GUEST: Howard Gardner
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And my guest, Harvard’s distinguished educational psychologist Howard Gardner, joins me once again today for a somewhat-more-than-usual “free ranging” discussion…mostly because we record this program right smack in the thoroughly undecided midst of a most unusual American Presidential campaign…with Arizona Senator John McCain already the presumed Republican candidate, with New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama battling bitterly today for the Democratic nomination … and with, of course, the ever-hopeful admirers of former Tennessee Senator Al Gore, two-term Vice President and popular-vote-chosen President eight years ago, waiting to see if a stalemated Democratic Presidential convention might not instead choose the Nobel Peace Prize winner as its standard-bearer.
And all the while I wonder whether my guest might not have some psychological insights into the Presidential campaign, the would-be, might-be candidates, and the nation that nurtures them.
One remembers, of course, what a furor was roused when forty-four years ago Fact magazine devoted an entire issue to an analysis of what it called the “unconscious of a conservative”.
That conservative? Senator Barry Goldwater, another Arizona Republican running for the American presidency.
For a month before the 1964 election the cover headline of Fact Magazine declared “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President”.
Of more than 12,000 psychiatrists listed by the American Medical Association roughly 2,500 replied to a Fact Magazine questionnaire, with nearly 1,200 having the temerity to diagnose the Arizona Senator at such a distance as psychologically unfit.
A nutty thing to do in itself, to be sure. Not to be repeated!
But today I would ask Howard Gardner if there are any legitimate — and relevant — comments a trained observer might make now about what Harold Lasswell once titled “Psychopathology and Politics”?
GARDNER: Actually, I’m just a country lawyer.
GARDNER: The, the truth in advertising is that I’m a cognitive psychologist which means I focus mostly on how people think. Both the voters in this case, the media pundits and the candidates. And I guess I would have to say that of the three people still standing, psychopathology does not jump out at me in the case of any, any one of them.
Apparently John McCain has a short fuse and if it doesn’t show before he’s elected, I’m fairly calm that it’s not going to be the determining factor.
There are … in the Richard Nixon day I think there were plenty of grounds for, for psychoanalysis, at least after the fact. But I don’t see that as a, as a salient issue in the three candidates. Nor for that matter in, in Al Gore, whom you mentioned.
HEFFNER: But they are all important, active, historically based individuals.
Yes, Obama’s experience is shorter, he’s the younger. The youngest of them all. But in terms of voters’ reaction to this display of candidates … is there anything that one can say, given the training that you’ve had?
GARDNER: Oh, sure. Yeah. I was just saying I’m not going to psycho … I’m not going to put them on “the couch”. I think that voters believe that they’re interested in issues and there are some people who actually … will vote on the basis of certain issues. There’s some people who will vote on the basis of the Iraq War. People who feel it’s a good thing will certainly vote for John McCain. People who feel it was a terrible thing are more likely to vote for Obama if, if he’s the nominee. And people who are what they call “one issue voters” or “hot button voters” will vote on the basis of a position taken on abortion or gay marriage, or things like that.
But that doesn’t … those things do not decide elections. Elections are based fundamentally on the voters’ judgment, both conscious and unconscious of the kind of human being that they see in front of them.
And we are pretty good at judging human beings, probably better at judging their, their character and personality and temperament than we are judging for example, how likely it is that they believe a particular policy that they’re embracing or that they can get that policy to work.
So it’s, it’s based much more on, we might say, personal factors and personal characteristics.
HEFFNER: Judging them at a distance. The distance between Presidential candidates and the voter.
GARDNER: Well, this is why debates are so important. Because 99’% of what you see in candidates is totally staged. Not only everything that they say, but who’s being shown behind them, in front of them, who gets into the hall and so on.
And everybody knows this at a certain level. So I don’t think that people’s votes are affected by these stages events.
HEFFNER: Howard, may I interrupt again?
GARDNER: Sure. Yes.
HEFFNER: Because there’s so much I want to draw from you. You say everyone knows this. Do you believe that people who watch the debates were so aware, as aware as you are, as aware as politically sophisticated people are, that everything is staged?
GARDNER: No. I was, I was making an exception of the debates.
GARDNER: The debates are the one area where you hope you will get a glimpse of what this person is really like and what they really know. And that’s, of course, why candidates themselves are very leery of engaging in debates if they think they have much to lose.
As soon as Obama looked like he was going to get the nomination, he, he stopped debating. You can be sure that if his standing went way down, say after the Jeremiah Wright incident, he would be more eager to, eager to debate.
So, yeah, those are the times when we hope to catch a glimpse of what these people are … quote/unquote … “really like”. I do think that convers … (has to clear his throat) … excuse me … I do believe that conversations in the home with family and so one provide a patina of feeling that you’re knowing what these people are like.
