Bush: The One True Hawk Psychological Profiles

January 13, 1991|By SUSAN BAER

Washington HE'S BEEN CALLED the one true hawk in the administration -- the one to hang tough, to lash out with aggressive, brash rhetoric, to stare the possibility of war straight in the eye and never blink.

But if Commander in Chief George Bush has adopted a stern posture during the Persian Gulf crisis, it's not necessarily because he's particularly bellicose, say some observers. Rather, they say, his resolve and rapid-fire reactions stem, at least in part, from a competitive nature, impulsive streak and other personality traits that now are being scrutinized as vigorously as his military strategy.

"One of the major issues to determine the outcome of this crisis is the personality makeup and character structure of George Bush and Saddam Hussein," said Dr. John McGrath, a psychiatrist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "These leaders act out their personalities and feelings like we all do."

In examining Mr. Bush's psychological profile as it relates to his handling of the gulf crisis, a number of presidential scholars and political psychologists quickly point to the president's continued battle with the "wimp" image, what Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University, called "a recurring theme his personality. He needs to prove to himself that he's not a wimp."

Such pressure may be exacerbated by his place in history, following on the heels of Ronald Reagan, believes Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California who has written about presidential personalities.

"Unfortunately for Bush, he's someone who has a chip on his shoulder. He's following Mr. Macho himself, the John Wayne of presidents. His macho ego is on the line. When he calls Saddam Hussein 'worse than Adolf Hitler' and says, 'We're gonna kick ass,' those are signs of some ego defensive things going on."

Fueling this tendency even further, these observers say, is the fact that the gulf crisis dovetailed with a period of perceived domestic weakness for Mr. Bush with the budget imbroglio.

Ervin Staub, an author and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, suggested that Mr. Bush's "incredible rush" to action may stem, in part, from guilt over the United States' previous support of Iraq during its war with Iran and its killing of its Kurdish peoples with chemical weapons.

David G. Winter, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who studies political leaders and their motives, agreed that Mr. Bush's forecful remarks and quick-draw reactions are signs of an "impulsive, unpredictable" streak in his makeup -- one that is typical of what he calls a "friendly, affiliative personality" such as Mr. Bush's.

"Bush is not inherently a warlike person," said Mr. Winter. "He's influenced by people he perceives as friends. If you strike him as a good person that day, he'll do anything -- that's where Saddam Hussein was before August 2. But if for any reason he thinks you're unfriendly or an enemy, he can strike out or lash out in very unpredictable ways.

"People for whom friendship is that important -- for whom being loved and being comfortable is very important -- get very prickly and lash out when they don't feel that way."

This president, he observed, is not motivated by power. And ironically, "a more power-motivated person would have thought a little more than Bush did before acting in August. There's a certain impulsivity to Bush. I'm not sure he always thinks before he acts."

But Christopher Buckley, a former speech writer for Vice President Bush, said his former boss "was usually the least impulsive guy in the room" at staff meetings. He added, however, that he found Mr. Bush to be "a guy you can only push so far. He feels pushed by Hussein and is reacting the way I've always seen him react -- to strike back and say 'no more.'

"It often comes out in Andoverian language," he added, referring to George Bush's prep school in Andover, Mass. " 'I've had it.' 'This will not stand.' He sounds more like an exasperated headmaster. But exasperated headmasters, at least in my day, were pretty formidable.

"Exuberance leads him to say, within microphone range, that he 'tried to kick a little ass last night' " as he did after his 1984 vice presidential debate with Geraldine Ferraro, said Mr. Buckley.

Presidential scholar James David Barber, a professor of political science at Duke University, saw signs of Mr. Bush's "world view" -- which, he believes, along with character and style, comprise the three dimensions of a presidential personality -- in the leader's recent language.

The president's world view, in his case forged in an adolescence of money and privilege, "has progressed from being aristocratic to monarchy," said Mr. Barber, who has been critical of the president's actions.

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