Sometimes a Candidate Is Just a Candidate

Here are some random psychological observations about the candidates that have occurred to me lately.

Let's start with McCain. Many voters aren't familiar with McCain's experience as a POW in Hanoi; apparently he rarely talks about it. From what I've read, here are the broad strokes. McCain was a POW for five years. Two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. He was put in leg-irons for talking back to the guards. He tried to hang himself twice, but was cut down by the guards who then beat him. The injuries and torture he experienced during this period left him with limited ability to use his arms--the reason he often moves awkwardly while delivering speeches. After a year of suffering extreme abuse as a POW, he was offered the chance to return to the United States (a public relations move on the part of the Vietnamese government related to the fact that he was from a prominent military family). McCain, however, refused to leave, saying that the POWs who were captured before him should be released first. It's an understatement to say that McCain is a man of extraordinary principle and courage.

McCain's years of abuse certainly put the reports of his periodic fits of temper in perspective. What's more surprising is that someone who lived through what he did isn't in a state of rage 100 percent of the time.

Most of the time, McCain seems warm and gregarious. And frankly if McCain's irritation with Elisabeth Bumiller yesterday is an example of him "losing it", it makes me a little skeptical about past reports of his supposed eruptions. Hillary Clinton's rage at MSNBC reporter David Shuster when he used the word "pimped out" to refer to Chelsea - clearly used as street-talk and not in a sexual way -- was of Tsunami proportions. And it wasn't just an impulsive outburst as McCain's apparently are (He tends to apologize immediately). Even days after Shuster had made this remark, Hillary was still demanding that his suspension from the network wasn't enough - she demanded that Shuster be fired, raising questions not only about her temperament but about her lack of empathy and compassion. Her reaction isn't just to do with her daughter. She has a long history of being easily slighted and vengeful.

It's, of course, absurd to speculate psychologically at a distance about McCain (or for that matter about anyone at all), but hey, here goes. The fact is there's no way that anyone could survive the kind of experience McCain did as a POW without a split in mental functioning. Even trauma of a far lesser degree causes the ego to split and creates parallel universes that never come into contact with each other in order to protect the self.

This brings me to McCain's repetitious use of the phrase "My friends." It may just be a manner of speaking, but as a manner of speaking it sure seems persistent - hardly a paragraph goes by without him using this figure of speech. While it will undoubtedly be seized upon by Saturday Night Live as a comic mannerism, there may be a deeper reason for its constant reiteration. It may be a product of the split world he was forced to create, a way of insisting to himself that he's in a friendly universe.

How being forced to split one's mind as a result of torture would play out politically is unclear. McCain supporters will point to his astonishing resilience as a quality that makes him highly suited to deal with anything the Oval Office could throw at him. Should Clinton be the nominee, her camp will inevitably find some way to sow seeds of doubt about whether McCain, having been tortured to such a degree, has the capacity to make dispassionate decisions about military affairs. Her camp has already enlisted plenty of generals to convey fear about McCain's stability. If it's a McCain vs. Clinton election, one thing's for sure. McCain's ability to survive his years of torture is going to make Hillary's ability to survive her ups and downs seem feeble indeed.

That being said, people do marvel at Hillary Clinton's resilience. How could anyone appear so cheerful in public after being serially humiliated by her husband? Her ability to so successfully compartmentalize her degrading experiences made most people draw the conclusion that Hillary would put up with anything to improve her own political fortunes. After reading Carl Bernstein's biography, "A Woman in Charge", my inkling is that at the level of the unconscious her motives were less Machiavellian. Bernstein points out that Hillary's mother "silently accepted" the humiliations of her husband, Hugh Rodham. Hillary's stoicism about Bill's behavior may be related to an unconscious identification with her mother. It's even possible that Hillary's choice of Bill as a husband was a failed attempt to undo her mother's experience. New York psychoanalyst Dr. Peter Mezan says that people have a choice to repair or to repeat the past. If they don't repair the past, they are condemned to repeat it. It's very common to marry someone with the very qualities one despised in one's parents. The hope is to be able to repair the past by changing one's spouse. It rarely works out that way. Instead one tends to repeat the pattern of one's parents.

