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James David Barber and the Psychological Presidency

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

The United States elects its president every four years, which makes it unique among democratic nations. Time magazine runs a story about James David Barber every presidential election year, which makes him unique among political scientists. The two quadrennial oddities are not unrelated.

Barber was 42 years old and chairman of the political science department at Duke University when the first Time article appeared in 1972. It was about a book he had just published through Prentice-Hall called The Presidential Character. The book argued that presidents could be divided into four psychological types, which Barber called “activepositive,” “active-negative,” “passive-positive,” and “passivenegative.” What’s more, according to Barber via Time, with “a hard look at men before they reach the White House” voters could tell in advance what candidates would be like if elected: healthily “ambitious out of exuberance” like the active-positives; or pathologically “ambitious out of anxiety,” “compliant and other-directed,” or “dutiful and self-denying” like the three other, lesser types, respectively. In the 1972 election, Barber told Time, the choice was between an activepositive, George McGovern, and a psychologically defective active-negative, Richard Nixon.

Nixon won the election, but Barber’s early insights into Nixon’s personality won him and his theory certain notoriety, especially in the wake of Watergate. So prominent had Barber become by 1976, in fact, that Hugh Sidey used his entire Time “Presidency” column for October 4 just to tell readers that Barber was refusing to “type” candidates Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter this time around. “Barber is deep into an academic study of this election and its participants, and he is pledged to restraint until it is over,” Sidey reported solemnly. (Actually, Barber had told inteviewers from U.S. News and World Report more than a year before that he considered Ford an active-positive. Carter, who read Barber’s book twice when it came out, was left to tell The Washington Post that active-positive is “what I would like to be. That’s what I hope I prove to be.” And so Carter would, wrote Barber in a special postelection column—for Time.

The 1980 election campaign has witnessed the appearance of another Barber book, The Pulse of Politics, and in honor of the occasion, two Time articles. This is all to the good, because the first, a Sidey column in March, offered more gush than information. (“The first words encountered in the new book by Duke’s Professor James David Barber are stunning: “A revolution in presidential politics is underway. . . . Barber has made political history before.”) It wasn’t until May 19 that a “Nation” section article revealed anything at all of what the new book was about, namely, Barber’s cycle theory of 20th-century presidential elections. The theory holds, readers learned, that steady four-year “beats” in the public mood, or “pulse,” have caused a recurring alternation among elections of what Barber calls “conflict,” “conscience,” and “conciliation” ever since 1900. Time went on to stress, though not explain, Barber’s view of the importance of the mass media both as a reinforcer of this cycle and a potential mechanism for helping to break us out of it.

The kind of fame that Time’s infatuation with Barber has brought him comes rarely to scholars, more rarely still to political scientists. For Barber, it has come at some cost. Though his ideas now have a currency they otherwise might not have, the versions of those ideas that have circulated most widely are so cursory as to make them seem superficial or even foolish—instantly appealing to the naive, instantly odious to the thoughtful. Partly because of this, Barber’s reputation in the intellectual community as un homme sérieux has suffered. In the backrooms and corridors of scholarly gatherings, one hears “popularizer,” the ultimate academic epithet, muttered along with his name.

This situation is in need of remedy. Barber’s theories may be seriously flawed, but they are serious theories. For all their limitations—some of them self-confessed—they offer one of the more significant contributions a scholar can make: an unfamiliar but useful way of looking at a familiar thing that we no longer see very clearly. In Barber’s case, the familiar thing is the American presidency, and the unfamiliar way of looking at it is through lenses of psychology.


A sophisticated psychological perspective on the presidency was long overdue when Barber began offering one in the late 1960’s. Political scholars long had taken as axiomatic that the American presidency, because executive power is vested in one person and only vaguely defined in its limits, is an institution shaped largely by the personalities of individual presidents. But rarely had the literature of personality theory, even in its more familiar forms, been brought to bear. As Erwin Hargrove reflected in post-Vietnam, mid-Watergate 1974, this failure was the source of some startling deficiencies in our understanding of the office. “We had assumed,” he wrote in The Power of the Modem Presidency, “that ideological purpose was sufficient to purify the drive for power, but we forgot the importance of character.” Richard Neustadt’s influential Presidential Power, published in 1960, was typical in this regard; it simply took for granted that “a President’s success in maximizing power for himself serves objectives far beyond his own. . . .[W]hat is good for the country is good for the President, and vice versa.

