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A President's Temperament


Is Donald Trump temperamentally fit to be president of the United States, to exercise the staggering powers of the most powerful office in the world? The president himself tweeted just this morning, quote, "Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart."

The question of temperament has become unavoidable, raised not just in anecdotes and Michael Wolff's book "Fire And Fury" but many of the president's own public actions, including taunting the leader of North Korea about the size of his nuclear button. Presidential historians have often considered the importance of temperament in a chief executive.

We turn now to Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has written bestsellers about Lyndon Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln. Thanks very much for being with us, Doris.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I'm so glad to be with you.

SIMON: Oliver Wendell Holmes, I guess notably, said of Roosevelt, second-class intellect, but first-rate temperament. What kind of temperament do you see in President Trump?

GOODWIN: Well, I think temperament, number one, is the most important thing to understand about a leader. In fact, I think it should have been the keystone for what we looked for in our candidates in 2016. Way back in 2008, Tim Russert and I talked about the possibility of having journalists focus on a series of leadership temperamental qualities and stacking up the candidates against them rather than how much money they raised, how much zingers they gave in a debate or how they appeared or what they promised.

I mean, for example, all the guys that I know about had a quality for self-reflection, learning from mistakes, turning failure into success, humility. And what does Trump say this morning? That he is the most stable genius there is. There was one time when he said that Pope Francis was a very humble man, very much like him. And that's why he liked him so much. So that lack of humility is a problem with temperament.

The ability to control impulses and emotions is a really important part of temperament of any leader, not just a president. And you see Abraham Lincoln writing hot letters when he got mad at somebody instead of expressing the anger and immediately putting them aside, hoping he'd cooled down psychologically and not need to then send them. You see, on the contrary, Trump having no control over his impulses time and again, knowing these tweets get him into trouble. And yet, despite everyone saying stop, he cannot stop.

You see, the idea that, somehow, most of our best presidents had resilience, the ability to get through troubling times. When they're attacked, they don't take it as personally. Maybe they will for a few moments, but after a while, they put it in perspective because they've been through difficulty. He said, I have the best temperament of anyone who has ever, ever run for president because I have a winning temperament. I've always, always won.

All of those things we saw during the campaign. And I think now what we're seeing with the new book is the question that's being asked - is what was it like to work for President Trump in this past year? We could have known that if we'd asked that question of all the people who'd worked with him throughout his career and maybe would've had a better sense of him before he became president.

SIMON: You obviously, as we mentioned, worked for Lyndon Johnson, which didn't deter you when you were a White House Fellow from writing an article called "How To Dump Lyndon Johnson" over his conduct of the war in Vietnam. And then later, you helped him with his memoirs. A lot of questions were raised about his temperament, weren't they?

GOODWIN: There's no question about that. I mean, he had a certain kind of temperament when he was dealing with domestic politics, when he understood the people that he was bargaining with, when he had convictions about what he wanted to do with civil rights and voting rights.

When he got into a separate terrain, the War in Vietnam, didn't understand the people, thought that Ho Chi Minh could be bargained with, didn't understand the balance of power between the North and the South. The war went badly, and then all the possibilities of flaws that had been in his temperament all those years - but minor chords then became major chords. So it became a problem in '67 and '68, but it wasn't the whole of him.

I think that's the difference here - that it's hard to see that other side of Trump that - as Lyndon Johnson, who really believed in civil rights and voting rights and had convictions, had visions and also had flaws. What we're seeing in this case is I don't see where the order of battle is, where his agenda is, where his vision is. All we see is a temperament that seems, I think as these - new book seemed to suggest, that it's not the temperament that you can trust as a leader.

SIMON: I realize this is leaving a big question for just 30 seconds left, but what do you think about calls that the president, any president, should undergo some kind of mental examination to certify his or her lucidity?

GOODWIN: You know, I think if he really is a stable genius or, as Lyndon Johnson told his aides when they were thinking he, too, should probably see a psychiatrist - if he started to defend himself against the aides, the aides said he'd probably beat us in a thousand ways, so we'd be the ones committed to a loony bin.

I think it's a complicated call, but I think it's just as important as physical illness and physical strength to understand temperament and leadership qualities - is the key. And we have to start thinking about it more and more and more - not just the gossip that's in this book but the really important parts, that so many people feel that he's unfit. If the people who work close to him feel that way, we'd better understand why.

SIMON: Doris Kearns Goodwin, thanks so much for being with us.

GOODWIN: You are most welcome.

SIMON: Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.