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Political Preschool

Ruth Marcus
Contributor
As a reporter, editor, editorial writer and columnist at The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus has developed a keen understanding of the folklores and byways of the national political scene. Marcus writes with the…
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?

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)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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