Saturday, November 16, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Nine, When Someone Aims for a Behavior He THINKS Is Best, Don't Be Shocked If They Miss The Objective

It was mentioned earlier but Richard Nixon's collapse in 1973-74 made James David Barber's reputation as a Presidential scholar.  Nixon was in office when Barber made his prediction that Nixon would self-destruct by over-reacting to a self-manufactured crisis, which became the Watergate scandals.

As a result, Barber's Presidential Character analysis came in vogue among the political class, which meant by 1976 we had a candidate for the office in Jimmy Carter who not only knew about Barber's work but tried to use it to define himself, to say "Well, hey, I'd love to think of myself as being on the awesome end of a psychological profile."  I'm not joking, here's the quote:

...Carter said "I think I have been heavily influenced by James David Barber's writings and I think a lot of my ideas come from there."  Did he think of himself as 'an Active-Positive'?  Carter laughed. "That's a subjective analysis," he answered. "That's what I would like to be.  That's what I hope to prove to be..." (p.399)

We're at that point in history where awareness and self-awareness collide.  The problem here is twofold.  First off, knowing what an Active-Positive is (or even an Active-Negative or Passive-Positive or or Passive-Negative) doesn't mean you can act that role.  Barber himself notes on the same page:

Character persists.  It cannot be tailor-made for campaign purposes.  Carter could no more have made himself into an Active-Positive after reading my book than I could have become a Presidential candidate after reading his...

You are who you are through life experiences, your childhood and education, your formative adult years.  Wisdom is not taught: it's learned.  Character is not adaptable (even for Adaptive types like A-Ps): it defines your actions and limits your decisions.

The second problem is how Carter jumps at the label of "Active-Positive".  It's pretty clear why: Active and Positive are both words with literally positive meanings.  Who doesn't want to be more Active than Passive: who doesn't want to be the actor, not someone reacting to events?  Who doesn't want to be viewed as a Positive force rather than a Negative one?  But there's the problem: the words do not have the meanings that the labels are expected to provide.  There are subtleties at play here.

Barber used Active-Passive and Positive-Negative as the simplest labels for the four points of the character chart.  He does a better job going into describing the actual traits of a Character label, such as defining A-Ps as Adaptive or P-Ns as Dutiful.  There's also the real usage of Positive and Negative: Barber is using those words to describe how a President views the powers of the office in terms of governance.  A Positive would view the daily challenges as a delight, not a chore, and would be loose with the guidelines of the office if not ignoring things outright simply to get something done: A Negative would restrict himself to the letter of the Constitution and the Law, preferring to let the law resolve issues and getting the other two branches - Congress and the Court - have more say in what gets done.

An Active-Positive isn't always the best Character to be.  It all depends on the times and challenges of the day: he may be the right man for the job but it would be at the wrong time.  A-P Presidents leave a lot of damage in their wake, same as an Active-Negative or Passive-Positive (Passive-Negatives try not to leave any wake at all).  Carter was blinded by the desire to be a Great Man in office, and so aimed for the Active-Positive traits as something to emulate and achieve.

Pity was, when I look at Carter's history and his actions as President, I'm seeing someone who was Active-Negative in Character.  This is going against what Barber decided (he went with A-P in the end): thing is, from what Barber lays out for Carter's background and development, and considering how Carter acted in other elected offices as well as the Presidency... being Active-Negative is the only thing that makes sense.  What I think happened was that Carter's attempts at behaving like an Active-Positive hid the actual performance.

Thing is, being an A-N President wouldn't have been that bad if only Carter let it be that way.  Let his character play out.  Instead you see a man fighting how he was working in office, switching positions and decisions in ways that left allies in the dark and his enemies - even within his own party - in anger.

Carter came in from a poor farming family from a corner of Georgia deep in the Deep South.  From the hard work of the farm came the hard work as a student, graduating early at sixteen and taking some college courses here and there before making his way to Annapolis and the Naval Academy in 1943.

The War Effort beckoned to Carter as an achievement to reach, but war ended in 1945 leaving the midshipmen like himself wondering what the future held after graduation.  From that, Carter looked into making a career in submarine duty, and from there had an opportunity to be in the first wave of new technology of nuclear-powered submarines.  Called back home when his father died, Carter recognized the roots that his father had in the community and decided that he had to step in.

From that, Carter got into the local politics of Georgia.  As anyone can tell you, politics at the local level can be a contact sport, and this was the Deep South where the passions would be war-like.  And this was the 1950s, when the civil rights picked up in earnest regarding desegregating schools for the kids and the small-town communities were taking sides.  Carter had been raised in a liberal house where his mother treated blacks with quiet respect, and when confronted directly he refused to side with the racists.  But he and his family stood mostly alone, and faced too many situations where he could do little.

By 1962 he made the decision to run for state senate.  Reform efforts had loosened up the restrictions that would let the likes of Carter make a go of it, but even then Carter faced opposition for the primary and on election day got pummeled through the traditional practice of the political boss cheating with fakes and dead voters.