Then there's the matter of Hillary Clinton's persona - or lack of one. As Amy Wilentz wrote in "Thirty ways of looking at Hillary", it's Hillary's character that is the "hardest thing to pin down". Writers have described Hillary as opaque, enigmatic, hidden, and a chameleon. Hillary and her team have been confused about how to respond to the general impression that her "self" seems so ambiguous. They've tried to relate it to her intelligence -- she's too complex to be pinned down. They've gone the humility route - it's difficult to figure out who Hillary is because she's very other-directed and doesn't like talking about herself. Their prevalent line is that it's not Hillary's who's got a problem, but the voters. Hillary claims that she's a Rorschach test, that people project their own fantasies onto her in the same way that they do to the shapeless, ambiguous inkblots of the Rorschach. This theory might have been plausible when Hillary first appeared on the public stage. But after 16 years in the public eye, if she still appears to be a shapeless, ambiguous figure, it has to say more about her than about the bewildered public.

In this campaign, Hillary herself has undermined the Rorschach theory. Far from being shapeless, she has aggressively put out a number of distinct, contradictory personalities. One day, she proclaims that she's honored to be on the same stage as Barack Obama; the next day she's chastising him: "Shame on you Barack Obama." In New Hampshire, Hillary proclaimed she'd finally found her voice (this after umpteen years in the public eye). The next week, she got laryngitis. It's not that Hillary's two faced - it's that she's poly-faced. Seeing her is like viewing a Picasso painting during his cubist period. As Clive Cook wrote in the Financial Times, "[Hillary] has veered from one false personality to another, often during the course of a single debate or interview." She's a gracious opponent. No, she's sneaky and underhanded. No, she's warm and accessible. No, she's cold and remote. No, she's straightforward and honest. No, she's guarded and deceitful. No, she charming and funny; No, she's graceless and humorless.

Hillary always seems to be at some remove from her personality de jour and it's disturbing to watch. It's as if she has her hand up her own back and she's both ventriloquist and dummy.

Conceivably Hillary's campaign may be forcing her to act certain ways for political gain. The alternative is that Hillary doesn't actually have an authentic personality, that she has a "false self' or "as if" personality, which is to say that she is only acting "as if" she has a certain persona.

Hillary has apparently been struggling with her own identity since she's been in college. In "Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary" food critic Mimi Sheraton quotes a letter that Hillary penned to a high school friend while at Wellesley College. Hillary writes, "There is a smorgasbord of personalities spread before me." Sheraton implies that Hillary was on the verge of choosing one of these personalities. Hmm, is that really how it happens - like picking a pair of shoes? I've always had the feeling that personalities evolve organically.

Hillary's Zelig-like transformations from one personality to another may explain how she can so viciously and unfairly attack her opponents with little compunction. Hillary doesn't feel remorseful after she compares Obama to Ken Starr or pretends that Obama may be a Muslim, because for her there essentially is no "afterwards" -- she's already slipped into another personality with no memory of the recent past.

The only consistent aspect of Hillary's personality that you can depend on is her determination to do anything to get elected - a quality that many see as ugly but that others argue will be an asset when running against similarly ruthless Republicans.

Now to Obama. Born to a white mother and a black father, Obama spent a good part of his life grappling with the problem of identity and the many splits in his world - his father left when Obama was two, went to Harvard, then returned to Kenya and died before Obama had a chance to know him. Between his mother's re-marriage and his father's many marriages, Obama ended up with a big bunch of siblings, most of whom lived in Kenya.

This was a formidable situation to attempt to repair psychologically. There is not only the issue of an absent parent and scattered, unexplained siblings, there is also the alienation Obama describes because of the many ways he was different: his funny name, the color of his skin, and his peculiar family circumstances.

Despite these differences, in his autobiography "Dreams From My Father", Obama describes his early life as relatively blissful -- meaning he was blissfully unaware of all these differences. He didn't realize that most people had fathers who lived with them or that many people had negative feelings about intermarriage or African-Americans.

In many of his Presidential speeches Obama conveys a vision of Americans coming together instead of focusing on their differences. One can't help but feel that Obama may be attempting to reunite his scattered family and restore the utopian feeling of no- differences that he had experienced as a child. To some degree this may explain the Obama phenomenon. What a gift it would be to all of us to return to that time of our lives when our differences didn't divide us and had no meaning.

Obama's vision is not a juvenile fantasy. It is a recurrent vision of civil life that inspired many of our greatest leaders, including Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, FDR, and Churchill.

It is Hillary Clinton's strategy to rain on that parade, to mock it as a fool's paradise and to put differences, divisions and factions back into the foreground.

For more, watch Ellen combine the professional and the political at Bloggingheads.