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Clinton Scandals
Posted by Chris Barr cbarr@lakesregion.net 11 Mar 1999 16:18:32

Toward a Unified Theory of Clinton
CJ Barr
3/99

An answer to Edith Efron's 1994 article, "Can the president think?"


In the November 1994 issue of Reason, Edith Efron asked the intriguing question: "Can the President Think?" Her conclusion was that the president suffers from severe cognitive dysfunction and that the resulting chaos of his mind accounts for the chaos in his administration.

In her analysis, Clinton emerges as the sum of two great paradoxes. He is the hollow Sun King, and he is forever sprinting in place. The first, refers to the strange emptiness that we perceive at the center of the charismatic Clinton phenomenon. The second, to the utter chaos that reigns at the center of his administration -- and, seemingly, of his mind.

In this essay, I will first present an outline of Efron's argument, along with her explanation of what makes Clinton tick. I will then present an alternative theory -- one that unifies not only these two paradoxes, but also the ugly reality of Clinton's other pathological behaviors.

The First Paradox: The Hollow Sun King

Clinton evokes worship as no American politician has since JFK. Not respect. Not admiration. Not even hero worship. But a sort of personal fawning, by both male and female worshipers, that borders on the sexual. For example, a youthful Arkansas journalist (a male) once described the fledgling Arkansas politician, Bill Clinton as

Actually, his choice of comparisons is strangely apt -- all of them. But, reluctant to leave Clinton in such company without explanation, he proceeded to call him "that rare thing, a soulful politician."

Yet a soul -- or at least a unifying "self" -- is exactly what many see as missing from this man. Not his enemies, who view him as evil, but his friends and supporters. Efron writes:

His own closest aide, George Stephanopolous likened him, as reported in Woodward's "The Agenda," to "a kaleidoscope. What you see is where you stand and where you're looking at him. He will put one facet toward you, but that is only one facet." Some journalists, writes Efron, have

Sam Smith, editor of Progressive Review and an outspoken critic of Clinton from the left, has succinctly captured the essence behind the first paradox:

He is not real. Efron writes of the fragment of stone at the bottom of Stephanopolous' kaleidoscope -- reflecting in a unique way, showing a different facet to each person as Clinton turns. This is a metaphor for the elusive "real Clinton;" but, in truth, there is no real Clinton that we could possibly comprehend. That little fragment is so alien that it might as well not exist in our universe. At the core of this man, Clinton, where the soul is supposed to be, there is, instead, a gaping void. A black hole. The Sun King exists only as the irresistible gravitational pull he exerts on others and the dying light -- the catastrophic annihilation -- of everyone and everything that strays too close to his event horizon. Within, there is an unknowable emptiness.

The Second Paradox: Sprinting in Place

The second paradox is that Clinton does too much, too fast and so never does anything at all. As Efron writes:


Clinton is a man with a photographic memory and a penchant for details. A man who lacks totally the ability to apply practical logic to the business of making decisions or even of ordering priorities. He is a man, in short, who does not know how to think.

Efron has done a profoundly important service by documenting these paradoxes, particularly the second. The president's job, after all, is to make decisions and to apply reason to intractable problems. Efron's thesis is that Clinton's mind works only with the assistance of prosthesis -- in the form of his wife, Hillary, or, to a lesser extent hired guns from outside his circle of sycophants.

However, Efron goes off the rails in the second half of her essay when she attempts diagnosis. She fails, in the final analysis to explain the first paradox. She misdiagnoses the second, omitting from consideration contradictory traits. And she fails to reconcile the two paradoxes into a single coherent portrait.


She concludes from this that Clinton suffers from something much akin to obsessive and compulsive disorder. In fact, she refers to a comment Clinton made to a journalist about an episode in his life when he and his entire family went through counseling sessions following the conviction of his brother for drug trafficking: "I finally realized how my compulsive and obsessive ambition got in the way." Efron believes that

Any given constellation of traits can be superficially consistent with a number of different disorders. The American Psychiatric Association's definitions of these disorders refers to "differential" diagnoses, incompatible alternatives. It is not enough to establish a positive match; one must also exclude the possibility that an alternative diagnosis is a better match. In the case of obsessive compulsive personality disorder, there are two such alternatives listed which do provide a closer match to the entire constellation of Clinton's behaviors.

