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The Id in Office

Why do so many politicians lose the ability to approach their personal moral lives in the way most ordinary people are required to?


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

There's an intriguing question about politicians that never quite seems to go away: When it comes to mental health, emotional stability and social adjustment, are they a little crazier than the rest of us, a little saner, or not much different from the average person at all?

Over the past century, this has been more than a topic for dinner table conversation. It's a question that several generations of social scientists, using a whole range of theories and methods, have attempted to answer. But the answers have been all over the place.

In the 1930s, borrowing heavily from Sigmund Freud, the political scientist Harold Lasswell expressed the view that most people who run for office have serious ego deficiencies that drive them into public life in a quest for approval and vindication. In other words, they're emotionally needier than the people who vote for them.

Two decades later, at a time when social science in general was more optimistic, another political scientist, Robert Lane, decided to investigate Lasswell's ideas by seeking out politicians and ordinary citizens, questioning them and testing them. When he was done, he had come to the exact opposite conclusion from Lasswell. As Lane saw it, the majority of elected officials have stronger, more resilient egos than the average person. If they didn't, they wouldn't be able to stand up to the constant criticism and strain.

I first heard about these theories in the 1970s, when I was starting out as a reporter covering Congress. After a few years in the press gallery, I became convinced that neither Lasswell nor Lane really had it right. From my unscientific perspective, it seemed clear that there were as many and as varied personality types in Congress as there would be in a random sample of any 535 American adults. Some were paranoid, some were paragons of emotional stability and most were somewhere in between. You couldn't generalize very effectively.

I didn't give much more thought to the subject -- and in truth it seemed to be fading as a topic of intense debate. But there continued to be a small cohort of scholars who remained fascinated with the question and developed a specialty in it. In 1974, for example, the political scientist and psychoanalyst Stanley Renshon published a book called "Psychological Needs and Political Behavior," in which he asserted that political careers are built on an oversized need for personal control. Renshon has modified his view slightly since then, but he still sees politicians as motivated largely by personal ambition, some of it benign and some of it highly dangerous.

More recently, a younger group of researchers has sought to turn the question in a slightly different direction. They argue that it's not what people are like before they go into politics that really matters. Rather, it's what being in politics does to them. Essentially, these scholars are disciples of Lord Acton and his famous warning that power corrupts. They believe that the more power a leader acquires, the more likely he is to treat human beings as objects or instruments, and to ignore their personal wishes and needs.

It's fair to say we don't have a more definitive answer to the underlying question than we did when Harold Lasswell wrote about it nearly 80 years ago. But there are moments when the sickness-versus-sanity issue still forces itself into public attention. We've just been through one of those moments, with the resignation and disgrace of New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer.

WHAT IN THE WORLD, millions of us asked, could have possessed Spitzer to do what he did: establish a regular relationship with a prostitution ring whose secrecy would be extremely difficult to preserve?

In the days immediately following the governor's departure, specialists in political psychology put forward a rich sampling of theories about his downfall. Andrew Hawkins, a reporter for New York's City Hall newspaper, scooped up several of them, which I'll summarize here.

Howard Levine, a political scientist and trained psychologist who works out of SUNY-Stony Brook, argued somewhat charitably that Spitzer's resort to prostitution was a search for release from the stress and exhaustion that his governorship had placed upon him. Mark Goulston, a California psychologist who sometimes treats public figures, came up with a biological explanation. He believes that politicians develop what amounts to an addiction to adrenaline, that political failure (such as Spitzer's relatively unsuccessful first year as governor) depresses their adrenaline supply, and so they frequently turn to dangerous sex in an effort to get their adrenaline level back up.

Stanley Renshon doesn't buy any of that. He suggests Spitzer had been a man of reckless arrogance his entire adult life, that he entered politics in order to pursue power and control, and that achievement of power creates an irrational and risky feeling of entitlement.

I don't go along with all of Renshon's theories. But when he brings up the psychology of entitlement, I think Renshon is coming close to the heart of the matter.

Most of us have heard Henry Kissinger's comment that "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." It's not absolutely clear what that means, but one common understanding is that it means important people who want lots of sex can get it without much trouble, because potential partners are drawn to power the same way they are to physical attractiveness. It's easy to find examples of this, many of them at levels far below the upper reaches of the State Department.

Last month in this column, I wrote about the legendary California politician Jesse Unruh, a fat, homely man who became a sexual lion once he saw that women wanted to go to bed with the speaker of the Assembly. He slept with with almost as many women as he could find. It's a relatively short step from there to the idea that sex not only goes along with the job but that it is an entitlement with its own set of rules for those lucky enough to have access to it.

A few years ago, after Bill Clinton left the White House, someone in the audience at one of his speeches asked him a simple question: "Why did you have sex with Monica Lewinsky?" Clinton gave an equally simple answer: "Because I could." He then added that it had been a terrible mistake.

It's a short answer that's extraordinarily rich in its implications. It suggests that powerful people gradually lose the ability to approach their personal moral lives in the way most ordinary people are required to. They pursue what is available, and assume that they must be entitled to it, even if they are unwilling to admit that to themselves. The irony is that, in the larger sense, Clinton was wrong. As president, he couldn't pursue illicit sex in the White House without taking a giant risk of getting caught. As a powerful public figure, he was more vulnerable than the ordinary person -- not less. But he had forgotten that reality, perhaps in the same way Eliot Spitzer forgot it as governor of New York more than a decade later.

WHEN I THINK about the combination of sex, entitlement and mischief, I can't help thinking about athletes as well as politicians. In many ways, of course, their life trajectories have nothing in common. Great athletes begin to receive special treatment as teenagers, keep it, if they are lucky, for 20 years or so, and generally finish up as celebrities before they turn 40 -- at a time when most political careers are in their early stages.

But consider what many of the best Division I football or basketball players quickly become accustomed to: deluxe living arrangements; personal helpers to attend to their daily needs; a free pass on demands that they graduate, study or even go to class; exemption from responsibility for minor incidents of wrongdoing; and then a million-dollar contract once they go pro. Given the lives they lead, the curious thing isn't that so many athletes get in trouble; it's that more of them don't.

Politicians -- even the most successful ones -- don't experience all of these bounties. They aren't offered huge amounts of money to spend when they are barely past adolescence. As young aspirants to public office, they aren't pampered. If anything, they work harder than most ordinary citizens do to get where they want to be. Only when they reach the highest levels -- president, governor, member of Congress -- do they finally acquire personal aides to ease their way through the chores and difficulties of everyday life.

In many ways, though, it amounts to roughly the same thing. The longer that one is protected from the indignities of routine living, the more likely it is that one will come to believe -- at some level of awareness -- that he occupies a special place in the world, governed by a different set of rules, and that these more lenient rules apply to moral as well as professional existence.

So in the end, I find myself agreeing with the followers of Lord Acton more than I do with the arguments of Harold Lasswell or Robert Lane. There's no solid evidence that politicians start out with a different kind of mental and emotional equipment than other people. There's every reason to suppose that the lives they lead expose them to dangerous freedoms and temptations that some of them are too weak to resist. I think we have every right to throw the book at them when they transgress. But until we've been placed in that position, I don't think any of us can be absolutely sure how well we would do.

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