Psychology of Presidential Ambition

06/12/2010 09:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Pavel Somov, Ph.D. Psychologist/Author of Reinventing the Meal, Eating the Moment, Present Perfect, Lotus Effect

A moment before I sat down to write this blog, I poured myself a cup of lotus tea and yelled the following into the living room where my wife was watching Cesar help another fearful dog out of its phobic bind: "Hey, babe, as a naturalized citizen, I can't run for president, right?" "Right!" she yelled back and asked in return, with one of those are-you-crazy chuckles: "What, you were thinking about running?!" Hell no! I happen to enjoy that special brand of American citizenship that comes with a fail-proof ego-check: Even if, for some reason, my ego were to blow up with a manic-grade delusion of grandeur I can never -- thank god! -- find myself in a position of telling three hundred million people how to live their lives. I secretly relish this particular perk of my naturalized citizenship. But as safe as America is from my pretensions of leadership, it isn't safe from my opinions on the psychology of presidential ambition.

So, a couple of days ago I am watching Jon Stewart interview Tim Pawlenty about his possible presidential ambitions. At a glance, I liked the guy. He struck me as well-informed, fast on his thinking feet, not without a bit of defensiveness, laconic, a decent listener, and, generally, a bit Obamesque. Jon Stewart took enough interest in the guy to have him stick around for a couple of rounds of "unedited" prying. So, when asked once again about whether he would consider running, Pawlenty shares that to run for a president in this country you have to be rich and/or famous and/or have a "shtick." Pawlenty's shtick-size aside, I agree, with a minor addition: You also have to be psychologically healthy. I think it's about time we have presidential candidates undergo a series of psychological evaluations. My reasons follow.

Leadership Into Unknown

Presidential candidates part-time as fortune-tellers. But can future be known? You see, everyone currently alive is alive in the same exact "now." We are all at the exact same time: not a single one of us (out of almost seven billion) is a nanosecond ahead. What this means is that no one, not you, not me, not the next presidential candidate, knows a thing about the future that doesn't yet exist. The next moment of time hasn't happened yet for any of us to experience and report as a fact. And anyone claiming to know the future or promising you a particular version of the future is exaggerating their existential mandate. Presidential campaigns begin with definitive statements of visions. This future-telling naivete is frankly laughable.

Voters are promise-shoppers. They are interested in the promises that support their values and in guarantees. Any presidential candidate who definitely, categorically guarantees this or that outcome, plan, agenda must have earned his/her political stripes in virtual reality. Just check the events of 2010: plumes of volcano smoke over Europe, plumes of underwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Reality renews every nanosecond without consulting anyone. And anyone gung ho enough to lead three hundred million plus people, blind, into the unknown, on nothing but a vision, on some level, must be intoxicated with his/her own ego. Maybe not anyone, but you have to wonder...

Question of Priorities

Presidential candidates, however different they are in their platforms, seem to have one common political denominator: They run on the good ol' political octane of family values. Let's pause to look at the absurdity of this. Presidents are uninsurable. President of the United States is, perhaps, the most dangerous job in the world. Thus, the life-long security detail for the president and president's family. Who, I ask you, in their psychologically healthy mind, would on one hand proclaim family values and on the other hand so blatantly and irreversibly jeopardize the well-being of their own family? This isn't a rhetorical question. In our voting neediness for validation and mirroring, in our voting thirst for identification and for a way to relate to any given presidential candidate, we fail to ask ourselves the following: What psychologically healthy person would be willing to put their own family in such harm's way? Would you do it?! Can you relate to putting your loved ones in harm's way? Of course, a common but poorly thought out objection would be that presidential candidates are self-sacrificing heroes. Give me a break: a hero (e.g. Jack Bauer) understands the necessity of acting alone and minimizing all collateral relational damage. Any married/parent presidential candidate, as far as I am concerned, has failed the test of family priorities. Should we automatically disqualify fathers of two and mothers of five from the presidential mandate? I don't know. I am not in the business of issuing "shoulds." Not my shtick. But I am certainly interested in raising this question as we approach another season of political football.

Rule Out Character Pathology

The question that Jon Stewart didn't ask, but, I hope, will with the next presidential wannabe, is the "why?" question. As I see it (and I've been almost nonstop wrong in my life on just about everything) there are three types that rush to the throne: moralizing/proselytizing control freaks, idealists, and peer-pressure marionettes. What psychologically healthy person would want to assume the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of a nation, for its nuclear arsenal? Who, in their right mind, would want to play god so much that they'd be okay with an endless series of zero-sum scenarios in which they will be deciding matters of life and death pretty much every day of their working life for four or eight years? Do you, the reader, have that much ego, that much arrogance, that much unbridled confidence, that much operational callousness to play god for, arguably measly living, while all along gravely reducing your own and your family's literal physical wellbeing? Which of you is so attached to your ideas of how the world should be that, if given a chance, you'd test your favorite socio-economic hypothesis on a sample pool of three hundred plus million not necessarily willing subjects? If you are reading this and thinking "I'd do it," I encourage you to check yourself in the mirror for a martyr's halo.

As a psychologist examining psychology of presidential ambition, what's running through my head is a series of clinical rule-out hypotheses: "ego," manic phase, narcissism, sublimated sociopathy, pathological approval-seeking. Now, I am not pointing fingers at any given candidate and saying that he or she is psychologically unhealthy. No. I am pointing my generic clinical finger at the entire presidential pool and saying to you, voter: Do you see the necessity of psychological screening for this kind of job?

Don't get me wrong: I am not actually proposing a "psych eval" for presidential candidates. I don't think that this idea actually stands a chance of realization. Even if this kind of psychological evaluation were to be somehow voted into the process, there'd be endless debates about how to do it and the partiality of the interviewers. And I'd be the first one to be skeptical of its outcomes. In politics, with enough money, everything can be fudged.

But here's a brief list of some intuitive "rules of thumb" to my fellow voting guinea pigs as we shop for a shepherd.

1. Whoever is trying the hardest to win (psychologically, politically, or monetarily), is too desperate to win, and is, therefore, most for sale. Look for a politician who is the most reluctant and noncommittal, for the one who is asking for a huge raise as opposed to spending his/her own money to work (day and night, literally) for, essentially, nothing, when you factor in the lethality risks.

2. Whoever is the most categorical and definitive is the most naive. The first guy or gal who scratches the back of his/her head the most and confidently, without self-deprecation, says "dunno" the most is the most epistemologically sober and life-seasoned to issue childish guarantees about the future that doesn't yet exist. For example, when Obama says "complicated" (as mocked by Jon Stewart) he is essentially saying "I don't know." That's existential courage in my book. When Pawlenty said that he didn't have that much of a "shtick" (even though that came with unexpected erotic connotations), he won a point or two in my voting mind. Look for authentic humility rather than for high school coach bravada.

3. Whoever first "confesses" that he or she has been in long-term (preferably, psycho-dynamic) therapy, is able to openly talk about what he/she had worked on in therapy, and is able to articulate a no-nonsense meditation practice (not just prayer), is likely to be more emotionally self-regulated and better self-aware.

4. Finally (I have a longer list in mind but I don't want to bore you, it's Saturday night after all), whoever has the least to lose (in the way of spouse, children, dogs) and checks out on the above three points, is probably in the psychological ballpark.

You might say: But what about whether a given presidential candidate is a Democrat or a Republican? These, my fellow reading-writing-thinking minds, are quickly becoming just two politically archaic words without much meaning. Put simply, I'll take a psychologically healthy person over a party zombie any day. How about voting wisdom or, at least, psychological health?