Sunday, December 11, 2005

Clay Feet and Political Power

The last cupla posts were fun at the expense of people trying to do very hard jobs, but I do think getting into the heads and hearts of world leaders--especially with the stakes as high as they are--is important.

In his autobiography, Clinton spoke about the way his father's alcoholism practically effected his presidency.

After the fact, of course.

He wrote that growing up with an abusive and alcholic father helped develop his own tendency to live his life along parallel tracks, one filled with work and achievement and high control and the other an internal and personal world sometimes characterized by lots of pain and, at times, irresponsible behavior.

Helps make some sense of some of the best and the worst of the Clinton years, doesn't it? Particularly the Monica Lewinsky situation, which virtually everybody--no matter what their political or cultural views--recognizes helped change the direction of American politics. Without that scandal, would the election in 2000 have turned out differently?

If those kinds of factors can influence practical politics so clearly, why can't we talk about the fact that Dubya was an alcoholic into his 40's? I think some of his presidential behavior makes more sense if you take that reality into account.

I have the greatest respect for anyone who overcomes a life threatening addiction. I would even say I have the greatest 'affection' for them, though that term is probably inappropriate to use with somebody I don't know personally.

But recovering addicts do tend to struggle with fairly predictable issues. Our president is a recovering addict. Why is that last sentence so hard to say publicly?

Why is it these kinds of important factors can only be discussed 20 years later by historians?

And what does it say about our current political system that people with clearly addictive personalities have led the country for the last 14 years?

Those of you who know me recognize that I'm fairly sceptical about pop psychology and even, at times, about more serious psychological explanations. But in the case of these past two American leaders, I wonder why we haven't been freer to discuss these issues in real time?

I’m observing and not concluding. I’d be very interested in people’s thoughts.


Anonymous John Teter said...

Tom, I think it is so hard to say our president is a recovering addict because it is so personal. What reporter wants to be known going after the President for that kind of stuff? They would become the Jim Gray of political broastcast, but probably not land on their feet. Though I am surprised Michael Moore hasn't gone after it.

Interesting observation about the last 14 years of addictive leaders. I think it says something about the nature of power, and who is drawn to these roles. And in Clinton's case, for him to go from his small context in Arkansas to the White House in one lifetime, it highlights an unbelievably gifted man who coped and trusted them as far as they would take him.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Great comments John. Yes, I agree the addiction stuff is personal, and I think Bush's political opponents have shied away from it out of good taste and sensitivity (better treatment than they've received from their conservative counterparts, I might add).

Things are so partisan it's hard to see how that kind of thing could be discussed helpfully in the media frenzy that would follow. Better silence than a circus!

What I find strange, though, is that even in an organization like mine, or in most any corporation I know, folks would be required to take a battery of psychological tests to play significant roles, and a history of substance abuse would be taken seriously. That's not true--as far as I know--for one of the most important roles in the world, the US presidency.

While the man who plays the role is a person and has a personal life, the role itself is anything but personal. In one sense, when someone becomes a leader, particularly a national leader, you can't think of them any longer as simply a person--they're also an institution, a symbol, etc.

I wonder if some of the reticence to talk about this kind of thing is the long term "aura" of power and strength that has to be projected on behalf of the institution of the presidency and of the US itself.

When the stockmarket can dip on the news of even a minor presidential illness, it makes sense that wide discussion of more serious issues is hidden by general consent. But I don't know if people withhold speaking of those things mostly out of respect for a president's private life--perhaps we're all more concerned for protecting the image and potency of the institution, and by extension, the US.

If that's true, we're caught in a wierd Catch 22 where our attempts to protect the image of power and strength and invincibility of the presidency and the US forces us to pretend that certain obvious potential (or real) weaknesses in a particular president aren't there.

I think that whole approach has a very serious downside to it.

I mentioned some of the practical effects of Clinton's issues on his presidency. With Bush, you've got an administration that is well known for it's fixation on secrecy, high control, highly combative and adrenaline rush approach to things, and a penchant for black and white, us and them thinking. I don't know of anybody, including Bush supporters, who doesn't acknowledge that this administration has an unusually hard time admitting mistakes or revealing any weakness, even by comparison with other presidents or leaders.

If you know anything about addictive personalities, that list is a pretty good description of some of the most common characteristics.

