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September 13, 2000:

George W. vs. Al Gore
Assessing the candidates

In his most recent book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton (Free Press), professor of politics Fred I. Greenstein analyzes 11 presidents and rates their presidential performance in six categories. After the Democratic convention concluded, PAW asked Greenstein to rate this year's presidential contenders, Al Gore and George W. Bush, and his analysis follows.

What can you say about the political incubation of George W. Bush and Al Gore?

Greenstein: To begin with they have had almost antithetical life histories. George W. Bush was the rebellious son of a politically prominent public figure, drifting from job to job, drinking heavily, until he gave it up at age 40 and began to acquire a sense of direction. Even so, he did not go into politics until the early 1990s, when he began to seek and then won the Texas governorship. Albert Gore, Jr., on the other hand, was the dutiful son of a prominent politician. He was intensely interested in politics by his early teens, he did a Harvard senior thesis under the dean of presidential scholars, Richard Neustadt. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and the Senate in 1984, marking himself from the start as a leader not in policy making but in identifying issues (like the environment) and putting them on the national agenda. In contrast to Bush, who seems not to contemplated a run for the presidency until his landslide election to a second term as governor, Gore has long aspired for the White House, and made an unsuccessful run for the Democrat nomination in 1988.

What qualities should we look for in a president?

Greenstein: In The Presidential Difference, I used six yardsticks for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Let me review them and say how I think Bush and Gore measure up.

1. Use of the bully pulpit. The presidency places a great premium on its incumbent's ability to communicate to the public. In this realm neither candidate has anything approaching the eloquence of the great presidential communicators of the past - for example, FDR, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

2. Organizational capacity. Poorly organized White Houses can be a prescription for political disaster. Examples of presidential fiascoes that resulted from organizational flaws are Kennedy's failed attempt to land anti-Castro insurgents and Cuba's Bay of Pigs and the Iran-Contra scandal that erupted on Reagan's watch. Judging from the smooth operation of Bush's campaign organization and the chaotic nature of Gore's, Bush appears to have the edge in this realm.

3. Political skill. The gridlock-prone American political system calls for a chief executive who is an able political operator. Here Gore has the advantage of his many years in Washington, but during those years he has been more of an issue politician than a coalition builder. For all of lateness in entering politics, Bush has been something of a natural on the Texas scene. Upon taking office he staked off a small number of issues to promote, getting results in each case. Along the way, he had one-to-one meetings with every members of the Texas legislature, and formed effective alliances with key Democratic legislators.

4. Policy vision. The superb political skills of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson did not keep him from leading the nation into the quagmire of Vietnam. At least when it came to foreign policy Johnson lacked what George Bush senior called "the vision thing." When it comes to having personal policy commitments, Gore is light years ahead of Bush. But Bush has been good at surrounding himself with able advisers and drawing on them to give him political direction. Still, a president cannot be an empty suit. Advisers sometimes split down the middle, and the buck stops in the Oval Office.

5. Cognitive style and ability. Here again Gore is ahead of Bush. Both men clearly have substantial native intelligence, but from college on Gore has used his mind to the utmost. Bush, in contrast, seems impatient with the play of ideas and reluctant to engage in substantial intellectual effort. His claim is that he focuses on the big picture and does not distract himself with details. But his lack of interest in details is such that he has resisted even reading the executive summaries of reports that have come his way, insisting that his aides highlight their most important points.

6. Emotional intelligence. This term has come into use to distinguish people who are master of their own feelings and turn them to constructive uses from those whose passions get the best of them, undermining their everyday actions. Among the modern presidents, several were very bright but lacking in emotional intelligence. Richard Nixon had an impressive strategic intelligence that led to the great foreign policy achievements of his first term, but his lack of emotional self control led him into the abuses of power which destroyed his presidency. Bill Clinton is one of the smartest people to serve as president, but his presidency has suffered from a lack of focus and self discipline, which at its most extreme was manifested in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Neither of this year's candidates seem to me to be emotional disaster areas. Both would be reliable custodians of the nation's nuclear deterrent. Gore, however, has shown a pattern of political caution which seems almost to reflect too much self control. Bush has sometimes seemed emotionally shallow, as in his blithe insistence in the guilt of all of the many recipients of the death penalty during his time as governor. The campaign itself, and especially the debates (if they take place), will provide the American people with a good test of the emotional and other qualities of the candidates. We should stay tuned.

What Greenstein is reading

Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy

Bill Minutaglio, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty

Bill Turque, Inventing Al Gore: A Biography

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace

Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma (Richard Howard translation)

J.M. Coetz, Disgrace

Joshua Berrett, The Louis Armstrong Companion: Eight Decades of Commentary

Duane Lockard, Coal: A Memoir and Critique

Illustration by Mike Witte '66