Scholars also had recognized for some time that the attitudes Americans hold toward the presidency are psychologically as well as politically rooted. Studies of schoolchildren had found that they first come to political awareness by learning of, and feeling fondly toward, the president. There was also a sense that popular nationalistic emotions that in constitutional monarchies are directed toward the king are deflected in American society onto the presidency. Again, however, this awareness manifested itself more in casual observation (Dwight Eisenhower was a “father figure”; the “public mood” is fickle) than in systematic thought.

The presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon changed all that. Surveys taken shortly after the Kennedy assassination recorded the startling depth of the feelings that citizens have about the office. A large share of the population experienced symptoms classically associated with grief over the death of a loved one: they cried; were tired, dazed, nervous; had trouble eating and sleeping. A quick scan through history found similar public responses to the deaths of all sitting presidents, popular or not, by murder or natural causes. If Kennedy’s death illustrated the deep psychological ties of the public to the presidency, the experiences of his successors showed even more clearly the importance of psychology in understanding the connection between president and presidency. Johnson, the peace candidate who rigidly pursued a self-defeating policy of war, and Nixon, who promised “lower voices” only angrily to turn political disagreements into personal crises, projected their personalities onto policy in ways that were both obvious and destructive. The events of this period brought students of the presidency up short. As they paused to consider the nature of what I will call the “psychological presidency,” they found Barber standing at the ready with the foundation and first floor of a full-blown theory.

Barber’s theory offers a model of the presidency as an institution shaped largely by the psychological mix between the personalities of individual presidents and the public’s deep feelings about the office. Beyond that, it proposes methods of predicting what those personalities and feelings are likely to be in given instances. These considerations govern The Presidential Character and The Pulse of Politics, books that we shall examine in turn. The problem of what is to be done on the basis of all this knowledge—of how we can become masters of our own and of the presidency’s psychological fates— also is treated in these books, but receives its fullest exposition in other works by Barber.


The primary danger of the Nixon administration will be that the President will grasp some line of policy or method of operation and pursue it in spite of its failure. . . . How will Nixon respond to challenges to the morality of his regime, to charges of scandal and/or corruption? First such charges strike a raw nerve, not only from the Checkers business, but also from deep within the personality in which the demands of the superego are so harsh and hard. . . . The first impulse will be to hush it up, to conceal it, bring down the blinds. If it breaks open and Nixon cannot avoid commenting on it, there is a real setup here for another crisis.

James David Barber is more than a little proud of that passage, primarily because he wrote it on Jan. 19, 1969, the eve of Richard Nixon’s first inauguration. It was among the first in a series of speeches, papers, and articles whose purpose was to explain his theory of presidential personality and how to predict it, always with his forecast for Nixon’s future prominently, and thus riskily, displayed. The theory received its fullest statement in The Presidential Character.

“Character,” in Barber’s usage, is not quite a synonym for personality, but he clearly thinks it “the most important thing to know about a President or candidate.” As he defines the term, “character is the way the President orients himself toward life—not for the moment, but enduringly.” It is forged in childhood, “grow[ing] out of the child’s experiments in relating to parents, brothers and sisters, and peers at play and in school, as well as to his own body and the objects around it.” Through these experiences, the child—and thus the man to be—arrives subconsciously at a deep and private determination of what he is fundamentally worth. Some emerge from all this with high self-esteem, the vital ingredient for psychological health and political productiveness; the rest face the further problem of searching out an external, and no more than partially compensating, substitute. Depending on the source and nature of their limited self-esteem, Barber suggests, they will concentrate their search in one of three areas: the affection from others that compliant and agreeable behavior brings; the sense of usefulness that comes from performing a widely respected duty; or the deference attendant with dominance and control over people. Because politics is a vocation rich in opportunities to find all three of these things—affection from cheering crowds and backslapping colleagues, usefulness from public service in a civic cause, dominance through official power—it is not surprising that some less than secure people find a political career rather attractive.

