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Political Preschool

Posted on May 20, 2010

By Ruth Marcus

In understanding the foibles of politicians, I’ve always found it is a benefit to have spent large amounts of time with toddlers. Me! Me! Me! The narcissism of the toddler has its adult manifestation in the career politician: If self-absorption is not a job requirement, it is at least a helpful attribute in getting ahead in politics.

Is there a better explanation for soon-to-be-former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s artless explanation that he switched parties solely to keep his seat than a preschooler’s sense of entitlement? It’s mine! Gimme! Anyone who’s watched a gaggle of politicians jockey to see who’ll speak first at a news conference understands that taking turns and sharing nicely come as poorly to elected officials as to 4-year-olds in a sandbox.

Specter is a fascinating study in political egocentrism, but the similarities between young children and politicians came most vividly to mind this week with the seemingly different foibles of Richard Blumenthal and Mark Souder.

Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut and would-be senator, seems to have engaged in a bit of what the psychologists would describe as “magical thinking” about his service in Vietnam—oops, I mean Vietnam-era service. At various points, Blumenthal described how “we have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.” He told a crowd cheering for troops that “when we returned, we saw nothing like this.” He noted that “I served during the Vietnam era,” adding, “I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”

Certainly Blumenthal knew he had not been in Vietnam—and, yet, there is in his words something of the child’s capacity to imagine that saying something makes it so. Blumenthal has been a champion for veterans’ rights, not the most obvious focus for a state attorney general. Was there a small piece of him that began to think of himself as truly part of their band of brothers?


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As Joan Didion wrote in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about her inability to acknowledge her husband’s death, “I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.” Pretend play and the concrete reality of the imaginary are the essence of childhood.

Likewise, politicians excel at trying on costumes, assuming identities (the angry populist, the slayer of pork), delivering lines written by others. Is it any wonder that the division between fantasy and reality starts to blur for some of them?

Ronald Reagan spun untrue stories about how he had photographed Nazi death camps. As a radio broadcaster, he once continued announcing a baseball game after the newswire relaying the plays went dead. Joe Biden, channeling Neil Kinnock, spoke about his (imaginary) coal-mining ancestors. Hillary Clinton vividly described being under (nonexistent) sniper fire in Bosnia.

Were those deliberate lies or some more mysterious mechanism of the unconscious brain? “Reagan is a romantic, not an impostor,” his aide Michael Deaver explained. “He saw this nightmare on film, not in person. That did not mean he saw it less.”

Souder, the Indiana Republican forced to resign his congressional seat after an extramarital affair with an aide, raises the question of why so many politicians stray, and here, too, politicians share similarities with children. Most of us learn, eventually, to survive without gold stars and frenzied parental clapping. There are not many occupations other than politics—acting comes to mind—that reward the need for constant adulation. Politicians crave the affirmation of the cameras, the crowds, the voters. The same neediness for ego gratification is, I think, part of what motivates their desire for new sexual partners as well.

Along with this goes another form of magical thinking—the false conviction that they will be able to get away with it. John Edwards denying that he was the father of Rielle Hunter’s baby reminded me of a 4-year-old, chocolate smeared across his face, denying that he had eaten the cookie. Similarly, Souder seemed to believe he could get away with having an affair with an aide—a part-time aide, he said, as if that matters—who served as his co-host on a video promoting abstinence. You really cannot make these things up.

This leads to an important difference between politicians and toddlers. Both can be entitled narcissists with a problem distinguishing fantasy from reality. But it takes a politician to simultaneously preach abstinence and play footsie. It takes a grown-up to be such a hypocrite.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, May 23, 2010 at 11:29 am Link to this comment

The Republican Party doesn’t represent the populace at all, so there is little that can be actually done about the Republicans by the populace.  But it is far past time for America’s Democratic Party to elect mentally grown up politicians who will represent the populace as their constituency, instead of DLC idealogs playing like babies in a sand box while they destroy the world.  The populace must make the politicians grow up,  because their childlike ideologies of being independent of the populace and the infrastructure, lying to the populace that they do not choose to represent,  and totally ignoring the environment is destroying the world and will wipe the human population off the face of the globe in short order if such is continued.

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By G, May 21, 2010 at 7:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Reverend Money, you may be right or wrong, but this
seems quite off-topic anyway.  She’s still making a
valid point here and now.  Her email address is
provided if you want to berate her directly; I for
one do not know or care what past incident you’re
referring to. 

Just because someone was wrong or seemed wrong to you
months ago it doesn’t entitle you to use it to shoot
down every unrelated thing they say, forever.  Even
if she said “I LOVE torture!  For kids!” it wouldn’t
mean that it’s ‘hypocritical’ for her to point out
that politicians are often childish egomaniacs.

My view of politicians and infantilism is that party
politics itself is little more than group egotism
these days as we are living in a time of ideological
torpor and indifference.  The parties are similar and
operate like middle-managers; original thinking is
dismissed as fringe wingnut thinking; so there’s
little to distinguish political office from corporate
power - it’s all about power, money and status. 

James M Buchanan and Isaiah Berlin convinced Western
politicians that the worst political mistake is to
believe in or care about something beyond ones own
narrow self-interest; Western politicians sow the
seeds of decadence by believing in this, and sow the
seeds of catastrophe and tyranny by believing
fervently in this to the extent that they are willing
to impose it on other countries driven by mad but
sort-of earnest and passionate philosophies. 
Examples of these latter include Afghanistan and pre-
Glasnost Russia. 

Without ideological passion and tender human concern
it’s all like a child’s videogame.

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By Jasper Jennings, May 21, 2010 at 5:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The same toddler-like behavior is seen with many businesspeople and corporate chieftains. The Goldman-Sachs types and others have an insatiable “me” “me” “me” mentality, inability to share and become enraged when, despite all they already have, someone else seems to have something that they feel they must also have.

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By Gasping for air, May 21, 2010 at 4:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Perhaps Ms Marcus could advise re how one entering or in politics could rapidly grow up and shun the narcissism when the public almost requires it?  It appears it’s part of the MO for having “personality.” I’m running for office and have been described as coming across as “real” when I’m giving a speech, which apparently is a good thing. Part of the job IS giving speeches, which in itself means one wants the attention of listeners. A puzzle, yes?

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By Reverend Money, May 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Oh, Ms Marcus, I should add that you are indeed correct in noting that “It takes a grown-up to be such a hypocrite.”

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By Reverend Money, May 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ms Marcus, Some months ago you wrote a strongly expressed argument that American Torturers (criminals)should not be held accountable under the law for their crimes.

Yet, the narcissism of politicians annoys you.

Perhaps, in a future column, you can enlighten your readers as to what value system you tap into when evaluating the behavior by politicians.

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