Quick, what comes to mind when you think of the stereotypical American politician?
Okay, but what else beyond what probably just came to mind? How do politicians interact with people, for example?
The conventional wisdom would say politicians love interacting with people. They have to. It comes with the territory. Take former president Bill Clinton or Vice President Biden, both of whom could probably yuck it up with a houseplant if they wanted/had to.
But the back-slapping, chit-chatty guy and gal we all think of isn’t necessarily your average politician. As easy as it is to find an extrovert in Washington, turns out it’s almost just as easy to find an introvert.
Take former Florida governor Jeb Bush, for example. In a Q&A published Wednesday with the daily current events newsletter the Skimm, the Republican presidential candidate said his greatest strength is that he’s an introvert:
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH?
Dogged determination. I’m an introvert. Introverts have a huge advantage over extroverts. We can create a mission and we can act on it.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST WEAKNESS?
I’d say it’s impatience. I don’t suffer fools well, although a grinder would also try to work on that.
(Side note: The whole Skimm series on candidates is fun and informative; you should read it.)
His answer got us thinking: Is this a thing? President Obama is reportedly an introvert. Who else?
Well, lots of folks in Washington prefer not to be around people if they have a choice, said Michael Bailey, the chair of Georgetown University’s government department.
“I would say a large number of politicians,” he said.
There’s not really statistics on this sort of thing — it being so subjective a measure — but there’s plenty of anecdotes. Bailey, who worked in Congress and has written books on American politics, remembers introducing his boss, known-introvert Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), to his wife.
“Just complete awkward silence,” he said.
Did we mention Sabo was in office 28 years? Maybe having a natural affinity to talk with people isn’t essential to make it in Washington.
Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), a well-respected leader in Congress in the 1990s and early aughts, is also a guy who apparently prefers a book over people. Republican 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney was characterized during the campaign as “reserved.” And Bailey once caught now-retired congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) eating his ham and cheese sandwich alone in the cafeteria — a classic introvert lunch.
As for whether being an introvert is more or less helpful in politics?
Well, American society has by and large decided that being an extrovert is synonymous with leadership, wrote author Susan Cain in an op-ed for the New York Times months before the 2012 presidential election.
“We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say,” she wrote. “In 2004, we praised George W. Bush because we wanted to drink a beer with him. Now we criticize President Obama because he won’t drink one with us.”
Cain argues that might be misguided. Taking time away from people to assess the situation is a good thing. Jeb Bush would seem to agree. He told Skimm his introspection helps him “create a mission and act on it” while implying those with less of a tendency to reflect are mostly talk and little walk.
But then again, chatting up folks certainly can’t hurt when you’re just starting out and need people to buy in, literally and figuratively, to your campaign.
But it’s also notable that Jeb Bush might have gotten this far as an introvert precisely because he hasn’t had to work hard culling donations, as Bailey points out. That’s what the family Rolodex is for!
So the lesson to take away from this already-too-long meditation on political extroverts vs. introverts might be this: If you have to be an introvert in politics, being one from a family dynasty is probably the way to go. Either that, or run in a safe congressional district that doesn’t require too much glad-handing.