States needed to establish a relationship with the huge population of China, that we needed to connect with the Soviet Union and we needed to get past the Vietnam war.

By 1972, when he was overwhelmingly re-elected, Nixon had accomplished all of that. But he had done a disastrous thing. It wasn't through a lack of vision, and it wasn't through a lack of skill, but it was through another kind of shortcoming.

The disastrous thing is that without even needing to do it, he had embarked on an illegal and immoral secret program of sabotaging people he believed were his enemies -- spying on them and sending all kinds of shady operators into motion. Meanwhile, he instituted a voice-activated taping system. The smoking-gun tapes came out showing that he had covered up the Watergate break-in. He was disgraced and became the first president in American history to be forced to resign.

Q: Which only reinforces and underscores your conclusion that emotional intelligence is a key determining factor.

A: Exactly.

Q: You have some interesting observations about Gerald Ford.

A: He is a surprise because what you see with Ford, in part, is the way presidents get a media reputation -- and people stop looking at them except through their own stereotypes. He is someone who did not have an august appearance and his public addresses tended to have a halting quality. There were a couple of episodes where he was physically awkward -- he slipped coming out of a helicopter -- and he became the butt of jokes on "Saturday Night Live" and was treated as someone who was intellectually inadequate.

Q: Another case of form overshadowing substance?

A: I found, when I looked into his presidency, that there were several things to say. First, he was a guy with terrific resiliency and emotional stability and was enormously respected by people who worked with him -- including the august Dr. Kissinger, who carried over between the Nixon and Ford presidencies. Kissinger writes in the latest volume of his memoirs that it was a night and day difference between these two men. With Nixon, he was so wary of public conflicts and full of tortured motivations that you never knew what the significance was of a meeting, whether he would act on what he claimed he would act on. Whereas with Ford, he was direct, straightforward. What you saw was what you got.

Q: But what about that complete and absolute pardon Ford granted to Nixon?

A: Okay. That's right on the mark. But, in a way, there is also a positive side to that. A month to the day after becoming an accidental president, Gerald Ford did a really stupid thing. It was politically stupid. I think it was probably good for the country in the long run to get Nixon out of the way and go on to the problems of the day, which included a real economic downturn. But Ford dropped this like a bombshell. He went into the Oval Office. The cameras were cranking. He announced this full and absolute pardon -- as you accurately quoted it -- and his opinions fell into a freefall.

But the lesson we see is that -- first of all, he didn't get paranoid. He didn't blame it on the press. He took it to be something where he had goofed. He then said, "I didn't have an adequate staff system." And, part of what I learned as I studied this man was that he put together a White House organization which I think is far better than that of Bill Clinton. He learned from his mistakes. He doesn't belong on Mount Rushmore but he did some things that a future president would profit from examining.

Q: When it comes to emotional intelligence, I saved the best, or worst, for last.

A: The knockout punch.

Q: Bill Clinton.

A: He epitomizes the importance of this topic. If we go through all the American presidents from George Washington to Bill Clinton, I don't think we find anyone who can process ideas as rapidly and who is as verbal as Bill Clinton. He is a very smart man, the only Rhodes scholar in the history of the presidency. But when you look at the eight years of his presidency, including all the busy legacy-building activity of this endgame of the presidency, you don't see landmark accomplishments that you can put your finger on. And why? Because it is an undisciplined presidency -- and it is an undisciplined man.

With Kennedy, I write that the riskiness of his private life did not produce risky behavior in politics. But with Bill Clinton, in a sense, private and public are parallel. You think of how sloppy and unorganized he was when he came into the presidency. Promising to focus on the economy like a laser beam and instead slipping into gays in the military and Nannygate and so on. This was a president who landed, not on his feet, but with a slap like a cluster bomb. Indeed, the other party took over Congress within two years at a time when Clinton was confidently thought to be a one-term president.

Q: You write, "Presidents can avoid failure if they are willing to accept the warnings of failures past and act accordingly." Obviously, Bill Clinton was -- or is --incapable of doing that.

A: As smart as he is, Bill Clinton came in and put Hillary in charge of this massive health-reform program. It was hatched in secret. It came out late. It was a 1,300-page bill that was far too complex for Congress. If he had looked back, he would have seen that Jimmy Carter offers examples of what not to do.