High Concept

Profiles in Personality 

Everyone is a “type,’ psychologists tell us. So just what boxes do Bush and Gore belong in? 

“You like me, you really like me!”—George Bush or Al Gore, Nov. 7, 2000

George W. Bush has always been able to charm people; Al Gore has always been able to leave them a little uncomfortable. This, until the last few weeks, has been the underlying selling point of the Bush presidential campaign. But now Bush’s strategy to love-bomb America is fading in the face of the most unexpected surge in Gore likability. (“Mr. Bush’s advisers say that he can no longer count on questions of personality and character to carry him into the White House.”—the New York Times, Sept. 16, 2000. “In July, fewer than half—45 percent—of voters surveyed said Gore had ‘an appealing personality.’ Today, 55 percent see Gore that way.”—the Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2000.)

Since who has a better personality is a key issue of the campaign, and we’re talking about the president of the United States, shouldn’t some rigor be applied to our selection of Mr. Congeniality? So, I have applied some. Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which categorizes people into one of 16 distinct personality types, I have assessed the personalities of the two candidates. (This is journalism—I don’t have to ask their permission or be qualified to perform the analysis.) Each is an exemplar of their particular type—and let’s just say they’d hate each other even if they weren’t opponents.

The Myers-Briggs test was devised by a mother-daughter team, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, to create a practical application of psychiatrist Carl Jung’s belief that personality is composed of four poles of preferences—the most famous being extravert (E) and introvert (I). (Click here for a detailed explanation of the preferences.) The test is widely given by corporations (including Microsoft), schools, and governments—the U.S. military loves it. It’s used for everything from helping employees and students gain self-insight to putting together complementary and effective teams. Given Gore’s personality type, which loves theories and systems, he’s undoubtedly taken it. Any system to categorize people can be dismissed as little better than astrology, and Bush, whose personality type loathes introspection, would probably call it that. But for decades people have been surprised how well the Myers-Briggs nails them.

Psychologist David Keirsey has refined the model and come up with his own version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which he calls the Temperament Sorter. He defines the four poles this way:  

Expressive (E) or Reserved (I)

Observant (S) or Introspective (N)

Tough-Minded (T) or Friendly (F)

Scheduling (J) or Probing (P) (probing here means looking for alternatives)

In his book Please Understand Me II, he writes that temperament is the traits we were born with, character is the way we use those traits, and intelligence is how well we use them. To find your personality type, take Keirsey’s 70-item quiz at keirsey.com. The quiz asks questions such as: “Are you inclined to be a. easy to approach; b. somewhat reserved.” (You don’t need to have been on the campaign bus to know that Bush would answer a. and Gore b.) “In most situations are you more a. deliberate than spontaneous; b. spontaneous than deliberate.” (Gore a, Bush b.) “Facts a. speak for themselves; b. illustrate principles.” (Bush a, Gore b.) Using Keirsey’s system, Bush is Expressive/Observant/Tough-Minded/Probing, an ESTP. Is he ever. They are charming seekers of excitement who are easily bored, have little tolerance for theory or self-examination, who want to have impact, and can confidently make swift decisions. They are a familiar type because, Keirsey says, they are about 10 percent of the population. The Bush advisers weren’t wrong when they decided to sell their guy’s personality. People like ESTPs. Americans like to elect them president. According to Keirsey, there were four of them in the last century: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.

They can be “charismatic political leaders,” according to Please Understand Me II, which calls the ESTP “The Promoter.” (The book also says his type would enjoy “working the oil fields.”) Here’s a description of the ESTP: “[T]hey are extremely attentive to others and smooth in social circles, knowing many, many people by name, and knowing how to say just the right thing to most everyone they meet. None are as socially sophisticated as they … and none such master manipulators of the people around them … they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language, hypersensitive to the tiniest nonverbal cues that give away the other’s attitudes.” Now compare the generic ESTP with this take on Bush by Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker: “What Bush does with people is establish a direct, personal connection—a vector of just-you-and-me. … [H]e was almost glowing with the pleasure of being down in the room with his folks; pulling his face close to other faces, draping his arms across shoulders, kissing old ladies … remembering the names of people who hadn’t expected to have their names remembered. … He made you feel drawn to him without feeling so strongly drawn to him that it was frightening.”

Type Talk, by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen, gives “The Ultimate Realist” rubric to ESTP. Here’s their description: “This heavily action-oriented type, more than any other type, lives for the moment.” Bush on Bush: “I live in the moment.”—Time, Aug. 7, 2000. Type Talk: “[T]heir fearlessness in trying anything at least once, and their keen sense of competition, makes ESTPs doers, problem-solvers.” Bush on Bush: “I’m a doer. I’m a problem-solver.”—New York Times, June 19, 2000. Bush’s lack of self-reflection actually reflects a certain self-understanding. From Please Understand Me II: “No high-flown speculation … no deep meaning or introspection.” Bush on Bush: “Now that we’ve gotten into the kind of psychoanalyst world of trying to figure me out, I think it’s—I say that sarcastically because, you know, this is not the way I am.”—New York Times, June 19, 2000.