This makes for a problem, Barber argues: if public officials, especially presidents, use their office to compensate for private doubts and demons, it follows that they will not always use it for public purposes. Affection-seekers will be so concerned with preserving the good will of those around them that they rarely will challenge the status quo or otherwise rock the boat. The duty-doers will be similarly inert, though in their case, it will be the feeling that to be “useful” they must be diligent guardians of time-honored practices and procedures that will account for this. The danger posed by the power-driven, of course, is the greatest. They will seek their psychological compensation not in inaction, but action. Since such action will be motivated by the desire to maintain or extend their personal sense of domination and control through public channels, it is almost bound to take destructive form: rigid defensiveness, aggression against opponents, or the like. Only those with high self-esteem are secure enough to lead as democratic political leaders must lead, with persuasion and flexibility as well as action and initiative. And Barber recognizes that even they sometimes will fail us, psychological health being a necessary but not a sufficient condition for successful political leadership.

All this—the theoretical element in Barber’s character analysis—is fairly straightforward and plausible. Moving to the predictive realm is more problematic. How in the heat and haste of a presidential campaign, with candidates notably unwilling to bare their souls publicly for psychoanalytic inspection, are we to find out what they are really like?

Easy enough, argues Barber: to answer the difficult question of what motivates a political man, just answer the simpler ones in its stead: Is he “active” or “passive”? (“How much energy does the man invest in his Presidency?”); and is he “positive” or “negative”? (“Relatively speaking, does he seem to experience his political life as happy or sad, enjoyable or discouraging, positive or negative in its main effect?”) According to Barber, the four possible combinations of answers to these questions turn out to be almost synonymous with the four psychological strategies people use to enhance self-esteem. The “active-positive” is the healthy one in the group. His high sense of self-worth enables him to work hard at politics, have fun at what he does, and thus be fairly good at it. Among 20th-century presidents, Barber places Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Kennedy, Ford, and Carter in this group. The “passive-positive” (William Howard Taft, Warren Harding) is the affection-seeker; though not especially hardworking in office, he enjoys it. The “passive-negative” neither works nor plays. As with Calvin Coolidge and Eisenhower, it is duty, not pleasure or zeal, that gets him into politics. Finally, there is the power-seeking “active-negative,” who compulsively throws himself into his presidential chores even though the effort does not satisfy him. In Barber’s view, active-negative Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Johnson, and Nixon all shared one important personalityrooted presidential quality: they persisted in disastrous courses of action (Wilson’s League of Nations battle, Hoover’s depression policy, Johnson’s Vietnam, Nixon’s Watergate) because to have conceded that they were wrong would have been to cede their sense of control, something their psychological constitutions could not allow.

The Presidential Character caused quite a stir when it came out in 1972. Not surprisingly, it generated some vigorous criticism as well. Many argued that Barber’s theory is too simple: his four types do not begin to cover the range of human complexity. At one level, this criticism is as trivial as it is true. In spelling out his theory, Barber states very clearly that “we are talking about tendencies, broad directions; no individual man exactly fits a category.” His typology is offered as a method for sizing up potential presidents, not for diagnosing and treating them. Given the nature of election campaigning, a reasonably accurate shorthand device is about all we can hope for. The real question, then, is whether Barber’s shorthand device is reasonably accurate.

Barber’s intellectual defense of his typology’s soundness, quoted here in full, is not altogether comforting:

Why might we expect these two simple dimensions [active-passive, positive-negative] to outline the main character types? Because they stand for two central features of anyone’s orientation toward life. In nearly every study of personality, some form of the active-passive contrast is critical; the general tendency to act or be acted upon is evident in such concepts as dominance-submission, extraversion-introversion, aggression-timidity, attack-defense, fight-flight, engagementwithdrawal, approach-avoidance. In everyday life we sense quickly the general energy output of the people we deal with. Similarly we catch on fairly quickly to the affect dimension— whether the person seems to be optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or skeptical, happy or sad. The two baselines are clear and they are also independent of one another: all of us know people who are very active but seem discouraged, others who are quite passive but seem happy, and so forth. The activity baseline refers to what one does, the affect baseline to how one feels about what he does.

