My wife is reading this new psychobiography about Bill Clinton by John Gartner, which she quite likes. Gartner specializes in “hypomania,” that fortunate cousin of manic-depression. Hypomanics can maintain a controlled level of high-energy living for years on end. Teddy Roosevelt is probably the most famous American hypomanic.
One interesting thing about it is its realism about why Bill Clinton played an important role in recent American political history, which Gartner sees as having roughly the same causes as Shaquille O’Neal’s large role in recent NBA history. Usually, biographers try to come up with some nonsense about how the leader embodied the Spirit of the Age or whatever, but part of Gartner’s approach is more down to earth: Clinton was born with the tools to be a highly successful conventional politician.
Nobody is too sure who Bill Clinton’s genetic father was, but Gartner makes a strong case that it was a hard-working local doctor whose legitimate children have grown up to be successful professionals as well. Bill’s mom was of course a tramp, but a bright, charming tramp.
Clinton is a largely self-taught politician. He didn’t have, say, George H.W. Bush around to imitate. But he taught himself lots of useful tricks. For example, when working the rope line, most politicians don’t look into the eyes of the person they are currently shaking hands with because they are already looking for the hand of the next person to shake hands with. Clinton, however, makes solid eye contact with each person he shakes hands; meanwhile, he’s using his left hand to feel blindly for the next hand he’s going to shake. (Perhaps being left-handed helped him invent that trick.)
In one section, Gartner takes a psychometric approach to Clinton. Unfortunately, he lacks actual psychometric data on Clinton, such as an IQ score, but his rough estimates are of interest:
Hitting the genetic jackpot
Even the most virulent Clinton critics would not deny that Clinton is extraordinarily gifted. Before we even consider the effect of Bill Clinton’s childhood on the formation of his personality and career, we need to examine his genetic endowment., Like Secretariat, to whom he has been compared, Clinton was simply born with more God-given political talent than any of his contemporaries. Statistically, Clinton is a freak of nature.
In his profile of Clinton for GQ, George Saunders speculated: “My guess is that if you rated a million people on the basis of aptitude and verbal skills, and powers of persuasion and retention and simple physical energy, Clinton would come out near the top in all categories” I think Saunders is right in his intuition that Clinton wasn’t just born off the chart. He was born off multiple charts.
There are probably more, but I will discuss five of those traits. Two, mentioned by Saunders, are intelligence and energy (one component of his hypomanic temperament). In addition, Clinton is a statistical outlier on three core inborn dimensions of personality: intellectual curiosity, empathy. and extraversion.
There is an impressive body of research pointing to intellectual curiosity, empathy and extraversion as foundational dimensions of personality. For a hundred years, academic personality psychologists have been trying to identify and name the basic axes on which to map the human personality. In recent years, the Five Factor theory, developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrea at The National Institutes of Health has won surprisingly unanimous degree of acceptance in the field. In searching to solve this old problem, they turned to an improbable source: the dictionary. Where past personality psychologists had started with abstract theories about human nature and then looked for data to validate it, Costa and McCrea built from the ground up. They reasoned that because we are social creatures, collectively, we have made many nuanced observations about personality traits that have become part of the language: Using a complex statistical technique called factor analysis, Costa and McCrea were able to boil down the 18,000 traits found in the dictionary to five basic mega-factors. I will argue that Clinton is extraordinary on three of them.
Research using the five factor model has shown that these basic building blocks of personality are largely innate, and family environment has surprisingly little impact. “It turns out that you get virtually identical results with identical twins reared apart and identical twins reared together,” said McCrea. And in turn, adopted children, who share the same family environment with their adopted siblings, but no genes, show no correlation in their personalities with their adopted siblings. “They are as similar to one another as any two people picked at random.” In essence, then, these measures of personality are measures of temperament, genetically-based, inborn, fundamental predispositions. So if Clinton is exceptional, it is because he was born that way.
On three of the five dimensions of personality uncovered by Costa and McCrea all data converge to put Bill Clinton off the charts. From my questioning of people who known him at every stage if his life, it is clear that he had these tendencies since he was a toddler, and manifested them throughout his life. When we add to these three personality variables his astoundingly superior intelligence and his enormous hypomanic energy, we have our own five factor model to explain Bill Clinton.
That Clinton is an an outlier on so many traits is one clue as to why he is such a rare specimen. the odds of two independent events both taking place are equal to the odds of the first event multiplied by the odds of the second. For example, while the odds of flipping a coin and getting heads are 50 percent, the odds of flipping two coins and getting heads both times are 25 percent (1/2 multiplied by 1/2). Even if we estimate conservatively, and say Clinton i sonly one out of a thousand on each of these five dimensions, the odds of one person being that extreme on five independent traits is one thousandth to the fifth power, or one out of a quadrillion.