Presidential Character in Election 2000



James J. Lopach and Jean A. Luckowski

Election commentators covering the presidential race have said repeatedly that this year character—not partisanship or domestic or international issues—will be at the core of voter concern. The Clinton scandal and impeachment alone make it inevitable that character will be a central theme in election 2000, just as it was when Jimmy Carter ceremoniously pledged to “never tell a lie” during the post-Watergate election of 1976.

The unfolding presidential election campaign has tended to corroborate this view. Early on, the insurgent candidacies of Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain were propelled by voters in primary states who warmed to their “authenticity.” As the conventions approached, the prospective nominees—Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Albert Gore—made great efforts to “define” (or “reinvent”) themselves in good-character terms, Gore as alternately a loyalist and penitent regarding the Clinton years, and Bush as a supporter of traditional values important “beyond the Beltway.”

What do we mean when we talk about “character” in politics? Media reporters and pundits have not been shy about applying epithets to this year’s crop of presidential candidates. McCain was “candid” and “courageous,” but also “uninformed,” “reckless,” and “vengeful.” Bradley was “disciplined,” “intelligent,” and “innovative,” but also “passive,” “aloof,” and “disdainful.” Gore is “experienced,” “loyal,” and “energetic,” but also “mean,” “truth-stretching,” and “boring.” Bush is “moral,” “friendly,” and “conciliatory,” but also “dumb,” “inexperienced,” and “pampered.” Leaving aside whether or not these descriptions are apt, clearly they focus on different qualities of a candidate.

It may help to distinguish among three separate, but overlapping, attributes of an aspirant for the presidency (or any other public office): character, personality, and biography. The term “character” usually connotes personal qualities that are moral in nature. “Personality,” on the other hand, more often implies traits that are psychologically based. Veracity and industry are elements of character, while intelligence and outgoingness are components of personality. “Biography” includes both when used to mean an individua#146;s manifestations of character and personality over a lifetime.

A question increasingly posed about the character of our presidents is where to draw the line between public and private morality. Although the question is hardly new, it has come to bear more heavily on politics in an age of constant media exposure. The ordinary response is that private morality takes on public significance only when it affects a politician’s public duties and the welfare of the nation. Others go further and believe that the presidency should represent the highest standard of personal morality.

Asking questions about the character of political leaders is as old as the study of politics. In The Republic, Plato theorized that leadership in a democracy would be weak because the leader would not be able to resist pandering to the changing whims of the public. Plato established the Academy to train political leaders to resist the temptation to “mix with the crowd and want to be popular with it.”1 For Plato, good government would stem from the schooled mind and steeled character of a philosopher-ruler.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were well-versed in classical political theory and shared Plato’s fear of arbitrary and abusive power. James Madison placed much of his hope for good government in the structural design provided by the Constitution. Although despairing that there would be a steady supply of “enlightened statesmen,” Madison considered that the Constitution’s provision for a single executive would make it possible for politicians of good character to overcome the “mischiefs of factions.”2 Garry Wills, a noted scholar of the founding period, explains that Madison believed that “political virtue,” in the form of impartiality and candor, could come to be the “distilled product” of American elections.3 Alexander Hamilton’s advocacy of a “vigorous executive” who could fill the role of providing “unity” also helped to make the character of the president of paramount importance from the beginning.4

“The presidency is a peculiar office,” says contemporary presidential scholar James Barber. “The Founding Fathers left it extraordinarily loose in definition, partly because they trusted George Washington to invent a tradition as he went along.”5 But when the U.S. Supreme Court considered abuse of presidential powers in Ex Parte Milligan (1866), a case that tested the constitutionality of post-Civil War military commissions established under presidential authority, the Court noted the by-then obvious fact that not all presidents would be the equal of America’s Cincinnatus:

This nation, as experience has proved, cannot always remain at peace, and has no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution. Wicked men ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln.6

In so writing, Justice David Davis was prophetic of Richard Nixon, the president who did most to stimulate a national discussion about the relationship between presidential character and performance in office. President Nixon’s central role in the 1972 Watergate scandal, which in all of its manifestations amounted to an abuse of power of historic proportions, marked a watershed in presidential scholarship. Set aside for a time was the standard commentary that equated national welfare with a strong president. Replacing it were inside accounts and psychobiographies that questioned the efficacy of the presidency because of both flawed design and flawed incumbents.

