Psychoanalyzing the presidents

by Daniel McCabe

Blema Steinberg was dissatisfied. A professor of political science with a keen interest in international politics, Steinberg just couldn't agree with colleagues at McGill and elsewhere that the actions of countries could largely be explained through the applications of "rational choice" models of behaviour.

Sometimes the choices made by world leaders didn't seem all that rational, Steinberg thought. The various theoretical models being touted seemed limited in their scope. "According to that way of thinking, the personalities of leaders were irrelevant. Any given leader would react in the same way to certain events. That just didn't ring true for me."

She focused her attention on psychoanalytic theory, "and the more I read, the more I felt, 'There's something to this.'" So the professor embarked on an entirely new discipline.

More than 20 years after receiving her PhD in political science, Steinberg began training in psychoanalysis in 1984, becoming a fully certified psychoanalyst in 1989. She wanted to understand why political leaders often behaved irrationally and she felt psychoanalytic thinking could shed light on their behaviour.

Today, Steinberg is one of only about half a dozen researchers in North America trained in both political science and psychoanalysis.

She teaches a graduate course on politics and psychology and her forthcoming book on the Vietnam War, Shame and Humiliation, examines how American presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon dealt with that pivotal era in U.S. history.

"When I first made the decision to train as a psychoanalyst, I was extremely reluctant to let my associates know," recalls Steinberg. "I really wasn't sure how they would react, but I was pleasantly surprised by how supportive my colleagues were."

Still some scholars in the department were wary.

"A few colleagues might have been a little apprehensive at first. There is this notion that psychoanalysts spend their time trying to psychoanalyze their friends," laughs Steinberg. "Between teaching, research and my patients (Steinberg has a private practice), I get my fill (of psychoanalysis). I don't do it in my spare time."

Steinberg's specialization quickly became the subject of good-natured teasing. "Whenever there are difficult students in the department, my colleagues say, "Send them to Blema."

Steinberg, who is affiliated with the Jewish General Hospital's Department of Psychiatry, does feel her training has helped her deal with some students experiencing difficulties. "I think I'm sensitive when students are having problems. I try to encourage them to seek out professional help. Thankfully, McGill's mental health and counselling services do an excellent job."

As a scholar, Steinberg is interested in how powerful feelings of shame and humiliation can colour the decisions taken by presidents, prime ministers and other leaders. A previous study examined John F. Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev's conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For her new book--which will be out in May--she revisits the Vietnam War.

In Steinberg's view, Eisenhower's reluctance to get too involved in Vietnam is related to his healthy self-confidence and strong sense of identity--traits which enabled him to see political issues in strict terms of cost-benefit analysis. Johnson and Nixon--both of whom intensified America's involvement in the war--differed substantially from Eisenhower in terms of their personalities.

Johnson and Nixon were both intensely narcissistic characters, in Steinberg's view. Their actions were influenced by their self-doubts. They acted aggressively to avoid being seen as weak.

In examining the early lives of the three presidents, Steinberg draws some conclusions about the men and posits her views on why Eisenhower managed to avoid some of the character defects his successors contended with.

"Eisenhower wasn't singled out as a special child in his family," notes Steinberg. "He was a scrappy kid with a sunny disposition and he was well liked, but he grew up with an extraordinary group of brothers who all went on to impressive careers in industry or academia. His parents were very supportive of each other and his father, while not wildly successful, was respected."

Nixon and Johnson grew up in families where their fathers fell far short of being role models and where their mothers relentlessly pushed them to become great achievers.

Nixon's father, a storekeeper, was so belligerent to his customers that his wife had to wrest control of the business to prevent it from closing. Johnson's dad was a heavy drinker who lost most of the family's money on ill-conceived futures speculation.

"Nixon, who wasn't the eldest child, was given his own room while his three brothers had to share one," says Steinberg. "because his mother saw his great potential and felt he needed special treatment."

Nixon sparkled in school and in other pursuits, but Steinberg believes he was prized for his achievements rather for himself.

"At Nixon's inauguration, he sat with his mother while one of the country's top pianists, Andre Watts, was playing. She turned to Nixon and said, 'If you had only kept up with your lessons, that could be you up there playing.' He had just been elected president!"

In Steinberg's estimation, Johnson's decision to increase America's involvement in Vietnam was not the product of a careful cost-benefit analysis. In her view, Johnson was terrified of being humiliated as a foreign policy know-nothing if he had failed to support the escalation.

"My sense is, he didn't push for it, but was rather dragged along by his Cabinet." The team of advisors around Johnson had been assembled by his predecessor President Kennedy before he was assassinated in office. Johnson's presidency was haunted by the spectre of the popular JFK.

"Johnson was in total awe of these people who were supposedly the best and brightest minds. He was desperate to retain them, because they were the last link to the Kennedy mantle."

In contrast, "Nixon definitely was in control of policy decisions. But he was a political leader who responded to feelings of shame and humiliation by trying to get even. By getting even with his enemies, he felt he could restore his self-esteem," observes Steinberg.

"In a relatively short period of time he had to deal with new North Vietnamese military initiatives, the defeat of two of his nominees to the Supreme Court and the near-failure of the Apollo 13 space mission.

"On top of that, war protesters prevented him from attending his daughter's college graduation. He was furious--at the Senate, the North Vietnamese and the protesters. Humiliated, Nixon tried to make himself feel powerful by being aggressive--he began the secret bombing of Cambodia."

Says Steinberg, "What I find so interesting is how the narcissistic character is so prevalent among leaders--it's a common personality type. These people seek out political office, because of their fragile sense of self esteem. It's a way to reassure themselves that they're lovable. Popularity at the polls is equated with being loved.

"These people are usually exceptional. They are often precocious and bright from an early age. They tend to be valued by parents for specific traits and what they can accomplish. They grow up being enormously sensitive to how they are seen by others."