Both are crude clues to character. They are leads into four basic character patterns long familiar in psychological research.

In the library copy of The Presidential Character from which I copied this passage, there is a handwritten note in the margin: “Footnote, man!” But there is no footnote to the psychological literature, here or anywhere else in the book. The casual reader might take this to mean that none is necessary, and he would be right if Barber’s types really were “long familiar in psychological research” and “appeared in nearly every study of personality.” But they aren’t, and they don’t; as Alexander George has pointed out, personality theory itself is a “quagmire” in which “the term “character” in practice is applied loosely and means many different things.” Barber’s real defense of his theory— that it works; witness Nixon—is not to be dismissed, but one wishes he had explained better why he thinks it works.

Interestingly, other critics have taken Barber’s typology to task for being not simple enough, at least not for the purpose of accurate preelection application. Where, exactly, is one to look to decide if down deep Candidate Schuengel is the energetic, buoyant fellow his image-makers say he is? Barber is quite right in warning analysts away from their usual hunting ground, the candidate’s recent performances in other high offices. These “are all much more restrictive than the Presidency is, much more set by institutional requirements,” and thus much less fertile cultures for psychopathologies to grow in. (This is Barber’s only real mention of what well might be considered a third, coequal component of the psychological presidency: the rarefied, court-like atmosphere—so well described in George Reedy’s The Twilight of the Presidency— that surrounds presidents and which allows those whose psychological constitutions so move them to seal themselves off from harsh political realities.) But Barber’s alternative—a study of the candidate’s “first independent political success,” or “fips,” in which he found his personal formula for success in politics—is not all that helpful either. How, for example, is one to tell which “fips” was first? In Barber’s appropriately broad definition of “political,” Johnson’s first success was not his election to Congress, but his work as a student assistant to his college president. Hoover’s was his incumbency as student body treasurer at Stanford. Sorting through someone’s life with the thoroughness necessary to arrive at such a determination may or not be an essential task. But clearly it is not a straightforward one.

These theoretical and practical criticisms are important ones, and they do not exhaust the list. (Observer bias, for example. Since Barber provides no clear checklist of criteria by which one is to type candidates, subjectivity is absolutely inherent.) But they should not blind us to Barber’s major contributions in The Presidential Character: a concentration on the importance of presidential personality in explaining presidential behavior; a sensitivity to its nature as a variable (power does not always corrupt; nor does the office always make the man); and a boldness in approaching the problems voters face in predicting what candidates will be like if elected.


The other side of the psychological presidency—the public’s side—is Barber’s concern in The Pulse of Politics, which was published by W. W. Norton midway through this year’s primary season. The book focuses on elections, those occasions when because citizens are filling the presidential office, they presumably feel (presidential deaths aside) their emotional attachments to it most deeply. Again, Barber presents us with a typology; the public’s election moods come in three varieties: “conflict,” “conscience,” and “conciliation,” and this time the types appear in recurring order as well, over 12year cycles. Again, the question he raises—what is the nature of “the swirl of emotions” with which Americans surround the presidency?—is important and original.

But again, too, the reasoning that underlies Barber’s answer is as puzzling as it is provocative. Although his theory applies only to American presidential elections in this century, he seems to feel that the psychological “pulse” of conflict, conscience, and conciliation has beaten deeply, if softly, in all humankind for all time, Barber finds it in the “old sagas” of early man, and in “the psychological paradigm that dominates our age’s thinking: the ego, instrument for coping with the struggles of the external world [conflict]; the superego, warning against harmful violations [conscience]; the id, longing after the thrill and ease of sexual satisfaction [conciliation].” He finds it firmly reinforced in American history: conflict in our emphasis on the war story (“In isolated America, the warmakers repeatedly confronted the special problem of arousing the martial spirit against distant enemies. . . . Thus our history vibrates with talk about war”); conscience in America’s sense of itself as an instrument of divine providence (“our conscience has never been satisfied by government as a mere practical arrangement”); conciliation in our efforts to live with each other in a heterogeneous “nation of nationalities.” In the 20th century, Barber argues, these themes became the controlling force in the political psychology of the American electorate, so controlling that every election since the conflict of 1900 has fit its place within the cycle (conscience in 1904, conciliation in 1908, conflict again in 1912, and so on). What caused the pulse to start beating this strongly, he feels, was the rise of the national mass media.

