Swans Commentary » swans.com October 6, 2008  



John McCain: Freud To The Rescue


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - October 6, 2008)   A person who has been tortured and humiliated in his formative years carries with him a wound that may be temporarily concealed but festers throughout his life. It is a wound that cries out for revenge -- not necessarily on the parties that inflicted the wound but on others who can serve as psychological proxies for those responsible for the early trauma. The behavior of such people is often erratic, subject to extreme mood swings, ostensibly docile and gentle, then suddenly and inexplicably violent and vengeful. He is a man who often feels surrounded by enemies because, at some point in his life, he was brutally punished by them. To such a person, the world is full of threats and therefore the defensiveness needed to combat them remains fierce, albeit suppressed. We can all put on the false smiles demanded by social intercourse, but in some cases, the mask slips.

John McCain, who was captured, imprisoned, and tortured in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, is a textbook example of this personality type. Gentle, clever, ostensibly compassionate and concerned about people and their well-being, he is often short-tempered, explosive, angry, and unpredictable. It is as if the hatred he felt for his captors and his pitiful situation is always in the forefront of his mind and capable of instantaneous recall. This is not merely the temperament of a person who occasionally gives vent to minor irritations; more like a reflex action deeply rooted in the wounds that were inflicted during those difficult years of imprisonment.

A person with such a caste of mind is always on the alert for a rekindling of the humiliation that was beaten into him as a Prisoner of War. Such a person views conflicts, be they wars, acts of terrorism, or threats to himself and his country's safety, in battle terms. This is a person who thinks in terms of victory or defeat and is always ready, at the drop of a helmet, to engage forces he believes are out to do him, or his country, harm. This is the temperament of a zealot, a fighter, a protagonist; a man for whom it is more important to engage the enemy than risk being humiliated by him either in dialogue or, by what might appear to be, a show of weakness. To avoid that "show of weakness," his conscience orders him to strike first and strike hard; to repel those who threaten his well-being and that of his country.

To cope with these belligerent impulses, it is important to take refuge in shows of rationality, empathy, and reserve. To bottle up the rage and paste on labels of temperance to conceal the blood that is often boiling. The more the aggressiveness stirs in his soul, the greater the effort to conceal it. It is not a matter of being a fraud. The need to project sincerity and compassion is a kind of anodyne that helps smother the fury that it conceals, but the motivating agent is the suppressed belligerence that acts as a cover for the aggression. In a crisis, the first thing that comes to hand is a bludgeon -- not a measured contemplation of rights and wrongs. (Is Russia getting uppity? Let's give it a whack!) The superego may be beautifully fitted out but it is the id that is in control. Weighty decisions about war or peace, punishment or forgiveness, caution or impulsiveness are thrown to the wind. The irrational demon that fears new punishment and clings to defensiveness cannot be deterred by reason because reason has been routed by irrational anger.

When memories of his own torture are reawakened, rather than speaking against the practice, McCain's wrath is tellingly revealed. In June of this year, when the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision ruled that a Congressional statute barring petitions by Guantánamo detainees violated the Constitution's guarantee of the right of habeas corpus, McCain described it as "one of the worst decisions in the history of the country" siding with the Bush zealots who claimed the restoration of such laws would badly damage the security of the nation. It is almost as if some deeply-rooted sadism in his being relishes the fact that others will suffer the very tortures that he himself was once forced to endure.

Another symptom of this personality type is the tendency to create support groups; followers who can become "friends" -- even if their friendships are only illusory. How often have we heard McCain refer to "my friends" as if they were brethren whose welfare he held in the highest regard? Having a bevy of "friends" is another way of warding off the dangers of "enemies" -- like those other "friends" (i.e., fellow prisoners) who gave him moral support in the dungeons of Hanoi.

In jest it has been suggested that contenders for positions such as the president of the United States should be examined by teams of psychoanalysts to determine whether their temperament and mental acumen are fitted for such powerful offices. Had Nixon received such a test, I doubt he would have passed muster. Had George W. Bush agreed to such an examination, we might have been spared the mania of the past eight years. Although the suggestion has been made lightheartedly, I think it makes a lot of sense. The mental stability of the man or woman in the highest office in the land is a factor that affects the lives and wherewithal of all of us. Just as we are routinely concerned by the physical health of a presidential nominee, so should we consider his or her mental faculties -- not for obvious flaws such as paranoia or dementia, but to reassure the American people that there are no hidden gremlins in their hippocampus, which, under the stress of leadership, may usurp the balance of people whom we rely on to steer the ship of state.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Published October 6, 2008