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Uncovering the Psychological Roots of the Bush Tragedy

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Go deep, young writers! That should be the counsel of all journalism schools. A democracy needs deep understanding of its history and its political leaders.

To make this country run properly, we need writers and reporters who uncover the foibles of politicians and expose their defects of character, lapses of judgment, secret transgressions, hidden negativity, and self-serving appetites.
Last week The New York Times detected a ruptured sewer line running through Rudolph W. Giuliani’s psyche. The Republican presidential candidate bordered on ruthlessness while mayor of New York and made “the vengeful roundhouse an instrument of government,” the newspaper reported. The story convincingly showed why the man is unfit to be president.
Obviously, the best scoops and disclosures are published before the voting. Yet belated information about unfit politicians is still important news. A recent effort in this genre is Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy, in which the author gives ample reasons why George W. Bush was, and still is, immensely unqualified to be president.
Weisberg, editor-in-chief of, attributes Bush’s flawed leadership to his complicated relationship with his family and, in particular, with his father. The author writes that Bush “has been driven since childhood by a need to differentiate himself from his father, to challenge, surpass, and overcome him.” Weisberg says his book is the “black box” that explains the plane crash of Bush’s presidency. For all his interesting observations, however, Weisberg could have gone deeper.
He notes that Bush is insecure, aggressive, and burdened with feelings of being inadequate and a disappointment to his family. Bush lacks the true confidence that would allow him to accept his limitations, admit his mistakes, and salvage what he can of the wreckage of his administration, the author says.
He notes that Bush developed a firm strategy to make his political choices completely different from his father’s—yet he doesn’t say why. Nor does he mention the possibility that Bush has a personality disorder or that he might be, as Dr. Justin A. Frank claims in Bush on the Couch, a sociopath.
Great political writing discloses what the subject doesn’t know about himself. Bush is unaware of how extensively he lives through an idealized self-image. He identifies with that self-image and refuses (probably out of fearfulness and the restraints of a personality disorder) to step out of the darkness of his self-ignorance.
When we look deeper into Bush’s psyche, we find a self-loathing so intense that he feels the need to compensate for it through his belief that he has been especially chosen by God to be president of the United States. An idealized self-image, or a narcissistic personality disorder, or grandiose delusions are often coping mechanisms for self-loathing.
This psychological assessment is consistent with Bush’s early experiences. He was exposed to his mother’s serious depressions and to his father’s extended absences from the family and hands-off parenting. Bush also faced the prospect of never living up to his father’s “triumphant” achievements. In addition, he assimilated the shame of his dyslexia and attention deficit disorder and the painful perception of Jeb as favorite son.
Evidence for Bush’s self-loathing is found in his compulsive practice of giving demeaning nicknames to his associates. This is his covert way of reducing, in his eyes and theirs, their value, importance, and standing. This behavior is an extension of the negativity Bush directs at himself. We dispense into the world the negative emotions that we harbor inside of us. For instance, a person who is sensitive to rejection or criticism will be first in line to reject or criticize others.
Sensitive to feelings of loathing, Bush compulsively dishes it out at targets such as Karl Rove and others who he sees as inferior to himself. His practice of humiliating Rove, for instance, reveals how Rove became the recipient of Bush’s own self-loathing, now shifted on to Rove, though tempered somewhat, as protocol would require, by humor and affection.
Loathing and scorn are powerful tools of control and intimidation. Members of the White House press corps have trembled in the past at the prospect of receiving such scorching negativity from Bush. A sociopath (as well as a less gravely dysfunctional person) can be a menacing dispenser of this bullying tactic.
In meetings with world leaders, Bush has looked for common ground on the basis of what makes him personally comfortable. Weisberg quotes chief of staff Andrew Card saying, “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith . . . The president doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.” Bush was much relieved to see an Orthodox cross around the neck of Vladimir Putin on their first meeting and he proceeded to misread the Russian leader’s authenticity. Bush had more difficulty relating to secular world leaders such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. Because of his abundance of inner irrationality, Bush finds himself to be more comfortable in associations involving faith (the irrational) rather than those involving the secular mode (reason).
People of faith also make him feel comfortable because he’s less fearful that they’ll be judgmental of him and find him, on a personal level, to be their inferior. (The dysfunction of self-loathing produces an emotional conviction of one’s inferiority and unworthiness, just as, on the surface, it can produce adolescent cockiness as a limited coping mechanism.)
Why has Bush compulsively adopted strategies different than his father’s? Through projection, the son sees in his father the weakness and failure (wimp factor) that the son refuses to acknowledge in himself. This makes the son easily annoyed or disgusted by his father’s flaws, even though those flaws only stand out so prominently for the son because he’s projecting them out of his own psyche onto his father. In his rigid denial, the son has to find a convenient target for his disowned feelings if he expects to be able to continue suppressing them and deluding himself.
The son is also deluded into believing that his father is totally deserving of the son’s ambivalent feelings toward him. This causes the son to exaggerate the significance of those flaws and to wish to avoid any association with them. Meanwhile, all along the son was further conflicted because he had found solace in identifying with his father’s “greatness,” as he was also emotionally attached to the privileges of being his father’s son.
Bush’s self-loathing, along with his emotional craving to surpass his father, would easily become the driving force in a passion for validation and self-aggrandizement. His decision to invade Iraq would have been influenced by this dysfunction. Becoming conqueror of the Middle East would “prove” to himself and others how great and powerful he is, thereby neutralizing at least temporarily the inner aggression that’s the backbone of his self-loathing.
As well, Bush’s role as war president has been highly satisfying to him emotionally. With “evil” as a target, he has been able to sanctify his aggressive streak. His aggression (a factor in his self-loathing) is no longer so chaotic, so directed at himself and his fellow countrymen. In part, he may be reluctant to withdraw from Iraq, or even to begin to acknowledge the irrationality of our presence there, because he’ll lose that convenient “evil” target for his aggression.
As one of his modes of acting out his unresolved issues, Bush has tumbled upon a convenient though simplistic pseudo-moral—“Fighting evil is the right thing to do.” He has pursued this motto relentlessly and recklessly until his repressed issues with ineptitude and unworthiness are displayed for all (except himself) to see. Even his lies, incompetence, and mangled syntax can be negative exhibitionism, meaning a manner whereby he generates the negative assessments that, emotionally, he expects to encounter from others.

Usually such a dysfunctional person will be thin-skinned, vengeful, defensive, and quick to anger, though he can have a robust personality and superficial self-confidence. Bush’s hawkish certitude and stubbornness feel to him like power and he prides himself on being decisive. But this is just another cover up for his profound inner weakness. We have failed as a nation to overthrow his irrational (and hence illegitimate) authority because our own lack of psychological understanding creates too much self-doubt that renders us uncertain and weak.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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