Bill's Starr signs

High Hopes - The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates

January 15, 1999

High Hopes was written as Bill Clinton's first term in office drew to a close in 1995. Then, it was still possible for the author, unblushing, to proclaim that Clinton's "personal psychology" has "indelibly stained his presidency" without summoning up images of that dress, and its very literal testimony to the way in which the president's character - no less than the presidential DNA - has sullied his presidency and, arguably, the office itself.

That questions of Clinton's fitness for office should have become so subsumed by matters of "inappropriate" sexual conduct might have served to discredit the very enterprise of probing presidential psychology.

Psychological assessment might appear an unwarranted invasion of privacy: an intellectual screen behind which personal, possibly salacious, details from the past are exhumed and brushed off for public display.

Americans' responses to the Starr report - the majority's bifurcated approval of Clinton as president and distaste for him as individual - suggest that real ambiguity exists in the public mind as to what is legitimately in and out of bounds in evaluating a president.

Character, some commentators have claimed, no longer matters to many Americans, particularly when character judgements encroach on a president's private morality. The chief merit of Stanley Renshon's two volumes is that, at a moment of profound confusion and disillusion about the presidency, they elucidate how, when and why the seemingly "private" might in fact offer vital indicators as to the public enactment of presidents' responsibilities.

Where one volume outlines a methodological and theoretical framework for psychological assessment of presidential candidates, High Hopes provides an extended application of Renshon's method to the person and presidency of Clinton. While many authors might blanch at the reissue of such a topical volume at a time when events have rushed ahead so precipitously, Renshon appears all the more insightful about Clinton as many of his observations are so amply borne out, not contradicted, by recent revelations.

To read High Hopes is often to nod in recognition, and sometimes to encounter ironic foreshadowings - such as Hillary's testimony to Bill's proclivity for doing several things at once: "He'll be watching some obscure basketball game and he'll be reading and talking on the phone all at the same time and knowing exactly what is going on in each situation."

But it is not just Clinton's appetite for "more" - to have more, to do more and more simultaneously - that was evident hitherto. Many aspects of Clinton's character, grotesquely spotlit by "Monicagate", were observable long ago: his "boundless ambition" (most forcefully in the service of his own maintenance in high office); his problems with making commitments and sticking to them (of establishing and observing "boundaries", as Renshon puts it); his difficulty in telling the truth (or in acknowledging that selective revelation of some, but not all, pertinent material also constitutes dishonesty); and his inability to accept that conventional ethical standards should also apply to him.

Clinton's encounter with Starr has undoubtedly enhanced his belief that he alone is singled out for special, and especially unfair scrutiny, and measured by different standards. (Thus he cast himself as Rubashov in Darkness at Noon ; and thus his appeal to the Grand Jury to test his exclusion of fellatio from a definition of sex against understandings shared by "normal Americans".) For years, however, Clinton has habitually accused sceptics of judging him more exactingly than others. And this sense of being singled out has both confirmed his grandiosity - he is special; normal rules do not apply to him (except when they would work in his favour) - and validated his Nixonian self-image as perpetual victim.

Clinton has argued forcefully (and with no little success) that his "private" behaviour should be discounted as admissible evidence in weighing his fitness for office. Renshon, on the other hand, makes a forceful case that shortcomings in the private sphere matter because they exemplify profound flaws in Clinton's public dealings.

The president's almost pathological lack of candour has, in Renshon's view, reinforced a profound public cynicism about the whole political process.

Moreover, Clinton's refusal to concede that an "inappropriate" sexual relationship with an intern - carried on in the Oval Office, and about which he lied under oath (and she too dissembled with his seeming connivance) - itself constitutes a public matter, starkly illustrates Renshon's assertion that Clinton has consistently failed to establish appropriate "boundaries". The president himself has fatefully blurred the public/private divide, though Clinton insists that the only significant transgression is enacted by those who trespass against his own privacy.

"Character," Renshon asserts, "is indivisible. A president who is dishonest in his public dealings will not be less so in his private ones. And a president who is not to be trusted in his private dealings is not likely to be more trustworthy in his public ones."

Not surprisingly, this is not quite the compartmentalised theory of character to which Clinton would subscribe. The president, like his mother, seems to believe that life is best lived by constructing an "airtight box" in the head, locking out any dissonant evidence that might provoke uncomfortable introspection.

Clinton's own aptitude in so doing suggests that he may be not so much a Teflon as a Tupperware president. But if he has thus far persuaded many Americans that the contents of some boxes should properly be nobody's business but his own, others may well feel a need to open their putative presidents to greater psychological inspection as a result of painful recent experience. Renshon offers a timely guide as to how an appropriate boundary between public and private might be mapped, arguing the importance of personal integrity while offering no licence to prurient invaders of privacy.

Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition

Author - Stanley A. Renshon
ISBN - 0 415 92147 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £13.99
Pages - 401

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