Every type has strengths and weaknesses—which are usually flip sides of each other. As Please Understand Me II explains of Bush’s type: “Oblivious to the past and future, they can concentrate all their powers on a clear and present opportunity. And so more often than not they win. However, there’s a price to pay for living so intently in the moment. Since [they] do not reflect very much on their errors or analyze their mistakes to any great extent, it is difficult for them to learn from their errors, and so they can become caught in a loop, repeating their mistakes.” And according to Type Talk, “Their need for center stage can, at times, make them appear abrasive to other types, as can their impatience with theory or even with long explanations.”

Speaking of theory and long explanations: Presenting Albert Gore Jr. Gore is an INTP. He is what Keirsey calls “The Architect.” Here’s a description: “[T]he world exists primarily to be analyzed, understood, and explained. … What is important is that the underlying structures of the universe be uncovered and articulated. … Architects prize intelligence in themselves and in others, and seem constantly on the lookout for the technological principles and natural laws upon which the real world is structured. … [They] work well with systems … and aspire to be wizards of science and technology.” Earth in the Balance, anyone? How about reinventing government, global warming, arms control, the information superhighway? Here is The New Yorker’s Lemann on Gore: “What he has done … is to develop an intellectual quality that is rare in a politician, a tendency to understand the world in terms of abstract systems. … [H]e reaches a realm of cosmic understanding of the larger forces against which our petty affairs are played out. … ‘The world is a system, not a collection of individuals,’ I heard him say … [his college thesis] is a work of technological determinism, in which systems are more powerful than people.”

Given Gore’s personality type, it’s not strange that after eight years as vice president Gore is only now coming into focus. First of all, there aren’t many INTPs. Keirsey says they are only 1 percent of the population. When encountered, most other types find them a little odd. Here’s Keirsey: “Unfortunately, their pride in their ingenuity can, at times, generate hostility and defensive maneuvers on the part of others. … It is difficult for an INTP to listen to nonsense, even in casual conversation … and this makes communication with them an uncomfortable experience for many. … [T]heir reserve is difficult to penetrate. … They prefer to work quietly, without interruption, and often alone. … INTPs are often seen as difficult to know, and are seldom perceived at their true level of competency.” Here’s Lemann: “He seemed to be straining to connect. … He is incapable of making small talk. … [His] excessively controlled presentation … [makes people] conclude that he’s condescending, or not paying attention, or even being actively hostile. … Gore likes being alone, sitting in his office in front of the computer screen, sipping herbal tea. … [H]e took on for the disorganized Clinton the management of big, complex, unglamorous tasks, the kind that involve great draughts of bureaucratic work without much political payoff.”

But INTPs’ distance and skill at analysis can have benefits. Writes Keirsey: “INTPs are devastating in debate or any form of adversarial discussion, their skill in differential analysis giving them an enormous advantage in discrediting their opponents’ arguments and in structuring their own.” Or as James Fallows writes in the Atlantic Monthly of Gore’s development of his debating skills, “Over the course of the 1990s, so gradually and methodically that it was not fully appreciated, Gore emerged as America’s most lethally effective practitioner of high-stakes political debate.” The title of Fallows’ piece is “An Acquired Taste,” a nice description of most people’s feelings about INTPs.

But Americans aren’t against putting an INTP in the White House; they just haven’t done it for more than a century. Given their minuscule numbers in the population, INTPs have made a good presidential showing. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln were all INTPs, according to Keirsey. (In a paean to Gore in the New Republic, Martin Peretz explicitly compares him to Jefferson.)

So how has our current INTP candidate suddenly started to become likable? For one thing, INTPs are not machines. Keirsey writes they “take their mating relationship seriously and are faithful and devoted.” They are also “devoted parents; they enjoy children, and are very serious about their upbringing.” The tribute by Gore’s daughter Karenna, and especially The Kiss, showed the public there is a realm where Gore is warm, even passionate. Or as Lemann observes, “Gore has a closer family life … than most Washington figures of his eminence.” But most important, by positioning himself as a man of ideas, Gore has finally been able to operate in the one political realm in which he feels truly comfortable. This has had the salutary effect of making him more natural, less robotic. The Bush campaign’s announcement that they are moving away from personality and toward the issues is an ominous one for an ESTP, who only wants to know enough to know what works and then moves on.

There are certainly no Jeffersons or Roosevelts in this race, but in 2001 we’ll either have an INTP or an ESTP in the White House. The choice can be summed up between the guy who’s great at knowing where he’s going but can’t necessarily get other people to go along (Gore), or the guy who’s great at getting people to go along but doesn’t necessarily know where he’s going (Bush).

INTPs, according to Please Understand Me II, can be visionary leaders, able to formulate both goals and the strategies to take them there. They question existing rules and procedures and like to prune bureaucracies. While they are good at creating models, they need to make sure they have detail people around to implement their vision. INTPs can also get so caught up in their love of technology and systems that they leave everyone scratching their heads at what they are talking about. And they neglect the kind of appreciation of subordinates that breeds great loyalty.

ESTPs are great negotiators and troubleshooters, writes Keirsey. One problem is that they have such a low tolerance for boredom that if there’s no trouble, they might make some so they have something to shoot. (Does the Bay of Pigs ring a bell?) They are decisive and little bothered by second thoughts and self-doubt, and they are talented at getting people to cooperate with them. They are good in a crisis but weak at maintenance. If they inherit stable times, they need a strong staff to keep them focused.

May the best personality win.