Romney’s bullying, Obama’s girlfriends, and the character test: What can we know about a president, anyway?

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo! News

Take a step back from the “Mitt Romney, Teen Bully” dust-up, and ask yourself why The Washington Post spent 5,500 words delving into the details of Romney’s prep-school days, or why Barack Obama’s youthful romances garnered so much attention when excerpts from David Maraniss’ biography appeared in Vanity Fair.

Apart from voyeuristic curiosity, these excursions into the past are justified because they are supposed to provide insight into the character of a president and his rival. That’s been a special focus of the political press ever since Duke political scientist James David Barber first published his ground-breaking work “The Presidential Character” 40 years ago, arguing that an understanding of a candidate’s psychological makeup was a guide to predicting presidential behavior.

Coming as it did in 1972, just as the obsessions of Richard Nixon planted the seeds of his destruction and after the tormented presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Barber’s advice helped redirect the energies of two generations of political journalists. Put aside the position papers, went the post-Barber wisdom, and tell the voters what makes these men and women tick.

Fair enough, I guess. Maybe we can see the seeds of Obama’s detachment in the musings of a long-ago love. Maybe Mitt Romney’s failure to grasp the malicious nature of his teenage “hijinks” opens a door to a greater cluelessness.

But I wonder: Are we really confident that we--or for that matter anyone--can divine the likely performance of a president by gathering such evidence?

Think about one of the most powerful influences on a young child’s life--the absence of a father figure. Look back on recent presidents, and you’ll find an absent, or weak, or failed father in the lives of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Is there really much that these five presidents have in common? (And no, the desire for public affection doesn’t count, because that’s a desire that comes with the job).

Did Lyndon Johnson’s rage at the humiliation he felt when his father’s failures drove his family into poverty ignite the venality that led him to amass a fortune while on the public payroll? Or did it ignite a passion for improving the lot of the poor? Both?

Did Richard Nixon’s youth shape the calculating mind that opened the door to diplomatic relations with China? Or the paranoid distrust that led to Watergate? Both?

To add to the sense of uncertainty, take a look back at two other presidents--both named Roosevelt--and you’ll find yourself even more puzzled at what conclusions can be drawn from a public figure’s younger days. Theodore Roosevelt was a wunderkind. By the time he left Harvard, he’d published impressive studies or ornithology and botany, and his book on the Naval War of 1812, published shortly after his graduation, was acclaimed as an instant classic in the field. And Franklin? His family was so unimpressed by his devotion to the niceties of social life that his initials, they said, stood for “Feather Duster Roosevelt.”

Both became transforming presidents. With the first Roosevelt, his youth might be said to presage his later triumphs. With the second? Hardly.

Or consider the endlessly debated issue about what the “private life”--by which we almost always mean the sexual adventures or misadventures--tells us about a president’s public performance.

By every measure, John Kennedy’s sex life was compulsive and reckless. At one level, it had clear public consequences. Knowledge of Kennedy’s behavior gave FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover absolute job security, as well as the potential power to derail Kennedy’s re-election had he survived assassination.

But did JFK’s behavior offer insight into how he conducted himself when--quite literally--the future of the world was at stake? During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy again and again resisted the reckless entreaties of his military advisors, and many of his top civilian aides, to launch air strikes at the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Again and again, he looked for alternatives to military action, kept trying to put himself in Soviet leader Khrushchev’s shoes, tried not to box himself or the Soviets into a position where force was inevitable. It is more than likely that because of his prudence, hundreds of millions of lives were saved.

Or take a more recent example: By every account, the shaping influence on John McCain’s life was the time he spent in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. For five and a half years--many of them spent in solitary confinement, with frequent beatings and threats of execution--McCain endured conditions unlike any experienced by a major American political figure. Perhaps that life-changing experience gave McCain the freedom from political constraints to buck his party on issues ranging from tax policy to campaign finance reform. Perhaps it also freed him from the constraints that would have led most presidential nominees to conduct a lengthy, intense vetting process for a running mate.

There’s no question that voters are entitled to know as much as possible about the men and women who might hold the power of life and death over them. And in a nation of 300 million, it’s both likely--and reasonable--that different people might take different lessons from the same accounts of a candidate’s youth. (“Is Mitt somewhat of a bully? Better a bully than a doormat!”)

But when we seek to examine the early life of a potential president, we should remember that one of the most dangerous traits a leader can possess is hubris. We’d do well to leave ours at the door.