Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics
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November 28, 2007
Tonight, GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani faces off against his party’s other presidential hopefuls in the CNN/YouTube Republican Debate.
An article in Slate magazine last month examined “Why Giuliani keeps trouncing his opponents when they go head to head” (Giuliani’s Debating Secret, Oct. 10). In that article, Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson comments on Rudy Giuliani’s “awesome command of detail” and commanding stage presence, which give him the appearance of “a guy in control, bursting with snappy competence.”
That characterization grabbed my attention because of its uncanny resemblance to the results of a study conducted this summer at the Unit for the Study of Personality at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, in which I collaborated as a student researcher.
Specifically, the study revealed dominance to be the most prominent aspect of Giuliani’s personality, followed closely by a highly conscientious, almost obsessive tendency. Dominance, with a distinctly aggressive streak, provides the underpinnings for the commanding, controlling qualities noted by Dickerson. Furthermore, the managerial competence and extraordinary attention to detail noted in the Slate report are products of Giuliani’s meticulous conscientiousness.
In the wake of 9/11, Giuliani’s dominant personality pattern allowed him to capture the public imagination, demonstrating strength in the face of adversity. Yet prior to the terrorist attacks, the name Rudy Giuliani often conjured images of an unyielding, contentious, prickly mayor nastily denouncing his critics and spitefully retaliating against reporters who dared to pose “moronic” questions to the hardheaded, outspoken “Emperor of the City.”
Giuliani’s forceful, uncompromising manner, though in many ways an asset in his quest to wrest control of the mean streets of New York City from lawless elements, served as a double-edged sword as the public witnessed a voracious appetite for belittling opponents with derisive social commentary. Despite his successes as mayor, Giuliani had developed a reputation for his overbearing and abrasive style, occupying the role of theatrical antagonist on the public stage as New Yorkers watched his fiery outbursts play out against the backdrop of the city.
Giuliani’s forceful rhetoric and oversized personality once again took center stage in the aftermath of 9/11, but this time for the public good. His commanding, authoritative presence, which had sparked so much controversy during his mayoralty, now served him well as he rallied America from his perch atop the rubble of Ground Zero.
To understand Giuliani’s trajectory from his lower middle-class Brooklyn boyhood to Republican front-runner for president of the United States, it must be recognized that personality comprises deep-rooted characteristics that emerge early in life, persist for a lifetime, and drive behavior. The stability and coherence of these ingrained personal attributes permit the construction of personality portraits on the basis of past performance. And, because personality drives behavior, the personality profile offers a glimpse into a candidate’s future performance in office — in this case, the likely tenor of a prospective Giuliani presidency.
Throughout Giuliani’s years in the public spotlight, he consistently demonstrates strength of leadership and a commanding presence, which allowed him confidently to take the helm in times of crisis. These qualities are rooted in a personal dynamic best described as an “aggressive enforcer” a — personality composite given substance by a sometimes volatile combination of aggressive dominance verging on hostility and an almost obsessively conscientious tendency that shades into self-righteous rigidity. Leaders of this kind are characteristically tough and unbending, as evident in Dickerson’s caveat that “anyone who wants to take on Giuliani also has to be ready for a tough fight.”
So, how would this predisposition play in a Giuliani White House? In short, aggressive enforcers typically are unwilling to sacrifice control for compromise or power for propriety. Giuliani’s personality portrait offers a glimpse of a chief executive more inclined to assail opponents and expand his reach than to conciliate differences or tolerate restraints on executive power.
In the post-9/11 political environment, Giuliani’s well-documented flaws seem all but forgotten, leaving Americans with the reinvented image of heroic leader. That image has endured in the minds of many, projecting the momentary image of a larger-than-life Giuliani in a time of national crisis onto an idealized personal vision of the kind of president they imagine he would be.
Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the "Your Turn" column "Giuliani's past is glimpse of future" in the St. Cloud Times (p. 8B), Nov. 29, 2007.
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Last updated January 08, 2008