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  • The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton
  • Gil Troy
The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Clinton. By Fred I. Greenstein (New York, The Free Press, 2000) 282 pp. $25.00

Greenstein is one of the towering figures of modern presidential scholarship. His mastery of psychology and sensitivity to history have shaped contemporary understandings of this important and idiosyncratic institution. Most notably, he has helped pioneer the study of what he calls "presidential political psychology" (6).

The scheme here is straightforward. Greenstein draws sharp and penetrating portraits of every chief executive from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. Each profile ends with an assessment of the president's significance in six categories: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.

The approach reflects Greenstein's appreciation for "the highly personalized nature of the modern American presidency" (189). It demonstrates Greenstein's frustration with the "deluge of prose" that focuses on "the ends the president sought rather than the means he used to advance them" and "the merits of his policies rather than the attributes that shaped his leadership" (4). The result is an entertaining book brimming with great quotations and pithy characterizations-Dwight Eisenhower [End Page 501] as "the Clark Kent of the American presidency," a "political sophisticate" masquerading as an "innocent" (191); Ronald Reagan as "a Jimmy Carter in reverse," "astonishingly uniformed about . . . specifics" (193), but a populist visionary. The punchy prose, combined with an appendix detailing central biographical facts and "key events" for each president, make this a great presidential primer.

Serious scholars will appreciate the wide range that Greenstein covers with a remarkable economy of style. Sampling from the various approaches that have always informed his work, Greenstein explores the modern presidency as a political, cultural, sociological, and psychological phenomenon. His psychological acuity, institutional insight, and historical fluency demonstrate why studies of the presidency need to be multidimensional and interdisciplinary.

Ultimately, Greenstein concludes that "emotional intelligence" is essential for the job. This argument updates Barber's insight from the 1970s about the importance of presidential personality, in the language of Goleman's 1995 trendy best seller, but with more flexibility.1 But this "presidential difference" works more as a negative than a positive. As the tragedies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Carter and Clinton prove, "Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes" (200). However, emotional stability does not guarantee greatness. Greenstein finds that only "three of the eleven modern presidents stand out as fundamentally free of distracting emotional perturbations" (199). Such equanimity helped these three succeed, but the three-Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George Bush (the elder)-can hardly be considered the greatest modern presidents. Alas, the quest for the "Right Stuff" that guarantees success continues.

The book is commendable and useful. It is charming and insightful. But it is not in the same class as Greenstein's groundbreaking The Hidden Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (New York, 1982), a work that revolutionized scholarly understanding of Eisenhower and the presidency. Nevertheless, though reading the work may not make future chief executives and their aides more emotionally intelligent, it will certainly make them smarter and more effective. [End Page 502]

Gil Troy
McGill University


1. James David Barber, The Presidential Character (Englewood Cliffs, 1972); Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ for Character, Health and Lifelong Achievement (New York, 1995).