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Rethinking Bill Clinton

Another way to get a feel for the Big Five and its facets is to keep it in mind while re-examining the paragraph from Joe Klein’s book that I cited at the start of this chapter. Klein tells us much more about Clinton’s personality than he packed into this paragraph. But for our purpose, I mainly stick to those 165 words:

  • There was a physical, almost carnal, quality to his public appearances. He embraced audiences and was aroused by them in turn. His sonar was remarkable in retail political situations. He seemed able to sense what audiences needed and deliver it to them—trimming his pitch here, emphasizing different priorities there, always aiming to please. This was one of his most effective, and maddening qualities in private meetings as well: He always grabbed on to some point of agreement, while steering the conversation away from larger points of disagreement—leaving his seducee with the distinct impression that they were in total harmony about everything. ... There was a needy, high cholesterol quality to it all; the public seemed enthralled by his vast, messy humanity. Try as he might to keep in shape, jogging for miles with his pale thighs jiggling, he still tended to a raw fleshiness. He was famously addicted to junk food. He had a reputation as a womanizer. All of these were of a piece.

As noted before, Klein built his description by calling attention to a few key attributes. But now we can translate the information that Klein provides into the language of the Big Five. Needless to say, much more is known about Clinton, and other observers have painted a somewhat different picture than Klein did.16 But let’s stick with the paragraph and some other information from his book to illustrate how the Big Five and its facets can help us organize our thoughts about Clinton’s basic tendencies. To do this, I will concentrate on facets in which his scores are notably high or low.

Starting with Extraversion is particularly fitting when considering Clinton because he loves to be the center of attention. Klein emphasizes this with evocative terms for his public appearances, such as “embraced audiences” and “aroused by them,” which translate into very high scores on gregariousness. Clinton is also obviously high on assertiveness, which led him to the most powerful leadership roles, and “womanizer” can be considered partly a reflection of high excitement-seeking. From this and everything else Klein tells us, Clinton ranks high on all facets of Extraversion, and his overall score is at the top of the chart.

Klein also gives us some information about Agreeableness, but Clinton’s score isn’t quite so obvious. From the paragraph, you may first get the impression that he ranks high on A because he is “always aiming to please.” But as you read on, you will realize that he’s just telling his “seducees” whatever they want to hear. In the course of his book, Klein gives many other examples of Clinton’s deceptiveness, which gives him a low score on straightforwardness. Klein also presents evidence that Clinton’s womanizing is exploitative, which lowers his score on altruism and sympathy. When taken together, Clinton’s Agreeableness, which appears very high on first meeting him, is lower than it seems.

The information we get about Conscientiousness is limited but revealing. The part about jogging indicates an effort at self-discipline. But this impression is tempered by “try as he might to keep in shape,” “raw fleshiness,” “addicted to junk food,” and “womanizer,” which are hardly testimony to high C. So even though Klein’s paragraph leaves out Clinton’s very high achievement-striving, the lower scores for dutifulness, cautiousness, and deliberation that he documents in other parts of the book combine to give a lower than average ranking on Conscientiousness.

Klein’s paragraph tells us little about Neuroticism except for a hint about “messy humanity.” Other sections of the book tell us that Clinton can get very angry and out of control, but there’s no reason to think of him as being especially prone to negative emotions. In fact, he is unusually capable of brushing off criticism that would make most of us crumble, and he can be cool under extreme fire. When taken together, Clinton ranks below average on Neuroticism.

Openness to experience is also not explicitly considered. This omission is not unusual in brief descriptions of people, even though it may turn out to be a distinguishing feature of their personalities. But Klein makes up for this in the rest of the book by providing us with persuasive evidence that Clinton ranks high on most facets of O.

Of course, much about Clinton doesn’t show up in this Big Five profile. But to illustrate the usefulness of this way of describing him, let’s compare it with a similar assessment of another president, Barack Obama, as a way of thinking about their differences. Like Clinton, we have had many opportunities to see Obama in action. Furthermore, his two autobiographies fill in many blanks.17

In making this comparison, Openness doesn’t tell us much. Although Clinton and Obama differ in their scores on certain facets, their overall rankings are both high. But their relative scores on Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness are informative. When taken together, very different profiles emerge.

Extraversion is particularly notable because Obama’s overall score is not only lower than Clinton’s, but also lower than the scores of most other successful politicians. Although Obama ranks very high on assertiveness and activity, he is not particularly warm or gregarious. Nor does he show much evidence of positive emotion, even when winning a historic election or a Nobel Prize. Klein, who has also written about Obama’s personality, offered evidence of his low E from a politician who helped coach Obama for debates during his first presidential campaign: “He is a classic loner...Usually you work hard at prep, and then everyone, including the candidate, kicks back and has a meal together. Obama would go off and eat by himself. He is very self-contained. He is not needy.”18

This low neediness is another sign of Obama’s difference from Clinton: his very low Neuroticism. Whereas Clinton deserves credit for generally controlling resentfulness and discouragement, Obama doesn’t seem to feel them at all, even in the face of strong setbacks. In fact, his remarkable emotional stability, which many admire, has also been criticized as Spock-like. Maureen Dowd, another journalist with a gift for describing personalities, called him “President Cool” and “No Drama Obama.”19

This coolness might also be taken as a sign of low Agreeableness. But Obama clearly ranks high on several of its facets, especially straightforwardness and a preference for cooperation and compromise. Although he does not exude either altruism or tender-mindedness, his behavior suggests that they are at least average. So even though Obama is not especially high on Agreeableness, I consider him to be higher than he might seem.

Obama’s high marks on all six facets of Conscientiousness also distinguish him from Clinton. He ranks especially high on deliberation, examining all sides of a problem. As with other personality traits, this can be seen as a mixed blessing, bringing him praise for his thoughtfulness but criticism that he is too professorial and indecisive.

Considering Obama and Clinton in this way shows how the Big Five can help us organize our intuitive observations by making them explicit. Although the profiles that it generates are sketchy, the process focuses our attention on the full range of tendencies, including some that we might otherwise have overlooked. And as you will see, the findings we make in this way provide a framework for describing the personality patterns discussed in the next chapter.

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