For example, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in The Imperial Presidency, asked whether the Watergate scandal occurred “because the Presidency is so peculiarly personal an institution, and because the psychic drives of the man who sits in the Oval Office so fundamentally affect the impact of each particular Presidency.”7 Schlesinger’s answer was that Nixon’s “private obsessions pushed him toward the view that the Presidency could set itself, at will, above the Constitution. It was this theory that led straight to Watergate.”8

James Barber, in his provocative book The Presidential Character, uses the term “character” to describe a workable, though not particularly precise, concept when applied to the presidency. He traces the concept of character to “the Greek word for engraving; in one sense it is what life has marked into a man’s being.”9 From this perspective, character represents the whole of a person’s admirable habits that are formed and progressively strengthened during the adversities of life. It is like biography in referring to a candidate’s own history. It is like personality in being multifaceted, always dynamic, and at any given time residing somewhere on a continuum of weak to strong.

Barber has constructed an analytical framework for understanding and predicting the impact of presidential character on behavior in office. His principal assumptions are two: an incumbent “can make a profound difference in the whole thrust and direction of national politics,” and such “crucial differences can be anticipated by an understanding of a potential President’s character.” His framework consists of two dimensions, each with two possibilities, and the resulting four categories. The first dimension is “energy”: “How much energy does the man invest in his presidency?” The second dimension is “affect”: “How he feels about what he does.” The resulting four categories of presidential character are: active-positive, active-negative, passive-positive, and passive-negative.10

Barber uses thumbnail sketches of presidents to illustrate the hypothesized link between presidential character and performance in office. The active-positive president works hard, enjoys the duties of office, and needs above all else to achieve results to satisfy his sense of self (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt). The active-negative president also works hard, but his activity is primarily a compensation or cover for his poor self-image (e.g., Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). The passive-positive president is an other-directed person who seeks acceptance and affection through being superficially hopeful and compliant rather than through aggressiveness (e.g., James Madison and Ronald Reagan). Finally, the passive-negative president values civic virtue and public service, but defines the office by performing ceremonial and technical duties rather than by accomplishing great deeds (e.g., George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower).11

Presidential biographies can help us to understand how strong or weak presidential character has had positive or negative effects on the nation. Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments as a strong chief executive and party leader, including his visionary acquisition of the vast Louisiana Purchase, allow the argument that his private flaws failed to compromise his public deeds.12 Franklin Roosevelt, though vain, secretive, and insensitive to those closest to him, “saw the nation through its worst economic crisis and rallied the nation and the world to defeat Nazism and Hitler.”13 On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson’s stubbornness, secretiveness, and need to win at all costs in Vietnam overshadowed his Great Society reforms.14 And Richard Nixon’s self-serving lies, illegal cover-up of Watergate, and resignation in disgrace dwarfed his foreign relations accomplishments.15

In most presidential elections, the principal determinants of voter choice are the condition of the nation’s domestic economy, the likelihood of major military interventions by U.S. troops, and the mediating influence of a voter’s party identification. So far this year, the electorate appears well satisfied with the economy and not alarmed by the prospect of new foreign entanglements. Party identification continues to decline, and the electorate presently divides itself into three camps of roughly equal size: Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

Although research on voting behavior says that partisan identification and economic and world conditions influence voters more than they understand or admit, this year the common saying “I vote for the person and not the party” may have more explanatory value than usual. The dynamics of this election may allow more room for voters to consider the character of candidates than is sometimes true. In any case, viewing the presidential race through the prism of character can be one good way for students to approach the study of Election 2000.


