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Shame & Humiliation:
Presidential Decision-Making on Vietnam


397 pages,
ISBN: 0773513922


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Oval Office with Narcissi
by Charles Levin

"Our increased familiarity with the child's experiences vis--vis his parents might well be a factor.that in turn has all kinds of political ramifications. The understanding of the intensity and meaning of narcissistic rage, what a narcissistic injury means for individuals and populations.might in the long run.assert some kind of beneficial effect.."
"Knowledge in the psychological and social sciences should lead to man's increasing mastery over his historical, political, and social fate. In this sense, it seems to me that the depth-psychologist and the historian are working on the same team, that they must work together and learn from one another."
-Heinz Kohut, "The Self in History," The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978

One may disagree with the precise terms in which the late Heinz Kohut envisioned the co-operative relationship between the social sciences and psychoanalysis (that they are working on a "team" whose goal is "mastery"), but there are good reasons to be hopeful about his main proposition, which is that psychoanalysis can throw some light on the emotional and motivational aspects of fundamental problems in history, politics, and the other human sciences.
Unfortunately, there are still significant barriers to the kind of interdisciplinary research Kohut was proposing. Like ordinary individuals, academic institutions naturally experience insecurity when their defining boundaries seem too easily blurred. Crises of professional identity also occur whenever there is uncertainty or confusion about appropriate methods and standards of validity in the conduct of professional practice. Suspicion of psychoanalysis in the social sciences may have been exaggerated in the past, but there is still cause to doubt its usefulness in some fields. There has been a tendency to "apply" psychoanalysis in an over-generalized way, as if it were some kind of universal formula for interpretation. Solid psychoanalytic studies based on standard scholarly practices and social scientific methodology are comparatively rare, and so when they do come along, they are especially deserving of our attention.
Blema Steinberg's Shame & Humiliation: Presidential Decision-Making on Vietnam is a perfect example of the kind of constructive interdisciplinary study, with obvious policy implications, which Heinz Kohut had in mind. For many years, Dr. Steinberg has combined her professorship in political science at McGill with hospital work and private psychoanalytic practice. Like her teaching and clinical work, her writings have always been distinguished by her capacity to blend a wide-ranging expertise. Shame & Humiliation, which was awarded a 1996 Q-Spell Prize, is the culmination of a series of important studies focusing on the psychology of international relations and the problems of disarmament.
Few books succeed in combining biography, history, political science, and psychoanalysis into one readable and entertaining text, but Shame & Humiliation manages to do even better. Steinberg has produced three thoughtful biographies in one: expertly narrated and detailed portraits of the lives of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each of these is paired with a riveting account of how the president in question came to his most difficult decisions to do with Vietnam. Steinberg has done a superb job of pulling together the now voluminous primary research on recent presidential politics and Washington policy in Southeast Asia. The result is a lively political history of the Vietnam era. For good measure, she provides a clearly argued and accessible chapter on the psychoanalytic theory of the narcissistic personality, including a useful review of the literature on loss of self-esteem and its relation to aggression. Not bad for a first book, and a feast for any reader in the general area of social science with interdisciplinary interests.
I should say at the outset that Steinberg's focus on presidential character has nothing to do with psychological reductionism. Nowhere does she come even close to arguing that psychoanalysis can explain the historical record on Vietnam. What she demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt is that the adult sequelae of chronic narcissistic injury in childhood played a central role in the careers of Johnson and Nixon. This does not mean that the Vietnam debacle would necessarily have been avoided if different men had been president. Perhaps it might have. That is not the point. The essence of Steinberg's message is that the influence of psychodynamic factors cannot reasonably be excluded from political history, because it is so pervasive, both at the individual and the group level. So why have the mainstream social sciences avoided any systematic approach to this problem for so long?
It is not clear whether Steinberg believes, like Kohut, that of all the sources of emotional conflict in human affairs, the narcissistic issues related to self-esteem and identity are the most important. But it would not be difficult to make a prima facie case for such a sweeping proposition.
Anyone familiar with the intractable, chronic, enraged quality of the political disputes in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or even Quebec, for that matter, will concede that "narcissistic injury" is a potent and elemental political elixir. Nothing could be more basic in politics than the sense of personal or collective humiliation, whether real or imagined, and the felt need for "historical justice", which is the nationalistic code word for revenge. All the traditional feudal values of rank, honour, and display have their roots in human narcissism and remain fundamental ingredients in contemporary democratic politics.
Take the Johnson presidency. Johnson relied heavily on appearances, and had the skill to turn them into enough social and political reality to acquire wealth, power, and influence for himself. Like many successful politicians, he was a brilliant con artist driven by an excessive ambition to prove himself superior at almost any price. There is the well-known story of his first campaign for Congress, when he continued speechifying relentlessly in spite of an acute attack of appendicitis. But what made Johnson endearing to so many was his frankly perverse demeanour. He was quite explicit in communicating his wish that others behave like submissive dogs in his presence: he really wanted them to sniff his behind and shove their noses in his excrement. LBJ openly flaunted evidence of his own political corruption. The point of all this bravado was to create the impression that he was omnipotent, that he could do or get whatever he wanted. This strategy worked well for Johnson, before and during his years as Senate majority leader, when he was extremely effective at brokering power. But it failed dramatically when chance thrust him into the role of the actual top dog. As Kennedy's unanointed successor, Johnson could no longer rely on the image of the king-maker working cleverly behind the scenes. He was now the king himself and he felt tragically responsible for the whole of political reality, not simply its inner machinations. His characterological style of covering up an apparently deep sense of personal inadequacy gradually broke down under the pressure.