And sometimes you can pick up unconscious things … how close do Bill and Hillary really sit next to each other, when they’re, when they’re in, in the living room. But I think the other thing would be a tough questioning from a reporter where, you know, the feeling is that the reporter is really interested in pinning something down. And then it’s more difficult to wiggle out because there’s no time keeper saying, “Well, next question or time, time for the rebuttal”.
So, so we hunger for those things. And if I think about all the Presidential elections and all of the debates and interviews … the things that stand in mind of, you might say, opinion changers fall into that category.
In 1980 you may remember Roger Mudd said to Teddy Kennedy “Why do you want to be President?” and he didn’t have a good answer.
HEFFNER: That was …
GARDNER: … And that was … even before YouTube, everybody knew that very, very soon.
Gerald Ford in a 1976 debate claimed that Eastern Europe was not under the, the influence of the Soviet Union, and since every school and boy knew that, that was a very difficult thing for him to, to, to overcome.
Regan’s one-liners, “there you go again” or “I paid for those mikes”. Again those do not have to do with policy things, those are, those have to do with persona and I’m quite sure that George Bush who was certainly not a very good debater, and not very well informed was somebody who, on television, in the course of the debates with Gore in ’00 and with Kerry in ’04, looked like somebody who seemed well enough informed, more comfortable with himself, more comfortable with the audience, less stiff, less talking down. And if Bill Clinton, even with his baggage, had run against George Bush in ’00 or ’04, I think there’s no question he would have won. Because basically he would have everything that Bush had to give, plus clearly much more, much more knowledge.
Hillary’s much more knowledge, if she gets to debate with McCain, will come through. But she lacks the warmth and the, the feeling that she understands, you know, Joe Six-Pack.
She’s working very hard to convey that, but I think it’s pretty, it’s pretty much artifice.
HEFFNER: Now this makes you feel good about, bad about, indifferent to the debates because it puts its emphasis upon this personal matter? Or are you saying, Howard, that this is a perfectly legitimate … in fact perhaps, very good … grounds on which to judge?
GARDNER: I, I don’t think it’s a good ground. In fact, at the risk of you’re getting a lot of hate mail, I actually prefer a parliamentary system where the judgments are made by people who know the candidates quite well, and they’re less likely to, to put into place somebody who may be glamorous and talk well, but is clueless or can’t be worked with, and so on.
And those are things that people who know the candidates well and personally are much more likely to be able to make a, a good decision on than what my father used to call a “popularity contest”. You know, I … we all go back to Eisenhower, who … people had no idea what kind of a President he was, but he was beloved because of his persona and because of his legitimate role as a, as a war hero and, and that’s why my father used to say that Eisenhower could have run against Jesus Christ and, and he would have won.
So, having put my anti-democratic … with a small “d” … qualifications on the table, I would say where everything else is staged … yes, I do want to see a debate and I’m as interested as the other … as the next person in the personality that comes across, as I am in what the candidates have to say.
HEFFNER: That’s interesting … why do you say that, you’ve as interested as the next person in that personality question. Now I thought you were being critical of that level of judgment.
GARDNER: We have to live with the President for four or often eight years. And people who are in other countries, as well as people who are in other branches of government have to deal with the person, and I think that we get some kind of a glimpse of what that’s going to be like during, during, during the debate. We could also be fooled.
I mean I did not think that George Bush in the year 2000 would have been as, you know as rigid and unyielding as he was. But I have a whole analysis of Bush which, which I wrote about in the book. Which is, if it hadn’t been for 9/11 Bush would have been a caretaker President. Didn’t have things he felt strongly about, was trying to redeem his father’s reputation, doesn’t like to work hard, and so on.
But 2001 gave him and as … especially someone who had been a recovering alcoholic … gave him a mission in life and really transformed him and made him into what the pundits call a “transformational leader”. That is somebody who really wanted to changed the country, I think in ways which were not good, but that’s a, that’s a funny case where the debate did not give a sense of what this man would be like under extreme circumstances.
A wonderful analysis has been put forth by Tom Caruthers who is Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. He says that the United States is the most insular of countries. Because we’re … haven’t had … haven’t been invaded in, in 200 years and we have these two oceans which separate us from any kind of real, real competition. We have a lot of hegemony over Canada and over the Latin American countries.
So it’s a very insular country. Bush is an incredibly insular person. He hadn’t traveled before. He has very little curiosity about any political or economic issues. And we had the funny coincidence says Caruthers in the year 2001 of the most insular President intersecting with the most insular country. With results which I think are … were disastrous.
Nonetheless we have to face the fact that he got re-elected in 2004 …
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
GARDNER: And it meant he was good enough in the debates. It also meant that the people who ran his campaign were able to make Kerry look into … look, look like a very un, unconvincing kind of President.
HEFFNER: Now, are we talking here about American voters only? What about the level of judgment that other peoples make?