In the past, the loser was expected to just let it go and bide his time paying dues within the party.  Carter, however, wasn't going to play by the rules.  Finding open evidence of fraud and violations of the law, Carter pursued the matter up the party ranks and when they found the party unresponsive, went to the courts which did favor Carter's effort to clear the corruption and let the voters in the general vote their choice by write-in.  Jimmy Carter won by 1500 votes.  The party boss who tried to screw him over ended up convicted of voter fraud in another election.

From this, Carter developed his reputation as The Outsider, the one who wasn't going to abide by a status quo.  But was this a persona that was based on an Adaptive, let's-get-this-done Active-Positive or based on an Uncompromising, we-have-to-do-this Active-Negative?

I have to lean towards Uncompromising.  While he had to work within a system among fellow state senators, this didn't mean much.  But when he became governor of Georgia, he followed through on a series of civil rights reform and government reform that streamlined a lot and improved Georgia's administration.  But he did so without playing the expected games of smoothing over political allies with patronage and handouts:

Carter's legislative relations were often stormy.  He would not play the customary patronage and special privilege games... He was constantly dealing with members, showering them with facts, and he once spent a whole day on the House floor speaking for his cherished reorganization plan.  But he was late to compromise, hard to convince... (p.429)

In this, using argument to win his issues, Carter shares a lot with Woodrow Wilson who also held firm to his issues.  While not as harsh an idealist as Wilson, Carter carried with him a firmness of faith, one of the more openly Christian Presidents we'd see in the 20th Century.  It would guide his more compassionate decisions, but would be a sign that he would stick to his guns as his faith guided him.

Winning a close election as President in 1976, Carter had come in campaigning as an Democratic Outsider candidate and populist figure, which helped in an era of Americans horrified by a corruption-plagued federal government piled up by the Johnson and Nixon years.  But Carter didn't campaign on much of a specific platform, which made him susceptible to a Congress - even a Democratic-controlled one - that pursued their own legislative agendas since the President had none of his own.

Carter's Uncompromising style came to the fore as he worked with a legislature that kept expecting a White House to deal with them but found Carter unwilling to offer much of anything.  Carter had issues with a Congress that threw up roadblocks and delays to getting much work done. It didn't help that Carter and his people kept mishandling their fellow politicians, committing various social faux pas that rubbed the likes of Speaker Tip O'Neill the wrong way.

What had to make things worse was how Carter was affected by self-awareness: he was living in a world where Professor Barber was documenting the historical atrocities of the Presidents... a world where Carter had the desire to be an Active-Positive.  As a result, he focused on what he thought A-P Presidents did: push progressive reforms, fight against a corrupt Congress, and show an Adaptiveness in pursuing certain legislation and then changing the objectives to reach some obscure compromise.

Problem was, this made Carter more a flip-flopper in practice, changing his mind at the worst possible moment and leaving his legislative supporters dangling off a cliff wondering where his support went.  Barely if ever explaining his reasons why.  Ending up not with a reputation as a reformer but a reputation of weakness and dithering.

If Carter had any success it was where all Presidents go to get some satisfaction in life: foreign policy, where he pursued an aggressive peace process in the Middle East that resulted in an ambitious Israeli-Egyptian truce that has lasted to this day.

But even then Carter was hampered by an international crisis that would have tested even the best Active-Positive President to his core.  When Iran exploded into revolution around a growing political influence different from Capitalism vs. Communism - religious Fundamentalism - the United States tried to back their player the Shah as he pursued a more repressive regime.  When he fled, he ended up in the United States for medical treatment, which further inflamed the angry populace.  They stormed the American Embassy and took hostages.

Carter was stuck negotiating with a political opponent in the Iranians who had no incentive to deal and in fact had a better incentive to humiliate the U.S. any way it could: echoes of LBJ failing to negotiate with North Vietnam.  It hurt that the Iranian political landscape outside of the Ayatollah was in constant flux.

Into all this was the military option: a rescue attempt early on in the hostage situation that may have been messy but was an expected response.  The problem was implementation: every branch of the armed forces - Army, Navy, Air Force - wanted to play a part, and Carter couldn't focus on letting just one branch do it.  As a result, the mission was a jumbled mess that killed eight servicemen and left Carter with nothing but responsibility for the failure.

Another debacle was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  One of the most overt acts of the Cold War since North Korea's invasion of South Korea, the Russians had gone in under the excuse to stabilize a puppet regime facing a fundamentalist uprising of their own.  International outrage was high and it strained the movement toward detente that had been fostered under Nixon and Ford.  But Carter was in little position to do anything about it outside of calling for a boycott of the Olympic Summer Games scheduled for Moscow in 1980.

It would take a serious game of "What If" with a practiced analyst of Presidential behavior to determine how even an Active-Positive President could have handled these foreign policy nightmares.  But we have to see how Jimmy Carter actually performed as President during what has to be regarded as a failed tenure.  Too many instances of Uncompromising and self-limiting behavior.  Too few instances of being genuinely Adaptive to external pressures and internal negotiations.  To this I place him as an Active-Negative President, despite his hopes.

Next up: Can You Believe a Passive-Positive President Could Actually Pursue an Agenda?

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