The modern newspaper came first, just before the turn of the century. “In a remarkable historical conjunction,” writes Barber, “the sudden surge into mass popularity of the American daily newspaper coincided with the Spanish-American War.” Since war stories sold papers, daily journalists wrote about “politics as war,” or conflict, too. In the early 1900’s, national mass circulation magazines arrived on the scene, taking their cues from the Progressive reformers who dominated that period. “The “muckrakers”—actually positive thinkers out to build America, not destroy reputations” wrote of “politics as a moral enterprise,” an enterprise of conscience. Then came the broadcast media, radio in the 1920’s and television in the 1950’s. What set them apart was their commercial need to reach not just a wide audience, but the widest possible audience. “Broadcasting aimed to please, wrapping politics in fun and games . . .conveying with unmatched reach and power its core message of conciliation.” As for the cyclic pulse, the recurring appearance of these public moods in the same precise order, Barber suggests that there the dynamic is internal: each type of public mood generates the next. After a conflict election (“a battle for power. . .a rousing call to arms”), “reaction sets in. Uplift is called for—the cleansing of the temple of democracy”—in short, conscience. But “the troubles do not go away,” and four years later “the public yearns for solace,” conciliation. “Give that four years to settle in and the time for a fight will come around again,” and so on.

In The Pulse of Politics, unlike The Presidential Character, the difficulties arise not in the predictive gloss (a calendar will do; if it’s 1980, this must be a conciliating election), but in the theory itself. If anything, an even more secure intellectual foundation is needed here than with the character theory, for this time there is an assertion not only of types, but of an order of occurrence among them as well. Once again, however, there are no footnotes; if Barber is grounding his theory in external sources, it is impossible to tell—and hard to imagine— what they are. Nor does the theory stand up sturdily under its own weight: if, for example, radio and television are agents of conciliation, why did we not have fewer conciliating elections before they became our dominant political media and more since? Perhaps that is why some of the retrospective predictions Barber’s theory leads to are as questionable as they are easy to make: Coolidge-Davis in 1924 a conflict election?; Eisenhower-Stevenson in 1952 conscience?; Nixon-HumphreyWallace in 1968 conciliating?

The most interesting criticism pertinent to Barber’s pulse theory, however, was made eight years before it appeared by a political scientist who, also concerned with the public’s presidential psychology, wrote of it in terms of a “climate of expectations” that “shifts and changes. Wars, depressions, and other national events contribute to that change, but there is also a rough cycle, from an emphasis on action (which begins to look too “political”) to an emphasis on legitimacy (the moral uplift of which creates its own strains) to an emphasis on reassurance and rest (which comes to seem like drift) and back to action again. One need not be astrological about it.” (A year earlier this scholar had written that although “the mystic could see the series. . .marching in fateful repetition beginning in 1900 . . .the pattern is too astrological to be convincing.”) Careful readers will recognize the identity between the cycles of action-legitimacy-reassurance and conflict-conscience-conciliation. Clever ones will realize that the passage above was written by James David Barber in The Presidential Character.


There is, in fact, a good deal about the public’s political psychology sprinkled here and there in The Presidential Character, and the more of it one discovers, the curiouser and curiouser things get. Most significant is the brief concluding chapter on “Presidential Character and the Moods of the Eighth Decade” (reprinted unchanged in the 1977 Second Edition), which contains Barber’s bold suggestion of a close fit between the two sides of his model. For each type of public psychological climate, Barber posits, there is a “resonant” type of presidential personality. This seems a central point in his theory of the presidency: “Much of what [a president] is remembered for,” he argues, “will depend on the fit between the dominant forces in his character and the dominant feelings in his constituency.” Further, “the dangers of discord in that resonance are great.”