Johnson was an intelligent and practical man who understood instinctively the risks of military escalation in Vietnam. He also knew that his chief advisers were probably deluding themselves when they claimed that the Viet Cong could be defeated merely by sending more American troops and arms. Unlike Eisenhower, however, Johnson was afraid of his advisers, particularly the Rhodes scholars and Harvard men-"the best and the brightest"-whom he had inherited from Kennedy. It seems that Johnson's intellectual insecurity, coupled with his need to prove that he "didn't have to squat to piss" (a preoccupation which Steinberg traces to painful setbacks and shortcomings in his boyhood), finally led him in 1965 to step up the military campaign and commit the United States once and for all.
In a similar situation, around the time of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when there was intense local and international pressure on the White House to intervene in Southeast Asia, Eisenhower, the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, had done precisely the opposite. This was not because Ike was ideologically less inclined to go to war than LBJ (on the contrary), or because he was smarter, but because he doubted himself less. Eisenhower was not so easily distracted from practical reality by an emotional need to overcome feelings of insecurity through a show of strength.
There are many ways of contrasting Johnson and Eisenhower, but for the purpose of Steinberg's argument, the difference in their personalities, as reflected in their conduct, boils down to the difference between what she calls "humiliated" narcissism and "healthy" narcissism. No doubt, some readers will feel that Johnson was rather more the victim of pathological political circumstances than of his personal psychopathology; and that Eisenhower was not such a wise and balanced a leader as Steinberg makes him out to be, but a self-serving organization man who improvised policy and manipulated those around him brilliantly.
For most readers, however, Nixon's single-minded and drunken determination to bomb Cambodia in 1970 will clinch Steinberg's central hypothesis, namely that the characterological style of regulating self-esteem must be a crucial factor in presidential decision-making. As we have seen, one way to measure this is to investigate the degree to which an individual is dominated by the memory and the fear of shame and humiliation. The public record of "Tricky Dick's" often painful and embarrassing political life, with its overwhelming evidence of chronic ressentiment and paranoia, certainly suggests that he was dominated by such memories and fears. I have no room here to review the fascinating story of this complex and brilliant man in any detail. Suffice it to say that Steinberg's title for the Nixon chapter is "The Angry Narcissist". This epithet is certainly apt. My only criticism is that Steinberg seems to overlook the role of masochistic self-punishment concealed within Nixon's constantly attacking style. As with LBJ and Ike, her account of Nixon's background, and of his Oval Office antics during the days leading up to the Cambodia bombing raids, is so lucid that it will leave the reader wondering for a long time afterwards about the precarious nature of the political process.
Steinberg's exploration of the relationship between character and the political process makes so much sense that one wonders why pathography isn't more prevalent in political science. The glib answer is that in fact it is prevalent-very prevalent.it just isn't done professionally.
There is no doubt that ordinary voting individuals-at least those not too blinded by ideological or partisan commitments-have arrived on the whole at the same conclusions about these three presidents as Steinberg: Johnson was weak but trying to hide it, Eisenhower was crafty but sane, Nixon was an intelligent but angry crook. For these basic judgments, it could even be argued that the public record on the political behaviour of these three men provides evidence as convincing or better, from a clinical point of view, than the information we have about their early years.
But the problem with doing practical character analysis at the newsstand is that you have to wait for the public record to accumulate, and even then, as in the case of Nixon (where the evidence of psychological disturbance was early and overwhelming), voters (that is, you and I) will routinely overlook obvious character flaws for ideological reasons. In truth: it is often the flaws themselves that attract us to our political leaders. We get the politicians we deserve, and the fact that others abroad may not deserve to suffer from our mistakes usually doesn't enter into our obscure and irrational social and political calculations.
Character has always been a central issue and a deep problem in politics. What's new is that in this century the study of character has become much more systematic and standardized. There is still a long way to travel on the road of "scientific" psychology, but it has already brought us to an interesting set of questions about the role of organized knowledge in public life. What happens when intuitive judgment is replaced by formalized expertise in the selection of political candidates?
Canadians panicked when they learned that a prominent and rather flamboyant Toronto psychiatrist, Vivian Rakoff, had written a report on the premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard. This so-called psychiatric report was really nothing more than a learned humanities essay stating opinions already widely shared in public by television commentators and print journalists since the day Bouchard left the Mulroney cabinet. Though everyone saw the Dadaism in Rakoff's diagnosis ("Aesthetic Character Disorder"), few disagreed with his overall assessment of Bouchard's character, because it was intuitively plausible, given the public record (or the way it had been reported). The problem was that this entirely ordinary political judgement had been expressed by a mental health professional in a more or less learned fashion. It was as if having a bit of expertise and doing some research automatically disqualified one from exercising a democratic right.
The potentially malignant influence of character on the body politic has been a topic of concern since Plato's Republic (or longer). What can we do about it now, in our so-called democracies? Unlike Plato, Steinberg has resisted the temptation to wrap a total program of social reform in the cloak of educated authority. Her conclusion focuses modestly on the risks in foreign affairs (the harm done by leaders whom we may very well deserve but whom others do not); and she emphasizes the desirability of checks and balances on the personal power of politicians. The implication is that you and I ("the public") also need checks and balances: against ourselves, and in particular against our own electoral power to make bad choices and stupid decisions. Does all this mean that elections and referenda are a sham, a kind of democratic theatre, a cynical simulation of political maturity? Does the real world of liberal democracy lie not in the collective expression of passions and interests but rather in the expertly trained administration of justice and the formality of constitutional law? Or does it lie, as so many seem to believe, in the conspiratorial machinations of an economic elite? With humility, and polite deference to the reader, Steinberg leaves the unflattering answers to these embarrassing questions unstated.

Charles Levin is a member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, and also teaches in the Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University. He is the author of Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics (Prentice Hall).

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