People who have been addicts--particularly those who had really long term addictions like Bush--still struggle with those characteristics even after they stop abusing substances. In fact, those characteristics are really more of the underlying problem than the substance they abuse--their drug of choice is typically simply a way to deal with or mask the characteristics and the damage they can do.

What's sad for for me is that these negative characteristics are the things that have caused the most political damage for Bush and for the country, and have helped increased the polarization in the country dramatically. They've hurt him and the country more than any of his actual policies.

Maybe if we'd had a clearer understanding, and discussion, of some of his emotional and psychological limitations we could have seen what was coming. He may simply have lacked the "wiring" so to speak, to be a "compassionate conservative," a "uniter and not a divider," and the leader of a more transparent and honest government.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Interesting post and comments. Perhaps ironically, I've always considered Bush's history of substance abuse and subsequent recovery as a strength rather than a liability. There is a sharpness, a kind of hard edge, to his moral vision that I find refreshing, inundated as I often am by academic approaches that seem to run adrift in a sea of competing perspectives. George Bush sees evil, and I think he sees it so clearly precisely because he has had to face it in himself, has had to confront the reality of a soul bent on self-destruction regardless of the consequences.

Now of course it is this same clarity of moral vision that most liberals find supremely frustrating, but I believe there may be times in history when it is necessary for political or spiritual leaders to possess just such an uncompromising worldview. Can this sort of approach be polarizing or divisive? It certainly was for Jesus, but I think from the President's perspective, the risks are so great and the danger is so real that any other approach but one that identifies Islamic terrorism as evil would be irresponsible.

Now we certainly might argue over whether this sort of clear-cut dichotomy is appropriate in other political circumstances (my guess is that it is usually counter-productive), but in the case of the War of Terror I believe it has been indispensible. And I think a strong argument can be made that George Bush's Saul to Paul conversion in terms of substance abuse is what has enabled him to remain so steadfast.

6:34 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I don't have a clear perspective on the main discussion. I really don't know what to think - who would evaluate the battery of psychological tests that the president took? Who would be excluded - all recovering addicts? Veterans? People who'd suffered major emotional lost? I really don't know how to evaluate this except on a very personal case-by-case basis. And I really don't know how to make the decision even when you do that.

"Yes, I agree the addiction stuff is personal, and I think Bush's political opponents have shied away from it out of good taste and sensitivity (better treatment than they've received from their conservative counterparts, I might add)."

Ummm, I think that's kind of unfair. Bush was relentlessly harassed about possible cocaine use in his past, and the drunk driving stop was thrown out right before the election like a major revelation. I've heard all sorts of things in Republican politicians' pasts (possible sexual indiscretion, gambling, closet homosexuality, etc.) get thrown out during campaigns. Not to mention the massive attack on Limbaugh for the prescription painkiller stuff. I think that both sides share equally bad taste in this debate. The only reason they didn't attack Bush's alcoholic past is because he owned up to it so publically, and so they didn't see it as a weak point. The less politically astute liberal mouthpieces (counterpunch, newshounds, Michael Moore, etc) still mock him for it all the time.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Helpful stuff, Alex. There is always a positive, redemptive side to these personal weaknesses in everybody's lives. That’s a really important and very Christian take. I wish I had included that in my original post.

In Clinton's case, his unusual ability to compartmentalize his personal life away from his work life had a big upside for the country. Many people would have become paralyzed under the constant personal attacks and the ultimately illegitimate legal attack he was subjected to for a couple of years, but he was able to function effectively during that time.

In a strange way, his dysfunctional upbringing allowed him endure in a situation that most healthier and more balanced people would have bailed out of. If he hadn’t had that ability, the country would have faced an unnecessary crisis.

Yet on the other hand, because he had those characteristics, the country faced an unnecessary crisis.

That supports John’s point that our political system may have become so partisan and vicious that healthier and more balanced people need not apply.

Re Bush, I agree that the country was well served by his ability to recognize the evil of Islamofascism. Since most other Americans off all stripes and political persuasions also recognized that after 9/11, I hadn’t attributed that to any unique personal characteristic. I think the issue at hand is how to respond to evil, not whether it exists or not.

But I do agree with your general point that sometimes a leader who sees things in black and white terms and who is willing to take action can make an important and timely contribution.

I’m no fan of insipid analysis and inaction. I’m just not sure if vigorous but inaccurate analysis and headlong and violent action is any better. There are more thoughtful and vital options in between those extremes. Much healthier and more recognizably Christian options.

