Monday, February 15, 2016

The Pathological President

This week I spoke offhandedly to a psychiatrist on the subject of politics. I wasn’t expecting the precise topic to be raised, but was grateful for the insight provided. It was her learned opinion that anyone willing to be President had significant psychological and pathological issues. As she put it, those who would put that much stress and pressure on their shoulders had to have holes and substantial personal problems. Her view was that the egocentric conceptions of self that are commonplace with our high elected officials are balanced uneasily with a kind of outright masochism.

I can’t say I disagree with the doctor’s hypothesis. We are, as we know, in the middle of another contentious election year, where numerous important questions are being raised. I’d love an unguarded moment with every significant candidate for the office. If I was granted that degree of trust and access, I’d like to ask why they were running. In a debate format, I know I’d receive a carefully nuanced and mostly meaningless reply. Off the record, I wonder what drives and motivates those who have placed themselves willingly under a microscope.

Most people I’ve spoken with over the course of my life have no desire to be President. It was once fashionable to say, in all seriousness, that any boy and girl could grow up to be our Chief Executive. That may be so even today, but along with a mere willingness to run is an always unasked follow up question. We know the stated objective of our politicians, but what insecurities and yes, holes, are responsible for those who seek what can be such a thankless occupation. The stakes are high, the reward as elevated as the risk.

Historians have sought to probe the real factors at play. Any number of posthumous biographers dig deeply into a life to answer that very question. They have the benefit of hindsight at their disposal. And even then, some politicians keep their cards close enough to their vests that no one ever gets an authentic peek at who they really are. The narratives their campaigns choose are often adopted part and parcel without questioning. Those who are good at the game might forget who they really are, underneath it all. In their line of work, one is forced to equivocate and dodge, to bob and weave, and those pugilists who last into the late rounds usually become career politicians.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are known quantities. We are encouraged to believe their campaign stop chatter, embrace their visions of reform, and pick sides accordingly. This time around, Bernie’s banter is viewed as somehow more authentic. That’s an upside, but what personal lacking would have him take on the highest office in the land? Hillary Clinton has a reputation, deserved or not, for being transparently power-hungry, a label that has fed the high negatives she has never been able to effectively shed. We want our President to provide what he or she espouses on the stump, which is partially a reason why Donald Trump’s campaign cannot be derailed.

It is very sad that we’ve become cynical enough to excuse boorish behavior and bluster as somehow being proof positive of authenticity. Trump’s supporters want a return to the good old days and will follow any leader who makes a different set of promises. They expect him to make good on their investment with him. We don’t know for sure that Bernie will provide free college education or establish a single-payer form of health care, but we want to believe. Conversely, we want to believe that Hillary will accomplish a few incremental, cautious changes to an increasingly complicated political reality.

Why would anyone want the burden of expecting a phone call at 3 am? After the spin and constant analysis, the speeches and baby kissing, the handshakes and fundraising, can we honestly say that our candidates even know who they are? If the compulsion to be President is a kind of pathology, the absolute horror of campaigning and then governing to follow will surely drive a person insane. We observe the weather-beaten look and grey hairs of our Presidents from the moment they take office until the day they leave.

This is why we should be careful, why we should peel back the veneer before we cast our ballots. The best orators and politicians will appear as though they know us, and we will allow ourselves once more to believe that convincing line. We will believe that, to our chosen candidate, each of us is the most important being on the face of the Earth. The passage of time will grant us some greater understanding and revelation, but many of our leaders will stay inscrutable from start to finish. I hope at the end we receive what we really need.

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