Q: Let me ask you what you think of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor and one-time religious mentor. We keep hearing and reading that Wright must be narcissistic. How else can one explain his apparent disregard of the damage that he is doing to Obama's campaign? Wouldn't he want an African American such as himself to become president? Why is he sabotaging the very person he would be expected to help? I don't get it.
A: As I've said in previous columns, it is important to be aware not only of the positions that a candidate takes, but also of his or her psychological make-up. Sometimes, no matter how intensely they might hold certain political or ideological beliefs, psychological issues will tell you more about what they will do in office than any position paper issued during the campaign or any statement made in a debate. So, first let's try to understand what a narcissistic character would do in a given situation and how that might explain the relationship Obama and Wright once had and the quite different one they now have.
A narcissistic personality, in a nutshell, has a highly inflated sense of his or her worth. (This may come from what, in actuality, is a profound sense of inferiority, but that is another column). Their grandiosity, their inability to control their impulses and their constant sense of superiority, makes it difficult for them to maintain a relationship. Their actions are often inappropriate. This appears to be the Reverend Wright in a nutshell. No one who has seen him cannot help but conclude that he is a master of the inappropriate, a man in the throes of grandiosity. He even chastised the questioners at the National Press Club, strongly suggesting that they weren't smart enough or informed enough to ask him questions. This is typical narcissistic arrogance, a conviction that they are entitled to deference from others.
Wright's inability to empathize with others, to appreciate their needs, explains why he is oblivious to the damage he's done to Obama and, by extension, to the black community in general. He even asserts that he represents the entirety of the black church in America. He defends himself no matter what the consequences. He sees only his own needs. He is a classic narcissist.
So, his relationship with Obama would not have been some sort of equal exchange - a eminent clergyman and a brilliant and willing student. Reverend Wright would insist on an unequal relationship. He would insist, in fact, on an acknowledgment of his own superiority.
In therapy, I have seen many troubled patients who were been raised by narcissistic mothers. The inability of these mothers to praise their child or to permit the child to exceed the parent's accomplishment can produce an adult who, if successful, will be guilt-ridden. Worse, sometimes the adult child of a narcissistic parent becomes emotionally paralyzed, unable to become an independent and functioning adult.
On television, I have heard some analysts, most of them more schooled in politics than in psychology, suggest that Wright is jealous of Obama's much broader appeal and popularity - a relatively new element in their relationship. This makes a lot of sense. Let's put it in psychological terms. The narcissistic father does not want the son to be more successful than he is.
But what does this say about Barack Obama? Didn't he notice Wright's narcissism before? What blinded Obama to Wright's narcissistic posturing? It's hard to say, but maybe as a fatherless, biracial child, Obama was searching for his own identity and the flamboyant Wright seemed particularly attractive. There was nothing subtle about him. His message was clear, his theology strong and his sense of self simply monumental. This was a man who knew what he believed and who he was. Simple!
Adolescence is often a search for identity -and adolescence in this sense may come later for some than it does for most. Whatever the case, the individual hopefully moves on, incorporating his experiences in what emerges as his own adult identity. Before that, the adolescent may take on very flamboyant, and often defiant, identities. For Obama -- raised partly in a Muslim (Indonesia) country and by a single, white mother and white grandparents, the struggle to find out who he was could have been harder than most.
Far be it from me to offer Obama political advice, but it would show enormous self-awareness, admirable candor and offer comfort to the electorate if he says that Wright once served a purpose he no longer needs. He has moved on. He might want to say something similar about the black liberation theology that Wright preaches. It served its purpose, too. It helped him discover who he is, but he is no longer who he was. Time to move on here, too. Time to jettison what is not needed.
For many reasons, Obama is not likely to be so candid. Yet in recent days, he already did some of this. He divorced himself from Wright -the man and maybe his movement as well. But the impetus for this came not from within, but from considerable external pressure. It was only when Wright became a political burden that the breach was opened and Wright, in the words of countless cliché mongers, was thrown under the bus. It made for gripping television, but for a shrink it raised the question of whether this was a true psychological breakthrough to his own identity or a mere political maneuver.