16 January 2006

Stephen Soldz: Narcissism, the public, and the president

In an article on the Dissident Voice site, a professional psychoanalyst compares George W. Bush's behavior with the classic symptoms of narcissistic personality discorder.

This could explain why Bush is able to violate human rights and international laws and treaties without a second thought. The article also presents a theory as to why he still manages to appeal to some Americans.

An excerpt:
President Bush spoke last week to wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center and uttered these immortal words, indicating a lack of true appreciation for the suffering of the gravely wounded, often permanently disabled soldiers he was speaking to:

"As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself -- not here at the hospital, but in combat with a Cedar. I eventually won. The Cedar gave me a little scratch. As a matter of fact, the Colonel asked if I needed first aid when she first saw me. I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here, but thanks for your compassion, Colonel."

At a time when the number of severely wounded soldiers is rising, this lack of appreciation is disturbing and portends badly for adequate resources being made available to care for damaged soldiers and veterans over the coming months, years, and decades.

This episode was far from the first time Bush uttered bizarre sounding comments in response to the injuries of others. Who can forget his remarkable message to the hundreds of thousands of people, many poor and black, whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina: "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

While Bush's comments to wounded GIs were uttered together with the usual platitudes expected on such occasions, these quotes illustrate Bush's greatest strength and also his greatest weakness, his narcissism.


At an observable level, narcissism involves a self-centeredness that makes one oblivious to the emotional existence of others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (IVth edition: DSM-IV) defines its pathological extreme (narcissistic personality disorder) as: "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy."


I am very leery of making diagnoses via long-distance of people I have never met. Additionally, I am well aware that one must be skeptical of much "information" publicly available about major political leaders as this information is carefully filtered through the lens of PR manipulation designed to create desired images among the public. Furthermore, one must remember that a large degree of narcissism is common, perhaps even necessary in leaders who rise to presidential level. It is certainly hard for someone who is not convinced of their special qualities to have the drive, determination, and desire to undergo all that is required to get the position.

Despite these caveats, it is striking to compare what we apparently know about President Bush's character with these criteria. This exercise is not undertaken to assign a clinical diagnosis to the President or to assign labels as a sophisticated form of character assassination. Rather, it can be used as an indicator of his personality, of long-standing tendencies to think, feel, and behave in characteristic ways, regardless of whether such a personality is a clinical problem. And President Bush's personality, because of its potential effects on many Americans and much of humankind, is an important object of study.

Without denying the importance of national and class interests in the formulation of policy or endorsing the great man theory of history, understanding George W. Bush's personality may shine light on certain aspects of his administration's actions and on his appeal to the American public at this moment in history. Whatever material and strategic goals undergird this administration's foreign policies, it seems incontestable that these goals have been pursued in a manner that prevented their realization, indeed, in a manner that, as predicted by many mainstream commentators and former policy-makers sharing similar goals, had catastrophic results. When a former National Security Agency director describes the Iraq war as the greatest strategic blunder in American history, consideration of psychological factors contributing to the blunder hardly seems out of place. And when much of the public follows the blundering leader over the precipice, it seems appropriate to examine the attractions of that leader.

Given President Bush's quite modest prior achievements, including his numerous failures at business opportunities that were handed to him on a silver plate, there is little to suggest that he is outstanding in any characteristic other than ability to get elected. He certainly lacks much knowledge of international relations that would seem to be an essential perquisite for taking risky major decisions that modify long-standing American and international policies and alliances. Yet he appears to view himself as a Commander-In Chief for the ages.

Given the private nature of the fantasies described in the second criterion, it is hard to know if he is "preoccupied" with these grandiose fantasies. Yet, his apparent messianic mission to bring "democracy" to the Middle East, an area where wiser heads, however imperial their desires, have feared to tread, along with his reported comments suggesting that God speaks to him directly, suggest that Bush does indeed harbor grandiose fantasies of virtually unlimited success.

One also might wonder about Bush's repeated admiration for the ease of dictatorship, expressed, according to Wikiquote, on at least three occasions (July 1998, December 18, 2000, and July 26, 2001) years apart. A typical quote is this one from December 18, 2000: "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier... just so long as I'm the dictator." One certainly could infer a wish for the unlimited power of the dictator. Of course this was said in jest, but humor oft repeated often provides illumination into the character and desires of the teller.

Bush's behavior has often suggested that he has a sense of entitlement and feels that he is special and that he should be treated special. He got out of exposure to combat in Vietnam by having his family pull strings -- something about which he even boasted -- while steadfastly supporting the war in which tens of thousands of other less privileged Americans and countless Vietnamese died. He apparently sees himself as uniquely endowed to make decisions of life and death, of which laws he will obey and which he will ignore, of which congressional representatives or journalists he will deign to acknowledge and which he will ignore. The extraordinary lack of accountability of his administration is due, in part, to Bush's sense that he is accountable to no one. The Presidential attitude toward torture, of publicly proclaiming his right to order it whenever he feels like it (as opposed to authorizing it in shameful secrecy like past presidents) also suggests a sense of divine destiny of proportions extreme even for presidents. The recent NSA eavesdropping scandal also, unusually, involves a deliberate public boasting of his right to break laws (over 30 times) with a sense of total impunity. The extent to which his administration has gone to protect the President from any exposure, however fleeting, to protesters and dissidents suggests a Presidential antipathy to any challenge to his authority.

As for his need for excessive admiration, his surrounding himself with sycophants like Harriet Miers, who evidently once claimed that Bush was "was the most brilliant man she had ever met" and Condoleezza Rice, who is known for never challenging Bush, is certainly suggestive evidence.

In considering empathy, or its lack, Bush's career is full of illustrations, like the comments above to wounded vets, or his complete uninterest in the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina until it became a potential political liability. And who can forget his mocking of Karla Faye Tucker's plea for Bush to commute her death sentence: "Please," Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "please, don't kill me."
[Read more.]

I fear that as long as narcissists run the country, Dr. King's dream will not be fully realized.

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