GARDNER: I don’t feel nearly as well informed on that topic. I don’t think that there’s any country where the judgment of person would be any better.
There certainly are countries where people are better informed. More people read newspapers especially about the things beyond, you know the local crime, and the local sports.
But would that that actually influences how they would vote … I don’t know. I mean people in Italy knew full well that if they voted a certain way … that Berlusconi who is kind of a rich clown would come in for the third time. And it didn’t stop them from doing it.
They also knew that if they voted a certain way, that if Tony Blair stepped down, that Gordon Brown would come in and again, I think that … presently they probably … one has doubts that he’s the kind of leader that’s needed.
Sarkozy certainly won in France because it looked like a new chapter. And I think people very quickly discovered that the man … here’s where psychopathology might come in … you know, the man has a real “moi” problem (laugh). Which after the first year he hasn’t figured out how to, how to solve yet. Meaning a problem that it’s all about him and not about the country or about, about policies.
So, no, I don’t … I don’t look at other countries and say “My goodness, and how … they really know how to vote based on personality.”
But, the really important factor is campaign costs. In most other countries campaigns are publicly financed. They are very short. People in America would not believe that you don’t have to have money to run in other countries. And that the, the election is often just a few years … sorry … it just runs for a few weeks.
In America now it will probably cost about a billion dollars to run the 2008 Presidential campaign. And you can’t run for the Senate without eight figures. And you can’t run for the House, even in a “safe” seat without, without seven figures.
And this led John Gardner, no relative of mine, but a great hero of mine to say that the key to everything in changing American politics is to get rid of a system where you have to be enormously wealthy yourself … like a Michael Bloomberg, or you have to go to bed with people who are very, very wealthy because otherwise you won’t be able to raise, raise the money.
And even though the Internet changes this to some extent, it doesn’t change it nearly enough.
HEFFNER: But it changed it incredibly for Obama, didn’t it?
GARDNER: I think certainly during the Presidential campaign he has shown the power of relatively small donations. And I think that his winning the, the Senator’s Senate seat in Illinois was to some extent a question of luck, as his opponent self-destructed. Which, which is a nice thing to happen.
Nonetheless, we know from his association with real estaters, people in Chicago, he, he had to make some strange deals. He’s very lucky in that sense because his peccadilloes pale in comparison to John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s. But maybe if he’d been in politics for 20 years, he would have a long list of debts as well.
And this is a very sick system to make election so much contingent upon other people’s money.
HEFFNER: Made sick by what my old friend Jack Valenti used to call “the mother’s milk” of politics … the dollar.
GARDNER: Yeah. But it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the, that’s the point. We could instantly pass a rule that public … that elections are publicly funded. Wouldn’t cost the individual voter that much. But, you know, we’re reluctant to do it because so much in this country … as you and I would both point out in our less generous days … is, is, a Galbraithian picture of very, very large entities … corporations, unions, flexing their muscles to get the legislation passed that they want.
HEFFNER: You’re forgetting that third branch of government … the courts … the Supreme Court of the United States and what it might do to legislation that would provide that you couldn’t provide your millions for yourself or someone else?
GARDNER: That’s right. I mean the, the … McCain/Feingold has been hacked by the Supreme Court. Whether it be hacked by another kind … another Supreme Court it’s, it’s hard to know.
I don’t look to the courts alone, but certainly the courts when you have a Congress that is very ineffective and a President that you don’t’ much like. The Court does serve as the, you know, the third branch.
But the Court has never been too far away from the other branches, because it also is effected by public opinion. And, you know, when, when the Court takes a stand … as in the case of Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka … you know there are then ramifications for fifty years.
HEFFNER: You know, forty years ago, using the Nixon campaign of 1968 … the 20th Century Fund established a study group on Money, Television and Politics. And I was the Executive Director of that study group. And we came up with the … and Newt Minow was the Chairman of it. We came up with the idea of publicly financed campaigns … I don’t mean came up with it, but pushed that idea … we called it “Voters Time”. That we were not concerned with candidate A’s time, or candidate B’s time, but with the voters time. We wanted the voter to be educated.
And Tommy Cochran was one of the Commissioners, came up to me when we announced our conclusions and said, “Young man [and I was a little bit younger], he said, “you think this has got to happen in the next decade.” He said, “It won’t. But 15 years from now, 20 years from now, I assure you it will happen.”
Well, it hasn’t happened on the level of which we suggested. And I wondered whether anything in America 2008 indicates that it might happen. That …
GARDNER: Well, I think …
HEFFNER: … the dollar might disappear.
GARDNER: Yeah, well I think that the closest thing, which you would not have anticipated is, is the role of small donors which the Internet makes, makes possible.
My analysis of American politics is, is roughly the Arthur Schlesinger model that every 30 years or so there’s a pendulum shift. But the pendulum doesn’t just go back and forth. It goes in unpredictable directions.