What is the precise nature of this fit? When the public cry is for action (conflict), “[i]t comes through loudest to the active-negative type, whose inner struggle between aggression and control resonates with the popular plea for toughness. . . . [The active-negative’s] temptation to stand and fight receives wide support from the culture.” In the public’s reassurance (conciliation) mood, “they want a friend,” a passive-positive. As for the “appeal for a moral cleansing of the Presidency,” or legitimacy (conscience), that mood “resonates with the passive-negative character in its emphasis on not doing certain things.” This leaves the active-positive, Barber’s president for all seasons. Blessed with a “character firmly rooted in self-recognition and self-love, [t]he active-positive can not only perform lovingly or aggressively or with detachment, he can feel those ways.”

What Barber first offered in The Presidential Character, then, was the foundation of a model of the psychological presidency that was not only two-sided, but integrated as well, one in which the “tuning, the resonance—or lack of it” between the public’s “climate of expectations” and the president’s personality “sets in motion the dynamic of his Presidency.” He concentrated on the personality half of his model in The Presidential Character, then firmed up (after “de-astrologizing” it) and filled in the other half—the public’s—in The Pulse of Politics. And here is where things get so curious. Most authors, when they complete a multivolume opus, trumpet that fact. Barber does not. In fact, one finds in The Pulse of Politics no mention at all of presidential character, of public climates of expectations, or of “the resonance—or lack of it” between them.

At first blush, this seems doubly strange, because there is a strong surface fit between the separate halves of Barber’s model. In the 18 elections that have been held since Taft’s in 1908 (Barber did not type 20th-century presidents farther back than Taft), presidential character and public mood resonated 12 times. The six exceptions—active-negative Wilson’s election in the conscience year of 1916, passive-negative Coolidge’s in conflictual 1924, active-negative Hoover’s and passive-negative Eisenhower’s in the conciliating elections of 1928 and 1956, active-negative Johnson’s in conscience-oriented 1964, and active-negative Nixon’s in conciliating 1968—perhaps could be explained in terms of successful campaign image-management by the winners, an argument that also would support Barber’s general point about the power of the media in presidential politics. In that case, a test of Barber’s model would be: did these “inappropriate” presidents come to grief when the public found out what they really were like after the election? In every instance but Eisenhower’s and Coolidge’s, the answer would have been yes.

But on closer inspection it also turns out that in every instance but these two, the presidents who came to grief were active-negatives, whom Barber tells us will do so for reasons that have nothing to do with the public mood. As for the overall 12 for 18 success rate for Barber’s model, it includes seven elections won by active-positives, whom he says resonate with every public mood. A good hand in straight poker is not necessarily a good hand in wild-card; Barber’s success rate in the elections not won by active-positives is only five of 11. In the case of conscience elections, only once did a representative of the resonant type—passive-negative—win, while purportedly less suitable active-negatives won three times. A final problem is born of Barber’s assertion, made in the face of his prediction that Ronald Reagan would be a passive-positive president, that in the post-New Deal era of big government at home and active government abroad, the demands of the presidency—and of seeking it in the modern campaign mode—effectively will screen out passive types as would-be presidents. (In the period from 1929 to the present, the only passive president has been Eisenhower, and Barber admits that “his case is a mixed one.”) Since two of his three moods— conscience and conciliation—are said to resonate with passive presidents, their elimination from contention rather trivializes the question of fit as Barber has posed it.


I leave it to Barber to explain his failure to claim credit for what he has done, namely, offered and elaborated a suggestive and relatively complete model of the psychological presidency. Perhaps he feared that the lack of fit between his mood and personality types—the public and presidential components—would have distracted critics from his larger points.

