Saturday, October 18, 2008

the well-tempered political candidate

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

-- David Brooks, "Thinking about Obama", NY Times Oct. 16, 2008
For some who oppose him, his equanimity even under the ugliest attack seems like hauteur; for some who support him, his reluctance to counterattack in the same vein seems like self-defeating detachment. Yet it is Obama’s temperament—and not McCain’s—that seems appropriate for the office both men seek and for the volatile and dangerous era in which we live. Those who dismiss his centeredness as self-centeredness or his composure as indifference are as wrong as those who mistook Eisenhower’s stolidity for denseness or Lincoln’s humor for lack of seriousness.

-- The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 2008, Comment by the editors
I've been reading a lot of political commentary lately, and the question of temperament seems to be on a lot of people's minds. Even in the testiest exchanges, Barack Obama projects an air of coolness and centeredness, an even temperament that contrasts with John McCain's manic shifts and gestures. Even before the substance of their arguments is assessed, many people find Obama's bearing and composure more "presidential".

It's not just about posture, tone of voice, and gestures -- I also had the impression that Obama focused more on the larger issues, worked towards compromise and understanding rather than petty bickering, and returned the conversation to issues of real importance. When you think back over those debate performances, though, the contrast in temperament serves as a useful shorthand for all the other differences between the candidates.

Variations in temperament can also determine an orchestral audition, I think, and not just in the sense of playing in tune. Audition committees want to hear someone who is collected, confident, and centered, who plays with a sense of inner calm -- without being boring. It's a tricky balance to maintain, especially under conditions of pressure and nervousness.

Among musicians I know who have used enderol (a beta-blocker), most have said that it helps restore this state of equanimity. They're able to sail through excerpts without any wild surprises or reactions -- things affect them less, and so they feel more like themselves. Personally I prefer not to use enderol, and have worked to accustom myself to that nervous hyper-sensitivity. Also, I find tools like focused breathing and meditation can help to restore a natural sense of calm.

Don Greene, the psychologist who has pioneered a technique to maintain performance under pressure, uses the analogy of a race-car driver. At the speeds they're moving, even the slightest twitch can throw their steering out of control; a normal correction back to neutral might instead throw them far in the opposite direction. Like a political or audition candidate, they need to tune their mental responses -- their internal temperament -- to the conditions under which they operate. They need to moderate their reactions and impulses, even while driving with extreme boldness and confidence.

There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious. Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he’s become a homeostasis machine.

-- David Brooks, from the same article quoted above

As spectators, we might not be able to appreciate the internal forces they're having to manage -- we merely see a musician, politician, or race car driver performing well. It's a peaceful sport played with tremendous internal violence, as Don Greene likes to describe golf. Only when we watch a less successful performer -- or try to perform as well ourselves -- can we really appreciate the power on display.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Neufeld said...

Interesting and accurate observations, heller. well thought out.