Of all the false intimacies of modern life, the promise of a presidential campaign may be the most misleading. We think we know these men well enough to judge them. They come into our living rooms every night, plying us with insight and confession; we know the prayers they say and the beer they drink, their tics, their tastes, their talismans.
But both John McCain and Barack Obama insist that there are things a campaign can't tell you about the temperament of an aspiring President. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain asks, as he runs ads attacking his opponent's "bad instincts" and dangerous lack of judgment. Obama argues the reverse: You can't trust McCain because the one thing you know is that you never know what he'll do next. He's an impulsive hothead who is "erratic in a crisis." Is that really the guy you want steering through a storm?
That Obama's fortunes rose as the markets sank shows how central temperament has become in the homestretch of the presidential race. Only weeks ago, you might have expected that McCain's greater experience and his courage in the clutch would lift him as a leader in a moment of crisis. Yet the turn of the polls suggests the reverse; without taking a dramatically different approach on substance, Obama won this round on style and disposition. Both candidates supported the bailout, and both call for tax cuts and policing of markets, but in tenor, they were polar opposites. Temperament is in the eye of the voter. Is one response evidence of composure and self-possession or of being too laid-back and unassertive? Is the other response a sign of urgency and decisiveness or a frantic lack of control?
A funny thing happens when you sit down with historians and ask them what presidential temperament is and when it matters and whether voters make a mistake to let it count for much. What emerges is that temperament is as elusive as it is essential. George W. Bush probably wasn't lying in the 2000 campaign when he promised a humble foreign policy. He just had no idea what was coming. F.D.R. probably was lying when he promised the anxious parents of 1940 that "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." Always be sincere, Harry Truman said, even if you don't mean it. The presidency is less an office than a performance: Who saw the gloom and glower behind Eisenhower's incandescent grin? This is why temperament descends easily into caricature: the feisty Give-'Em-Hell Harry, the cool-as-crystal Kennedy, the Vesuvian Lyndon Johnson. "We've taken temperament and turned it," warns presidential historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University, into "vaudeville."
So at this crucial moment, what do we make of the two men before us, the passionate Maverick and the cool-handed Hopemonger, Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice? Does the crucible of a campaign actually give you a glimpse of their souls? And does anything that happens on the trail have any bearing on what would happen after they take the oath of office?