In any event, the theoretical and predictive elements of Barber’s theory of the presidency are sufficiently provocative to consider carefully his prescriptions for change. Barber’s primary goal for the psychological presidency, it should be noted, is that it be “de-psychopathologized.” He wants to keep active-negatives out and put healthy active-positives in. He wants the public to become the master of its own political fate, breaking out of its electoral mood cycle, which is essentially a cycle of psychological dependency. With presidency and public freed of their inner chains, Barber feels, they will be able to join to forge a “creative politics” or “politics of persuasion,” as he has variously dubbed it. It is not clear just what this kind of politics would be, but apparently it would involve a great deal more open and honest sensitivity on the part of both presidents and citizens to the ideas of the other.

It will not surprise readers to learn that, by and large, Barber dismisses constitutional reform as a method for achieving his goals: if the presidency is as shaped by psychological forces as he says it is, then institutional tinkering will be, almost by definition, beside the point. Change, to be effective, will have to come in the thoughts and feelings of people: in the information they get about politics, the way they think about it, and the way they feel about what they think. Because of this, Barber believes, the central agent of change will have to be the most pervasive, media journalism; its central channel, the coverage of presidential elections.

It is here, in his prescriptive writings, that Barber is on most solid ground, here that his answers are as good as his questions. Unlike many media critics, he does not assume imperiously that the sole purpose of newspapers, magazines, and television is to elevate the masses. Barber recognizes that the media are made up of commercial enterprises that also have to sell papers and attract viewers. He recognizes, too, that the basic format of news coverage is the story, not the scholarly treatise. His singular contribution is his argument that the media can improve the way it does all of these things at the same time, that better election stories will attract bigger audiences in more enlightening ways.

The first key to better stories, Barber argues, is greater attention to the character of the candidates. Election coverage that ignores the motivations and developmental histories of its protagonists is as lifeless as dramas or novels that did so would be. It also is uninformative—elections are, after all, choices among people, and as Barber has shown, the kinds of people candidates are has a lot to do with the kinds of presidents they would be. Good journalism, Barber argues in a 1978 PrenticeHall book called Race for the Presidency, would “focus on the person as embodying his historical development, playing out a character born and bred in another place, connecting an old identity with a new persona—the stuff of intriguing drama from Joseph in Egypt on down. That can be done explicitly in biographical stories.” Barber is commendably diffident here— he does not expect reporters to master and apply his own character typology. But he does want them to search the candidates” lives for recurring patterns of behavior, particularly the rigidity that is characteristic of his active-negatives. (Of all behavior patterns, he feels rigidity “is probably the easiest one to spot and the most dangerous one to elect.”) With public interest ever high in “people” stories and psychology, Barber probably is right in thinking that this kind of reporting not only would inform readers, but engage their interest as well.

This goal—engaging readers” interest—is Barber’s second key to better journalism. He finds reporters and editors notably, sometimes belligerently, ignorant of their audiences. “I really don’t know and I’m not interested,” quotes Richard Salant of CBS News. “Our job is to give people not what they want, but what we decide they ought to have.” Barber suggests that what often is lost in such a stance is an awareness of what voters need, namely, information that will help them decide whom to vote for. He cites a study of network evening news coverage of the 1972 election campaign which found that almost as much time was devoted to the polls, strategies, rallies, and other “horse-race” elements of the election as to the candidate’s personal qualifications and issue stands combined. As Barber notes, “The viewer tuning in for facts to guide his choice would, therefore, have to pick his political nuggets from a great gravel pile of political irrelevancy.” He adds that “Television news which moved beyond telling citizens what momentary collective preferences are as the next primary approaches, to telling them what they need to know—precisely on the issue of presidential choosing—might yet enlist intellectual apparatus.” Critics who doubt the public’s interest in long, fleshed-out stories about what candidates think, what they are like, and what great problems they would face as president would do well to check the ratings of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Barber’s strong belief, then, is that an electorate whose latent but powerful interest in politics is engaged by the media will become an informed electorate, and that this will effect its liberation from the pathological aspects of the psychological presidency. On the one hand, as citizens learn more of what they need to learn about the character of presidential candidates, they will be less likely to elect defective ones. On the other hand, this process of political learning also will equip them better to act “rationally” in politics, freed from their cycle of emotional dependency on the presidency. So sensible a statement of the problem is this, and so attractive a vision of its solution, that one can forgive Barber for cluttering it up with types and terminologies.


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