I think that, you know, the Reagan/Gingrich swing has been spent, but it’s very unclear what the next swing of the pendulum is going to be. I think one of the reasons why young people are so excited about Barack Obama is they hope that he will swing the pendulum in a new way.
And we might think in terms of the, the, the Baby Boomers as being the generation that’s now in control. And before that it was the World War II, so-called “Greatest Generation”. And that was the, you know, Kennedy/Bush/Carter and now we have the Bush,Jr./Clinton/Gingrich and that could continue if either Hillary Clinton or McCain gets, gets elected. But Obama represents …let’s call it Generation O (laughter) and people hope that there will be a new dispensation.
HEFFNER: And you’re assuming that there’s no chance that with this experience, even Obama will become Generation Old. After all, we just finished doing another program in which you spoke so eloquently about the changes in your own thinking about what motivates young people, based upon your researches with them.
GARDNER: Right. Well, what, what we didn’t talk about, but what we need to talk about is what leaders can do in the best of circumstance. And my analysis of leaders which reflects my cognitive psychology background is leaders are individuals who create very powerful narratives. And these narratives make sense to people if they’re embodied in the lives of the leaders and if they also resonate in the lives of ordinary people.
And this has happened time and again throughout the world that people are able to … the leaders are actually able to change the thoughts, behaviors and feelings of what we’ll call “followers” because they’re able to create a powerful new narrative and their own life seems to embody it.
And I would say that neither in Hillary Clinton, nor in John Mcain’s case is there even a hint of that. And I would also say that no body knows whether Barack Obama can pull it off. But certainly he is a fresh voice in American politics because as he says time and again the distinctions … red versus blue … old versus young … Black versus White and so one, don’t have to be … they’re not, they’re not, they’re not engrained in our DNA, these are distinctions which we’ve come up, but we can also … we can, we can redo the landscape.
And I do believe that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the election of somebody who has got Kenyan and Indonesian and White and Black in him is an incredibly powerful lesson. As would the election of a woman … but I, but I think I’m …we’re now talking about Obama. And I think that, you know, his, his work certainly shows that he has embodied that kind of, we might say, pluralism … or what I would call respect for differences.
This does not necessarily mean that he would be able to mold and lead American public opinion. But the fact that two years ago nobody’d heard of somebody with a name like that, and now he looks poised to get the Democratic nomination, it’s an incredible achievement.
One of the, one of the few striking moments in the, in the debates this year was when … way early in the debate … one of the pundits said to Obama, “Well, you know, you don’t’ have any executive experience, don’t we need a leader like Mitt Romney who has been running big corporations for many years?”
And Obama responded so quickly … he said, “Look at our two campaigns.” And at that point, you know, Romney with all the urbane experience in the world had a campaign that didn’t function. Obama had a fantastically well oiled, well heeled machine.
I think he then … he then had a real lapse with the Jeremiah Wright situation and that will be analyzed for a long time. Did he really not know the full picture of Jeremiah Wright? Did he repress it in his own mind? Did he hope against rationality that the full dimensions of this man would not come out?
I would say that’s a sign of a bad judgment on his part and he, he paid a big price for it.
HEFFNER: Of course, there’s one name you haven’t mentioned and I will simply mention it. And that is Farrakhan, but as an ever gracious host, I will not spend my time or your time or the audiences’ time taking exception to what you have to say.
But to go back, in the two minutes we have left … to this very interesting point that you make that in a very real sense Lasswell’s psychopathology in politics doesn’t really have much place … today … in our national politics.
GARDNER: Except … let, let me suggest one thing which I thought a lot about recently. What people have to go thorugh in campaigns now is nuts. They told us about Hillary Clinton getting up at 5:30 in the morning, having 17 events and then at night she wanted to keep going, but everybody else in her, in her staff and in the press had collapsed.
We’re choosing people for endurance and what we really ought to be choosing people for are judgment … enabled to make good decisions and to realize when the decisions are bad, to change them.
And this endurance, and for that matter … debates … tell us, tell us nothing about that. Ted Sorenson is very persuasive on why it was that John Kennedy was good leader … because, he said, he knew how to select people. And he knew how to make a tough decision and stick to it, but he also knew how to say when he was wrong. And we don’t have much data on any of our people with reference to that. And that would be so much more important than how well they can debate or how well they can do a commercial.
HEFFNER: You’re only making that suggestion, you’re not doing it yourself …
HEFFNER: … I gather … that research.
GARDNER: Ammm … the … my, my desire would be that we have some people in different sectors of our society who would, who would come together and say, “We need to re-think the way that the electoral system is, is, is devised, because it’s not working.”
But I don’t think I know … sitting here today … how to fix it … I just know it’s broke.
HEFFNER: Howard Gardner, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.
GARDNER: Thank you as always.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.