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John Edwards and the Dark Side of the Political Personality

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John Edwards engaged in an affair while running for President and while his wife suffered from cancer. A baby he claimed was not his is, and he asked a staffer to take the hit for him. Edwards' reaction when caught was strange, even bizarre. He declared that his wife was in remission when he was having his affair, as though that made a difference, and explained that people fawning over him had transformed him into a narcissist. Now we hear that he may have left behind a sex tape. His wife has finally had enough and is apparently leaving him.

How could a highly intelligent, sophisticated, man do and say such things? How could his judgment be so bad? How can he be so uncaring of the feelings of important others in his life? Of his responsibility to his supporters and to the public? How could he be so irresponsible altogether? Is this endemic to politicians? Is it just Edwards? Is he uniquely out of his mind? Or are we all vulnerable and it's just that politicians have more temptations and opportunities than most?

Psychological data indicate that Edwards is not an anomaly. It also indicates that the potential for this kind of behavior is not equally distributed in the population, only awaiting temptation and opportunity. There is really something about politicians that predisposes them to these kinds of behaviors, prevents them from owning up to them, from understanding the hypocrisy of their public statements versus their private behaviors, and from realizing the effect of what they have done on others, including their families. The psychological factors that underlie these characteristics are: Narcissism, Power Motivation, High Risk Taking, and a False Self. Politicians are more likely than others to display them all.

Narcissism: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association defines narcissistic personality disorder as

"a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy."

Narcissists are extraordinarily self-centered. Further, their exploitative sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, disregard for others, and constant need for attention adversely affect their interpersonal relationships. This is an almost perfect stereotype of a politician. What kind of person can endlessly tell strangers, without self-consciousness, that his opponent is completely unworthy whereas he belongs in a high-prestige, powerful position? There are many routes to a political career but it is particularly attractive for someone with a narcissistic character style.

Power Motivation: Power motivation is the desire to have an impact on the world and/or others. People high in power motivation are competitive and want to be in charge. They crave prestige. For many, sexual admiration is a big plus. Power motivation is pretty much a prerequisite for being a politician since they are all about having impact and being in charge.

High Risk-Taking. Politics is risk taking on steroids. In elections, you either win or lose. Almost does not count. It takes a special kind of person to put himself at risk in this way or he wouldn't be able to tolerate the stress of running for office. A person who takes such risks repeatedly is not limited to political risks. He is prone to risk taking generally. Big risks are in his DNA. Small or moderate ones just won't get the blood flowing.

The False Self: A politician must constantly guard his words. A casual comment can be damaging politically. Politicians are expert at avoiding questions and parse their words so as not to offend anyone. They have built up a public false self to protect themselves politically. Such people are under tremendous strain. They cannot display spontaneous emotion. The emotion they do display is thought out and part of the role. They can lose sight of who and what they are. They can become empty inside. An eminent psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott, wrote that the false self could lead to apparently inexplicable self-destructive behavior:

"The world may observe success of a high degree, and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels 'phoney' the more he or she is successful. When such individuals destroy themselves in one way or another, instead of fulfilling promise, this invariably produces a sense of shock in those who have developed high hopes of the individual."

Winnicott could have been talking about Edwards.

Putting it all together. Begin with a self-centered, insensitive, person, who thinks he is special (Narcissist). Add a need to be in charge and have a major impact on the world (Power Motivation). Throw in an attraction to risk, the bigger the better (High Risk Taking). This person takes up politics to meet these needs. It's a perfect fit. In the service of these needs, he presents a false front of modesty, caring, and empathy. Every word is weighed in terms of how it will affect his goals. After a while, he doesn't know who he is anymore. He is under tremendous stress. He endorses attitudes and behaviors that he may or may not actually believe in (False Self). He may not know himself what he believes in other than power, prestige, and admiration. He is entitled to these things. At the same time, he has personal needs he also feels entitled to. To satisfy them entails great risk but he is attracted to risk. There is also self-destruction built into the false self. So he takes chances and risks destroying all he has so painstakingly built. When caught, he does not feel guilt and remorse, he feels threatened. He does not understand the sense of betrayal others experience; it is about him, not them. He'll first try to ride roughshod over it through denial, anger, and cover-up. Should that fail, he'll try carefully crafted redemption in line with his public persona or False Self. The possible transparency of such tactics would be lost on him. Sound familiar? The result is exactly the kind of behavior and lack of insight that some of our politicians have evidenced and that Edwards has so prominently displayed. This is the dark side of the political personality.