Teaching Activities


1.Begin with a class discussion of the three attributes of presidential candidates described in this article: character, personality, and biography. Ask students to distinguish what is important about each attribute in terms of choosing a president. Then assign students to bring in a newspaper or magazine article about a presidential candidate. Have students work in small groups to analyze what qualities of a candidate each article describes. Groups should then choose one description of a candidate attribute (important or unimportant) to present to the class for further discussion. What do students think they have learned about the character of the presidential candidates during this exercise?


2.Have students read the campaign biographies of George W. Bush and Albert Gore (posted under “On Politics,” “Post Features,” on the Washington Post website). Ask students to write paragraphs summarizing the character and personality of each candidate and how these attributes might influence presidential performance. This activity can be taken to another level by asking students to consider:

This activity might culminate in a roundtable discussion of the candidates’ qualifications for office by journalists—real or imaginary.


3.Ask students to define the following duties of the president, give a historical example of a president acting within each role, and explain how the president’s character was evident in this action:


4.Explain James Barber’s model of presidential character to students. Ask students to name presidents they think fit the types it describes based on their own knowledge of U.S. history. Then assign students to research and report on one of the following presidential actions. How would students type the president based on this action?

5.Follow the Bush and Gore campaigns by analyzing candidate messages and tactics for evidence of character. Possible sources of information include:


6.Conduct an opinion poll of students, teachers, and parents, asking them to rank the importance of the following factors in determining who they will cast their ballot for in the presidential election:


7.Conduct an opinion poll of students, teachers, and parents concerning the characteristics of the presidential candidates. Model it after the questionnaire on “Characteristics and Qualities Ratings” used in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll shown below. Compare your results with the national results, which are available under “Politics & Elections” at the Gallup Poll website (


Thinking about the following characteristics, please say whether you think it applies or doesn’t apply to Al Gore and/or George W. Bush:


Applies Doesn’t Apply No Opinion



8.Select a key campaign issue (e.g., gun control, campaign finance, social security, or health care) and analyze whether or how the character of each presidential candidate is revealed by his position on the issue.


9.Design a television, radio, or print ad that emphasizes character for one of the presidential candidates.


A note on the use of the Internet as an information source for these activities:

The Drudge Report ( can give quick access to a large number of news sources (e.g., AP, Reuters, newspapers, magazines, and political columnists). The webpages of The Washington Post ( The Weekly Standard (, The New Republic (, and The Washington Times ( are especially good for challenging opinion and analysis of Election 2000. Their webpages cover the political spectrum, are easy to navigate, and include archives of previous issues. The Washington Post webpage, in particular, is an important resource on Election 2000. Click on “politics” to link to the section “On Politics.” From there, students have an impressive array of choices, including “polls,” “ad watch,” “columns and cartoons,” and “Post Features.”



1. Plato, The Republic (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962), 255.

2. James Madison, “No. 10,” The Federalist Papers (New York: The New American Library, 1961), 80; Ibid., 81.

3. Garry Wills, Explaining America: The Federalist (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 226.

4. Alexander Hamilton, “No. 70,” The Federalist Papers (New York: The New American Library, 1961), 423; Ibid., 424.

5. James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 2.

6. 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2 (1866).

7. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 217.

8. Ibid., 267.

9. Barber, 5.

10. Ibid., 3, 8.

11. Ibid., 9-10.

12. Thomas E. Cronin and Michael A. Genovese, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 92.

13. Ibid.

14. James T. Patterson, “The President’s War Within,” The Washington Post National Weekly Edition (May 11, 1998): 32; Review of Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 by Robert Dallek.

15. Cronin and Genovese.


About the Authors

James J. Lopach is a professor in the Department of Political Science, University of

Montana, Missoula. Jean A. Luckowski is a professor in the Department of

Curriculum & Instruction, University of Montana, Missoula.