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John McCain's Authority Problem

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Make no mistake about it. John McCain's defiance of authority is what kept him alive in the Hanoi Hilton. But it has been a different story in the rest of his life.

The final piece fell into place for me last night watching John McCain's acceptance speech. The day before I had wondered what happened that night when John McCain's plane was shot down over Viet Nam. Last night he told us--he "went too far"on his bombing route and was shot down.
It was the final link in what is a remarkably consistent picture of John McCain as a man who has succeeded politically by opportunistically turning a lifelong authority problem into the image of a "maverick" politician driving the "straight talk express." Now he hopes to parlay it into the presidency of the United States.

John McCain is no more a "straight talker" than the oppositional adolescent patients I used to work with in locked adolescent treatment facilities who had a constant need to defy and even provoke authority wherever they found it. Like them, John McCain has a lifelong authority problem that has drawn him into conflicts with rules and authority in every phase of his life, including the recent selection of his vice-presidential running mate. Wherever there was a moral code or group norm, John McCain broke it and then scrambled to make his defiance look like a virtue.

Whether it was the rules of a military academy, a senior officer's order limiting a bombing run, a marital commitment requiring fidelity, an ethical obligation to avoid conflicts of interest in accepting campaign contributions, the political demands of being a team player respecting the give and take of one's party affiliation, or accepting the realities of old age, John McCain has repeatedly defied the demands that were incumbent upon him, done what he wanted to do, and then claimed he was being virtuous.

McCain's flaunting of rules in the military academy is seen as something to joke about like his extraordinary academic performance in which he finished 894th out of a class of 899. But it is not ever connected to the behavior of a navy pilot flying over Viet Nam who defied the predetermined limits of his mission and was shot down, the fifth aircraft lost under his command. There were reasons for the military rules taught at Annapolis. John McCain defied them in school and, predictably, he defied them in combat. That authority problem has plagued him "from day one."

McCain's refusal to accept the limits imposed by moral authority have led to repeated disrespect for sexual rules of fidelity and monogamy, even though he now leads a party with emphasis on "family values," and offers no freedom of choice to his sexual partners. It led to his involvement in the Keating savings and loan scandal that he has subsequently tried to cover over by creating a high profile image as a campaign finance reformer. And his reputation for being "above party" has led to an intense dislike by an unusually wide section of his political party who have resented his defiance of the team rules, something made all the more offensive to them when he contends his pursuit of his own agenda makes him superior to them, a maverick as he likes to put it, someone who, unlike them presumably, "talks straight."

McCain has now defied political ethics by cutting a tacit deal with the Republican Right that when he dies, he will bequeath the White House to one of them, a woman who believes in creationism, has no mercy for pregnant women, and possesses an apparent love and talent for Rovian politics. Wanting the presidency, he impulsively defied the requirement of carefully vetting his vice-presidential candidate.

In the case of Governor Palin, she is far more than just a "dark horse" candidate not having been given much chance to win an election. She is an almost totally unknown candidate. I do not diagnose political leaders, but the Palin case has made me realize I do try to rule out overt signs of pathology in a candidate. I cannot do that with Palin. I literally have not seen enough of her, nor do I think McCain has, to be able to rule out the possibility that she is a borderline personality, for example, prone to mood shifts, erratic professional relationships, and outbreaks of primitive aggression. This kind of psychic stability filter is not very difficult to pass, and yet it is still not apparent to me that she is psychologically safe in this most basic way. I am being asked to vote for someone who might be mentally safe?

Sixty days is a pretty short period of time for the country to be vetting this woman. But John McCain makes "gut decisions." This, of course, is a euphemism for doing what his impulses tell him to do. It is a license to act impulsively. It is a rationale for defying the demands of authority and in some cases the demands of reality. We saw the same quality in George Bush.

When reality tries to impose a limit on John McCain, he defies it, refers to himself as a maverick and does what his impulses tell him to do. When he cannot get what he wants, he often erupts in a raging temper tantrum. Yes, he is just the image of what we want answering the phone at three AM during a frustrating and tense international crisis! These severe temper tantrums that are such frequent occurrences, even in the Senate cloakroom, are the emotional concomitants of that same very limited ability to tolerate and respect the limits of authority that life demands we all accept. If he cannot have what he wants, John McCain blows high, wide, and handsome.

We will all pay a terrible price if John McCain "goes too far" with Vladimir Putin and starts a war. I am sure he will be able to wrap himself in the flag, remind us that he is a war hero, and blame Putin. You see, John McCain is not only too old to be president, he is also too immature. That's reality even if one wants to defy it.

Bryant Welch, J.D., Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and attorney and author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, June, 2008.)


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