Jesus did divide the world. I have no response to those who believe Bush is following in Jesus’ footsteps. I honestly don’t know what to say to that so I’ll say nothing.

You’re probably right, Jon, that my idea of getting a better fix on a presidential candidate’s emotional health is impractical.

But I come back to the fact that companies and non-profits routinely check out people in that way.

Why is that so unthinkable for presidential candidates?

At the very least, voters would have a better sense of both the upside and downside of the personality profile. Alex got it right that the upside of dysfunctional stuff should be included too.

It might provide more and better information for voters, and it might bring presidential elections up to speed with current practice in the business and non-profit world.

10:43 PM  
Blogger ruth said...


Call me a cynic... but I really think that Bush's policies and the character of his administration are more related to the incentives involved in decisions they make (oil, wealth, control of markets, etc.) than to any of their personal histories.

I guess it's interesting to discuss things like his conversion and recovery from addiction, and I'm sure they do affect how he behaves as president... but I wonder how significant they are compared to the neoconservative agenda.

Does anyone know if Richard Perle or Dick Cheney are recovering addicts?

and what about Karl Rove? Speaking of which, do any of you really think that Bush has come up with this black-and-white moral clarity thing all by himself??

6:55 AM  
Blogger jon said...

"But I come back to the fact that companies and non-profits routinely check out people in that way.

Why is that so unthinkable for presidential candidates?"

The big difference comes in the "who" will evaluate. Companies and non-profits have someone responsible for making hiring decisions and evaluating candidates. They have a board, a president, or a committee who evaluates the candidates or decides who will evaluate them. But the American public is the body that chooses the president. How could the American public evaluate the president's mental health? They obviously can't do it as a corporate body, and I can't imagine any person or group of people getting picked where partisan issues wouldn't be present to an unacceptable degree.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I appreciate your take, Ruth.

I truly believe Bush is a better man than he's shown, though his gifts seem to be fairly limited compared to other leaders we've had. It's obvious Rove and Cheney have influenced him in a major way.

R and C seem to be a strange combination of ruthless and straightforward Machiavellianism and violent and romantic idealism. What an unfortunate mix.

None of that has to do with any recognizable Christian take I'm aware of, which is what makes the conservative Christian support of this whole thing so sad and discouraging.

I think both a Machiavellian stance and a violent, romantic idealism are intellectually defensible from a purely secular standpoint, but they simply can't be reconciled with any kind of Christian ethics I'm aware of.

I agree that strategic and economic factors are key. I've tried to make that clear through many writings and posts.

But I think that human, personal factors are more important in the decisions leaders take than we might imagine.

I've been a leader for years and I know that's true in my own life.

I'm not as pessimistic as you are, Jon, about the possibility of personality profiles becoming a more legitimate part of presidential contests.

I agree that things have become so incredibly partisan it's hard to imagine any group or committee doing anything balanced or for the broader good of the people.

But there are many examples of relatively bipartisan and relatively impartial institutions that influence the federal government every day.

Not everybody is a firebreathing and ideological cadre. There are still some intelligent people with integrity. I think those folks are going to stand up and show themselves in the years to come.

Why can't we have some relatively independent institution (like the Federal Reserve Board) that vets presidential candidates ahead of time for various psychological and personality factors and publishes relatively unbiased findings that point to potential strengths and weaknesses?

I can't imagine anything that would shed more light or encourage more humility and honesty on the part of sitting presidents.

Americans take solid and substantial psych profiles very seriously these days. Corporations and non-profits wouldn't spend a lot of money and take a lot of time on them if they didn't.

Again, why is something that churches and corporations and non-profits support out of the question for presidential contests?

For those of you with a highly market oriented approach, why would the country invest in a leader--when literally trillions are at stake--without doing our due diligence?

10:34 PM  
Blogger jon said...

ahhh - vetting someone ahead of time and then publishing results makes more sense to me. I was thinking of a veto kinda thing, which would be more unthinkable to me. Just making the findings public and then letting the people decide makes more sense.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

For anybody who's still reading this thread, Newsweek did a feature and a commentary this week that deal directly with the topic at hand.

The feature is about "Bush in a Bubble" and the commentary is about current American international diplomacy.

The feature and the article were both written by journalists who have generally supported Bush and this administration.

Interesting and potentially revealing stuff.

9:31 PM  

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