Efron paints a moving portrait of a man in profound agony at his own cognitive imperfections. A man in emotional pain because he cannot think. A man driven by his fear of failure or of imperfection to spin forever just short of completion. She has it exactly backwards! Clinton cannot think precisely because he cannot feel. He has virtually no emotional life. And an obsessive compulsive's perfectionism arises from a hyperactive "conscience." But Clinton's conscience problem is that he has absolutely no conscience at all. Clinton is what I will call an adaptive psychopath, borrowing the term from "Manufacturing Social Distress," by Robert Reiber of CUNY.

Narcissistic personality disorder and anti-social personality disorder are two alternative, and preferable, diagnoses consistent with the traits Efron attempts to explain. These two are differential disorders to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but related disorders to each other. Psychopathy is, actually, just an older name for anti-social personality disorder. In the 1920's, psychologists adopted "sociopath" to replace "psychopath." More recently, the name "anti-social personality disorder" replaced the replacement. I intend to use "psychopath" as expressing more of, quoting Reiber, the "awe, horror, and perplexity" that these people evoke. To better capture a "phenomenon so spectacularly alien that it seems almost incredible that such people can exist." As for narcissistic personality disorder: all psychopaths (I suspect) are narcissists, although not all narcissists are true psychopaths.

Let me outline briefly the classic description of the psychopath from a short piece I wrote recently and called, somewhat tongue in cheek, "How to Spot a Psychopath, a Voters' Guide." It draws heavily on Hervey Cleckley's ground breaking work, "The Mask of Sanity."

There is a clear match between the hidden life of William Jefferson Clinton, as we are beginning now to glimpse it, and this description of psychopathy. It is impossible to accept Efron's diagnosis of an obsessive-compulsive personality and then explain Clinton's other, clearly psychopathic traits. Efron's dramatic depiction of inner anguish and strife simply cannot apply to a creature endowed with virtually no insight, emotional life or conscience. But, as I hope to prove, it is possible to accept a diagnosis of psychopathic personality and then explain fully and elegantly both paradoxes noted by Efron -- and much more.

Efron's excellent and convincing portrayal of the hollow Sun King, which provides us with the first paradox, is an almost perfect description of a charismatic psychopath: a soulless "intraspecies predator" (to quote Hare's "Without Conscience"). A robot without empathy, devoid of conscience or remorse, living a mere shadow of an emotional life, but able to mimic the outward manifestation of emotions on demand. Able, therefore, to manipulate the unwary to a degree that defies imagination. Presenting a different facet to each viewer. Objectively hollow, but, to the susceptible, very like a "Sun King."

The second paradox, which arises from the total chaos at the center of Clinton's mind, is what brought Edith Efron to consider obsessive-compulsive disorder. I will now undertake to demonstrate that psychopathy is consistent with the cognitive dysfunction at the heart of this second paradox. I intend to do even better than that. I hope to prove that psychopathy, which is essentially an emotional (and moral) deficit, actually explains Clinton's cognitive dysfunction as described by Efron.

The trait at the root of psychopathy is flattened affect, a shallow emotional life. From this, all else follows. But three reported aspects of Clinton immediately come to mind to contraindicate such an emotional deficit: his "his relentless huggy, weepy emotionalism," his legendary screaming fits and purple rages and his repetitious self-diagnosis. Each one of these, as we shall see, is actually a manifestation of psychopathic dissociation.

A number of observations: First, psychopaths often are motivated by a need for approval. This is one reason they so carefully ape genuine emotional responses. Second, most, if not all, psychopaths also seek out opportunities to dominate others. This, and not hypersexuality, is why many psychopaths are sexual offenders. (Perhaps, in a way, they sense the emotional emptiness within and seek out extreme situations to fan the dim embers of their somatic experience.) Third, as Cleckley points out, it is an error to mistake the dramatic show of external emotion for a sign of a deep emotional states. With the psychopath it is always the result of either adaptive behavior or of weak inhibitions and a lack of empathy for the victim. Fourth, an intelligent psychopath is not oblivious to objective signs of his failures. He is, lacking insight, just oblivious to his own contributing faults. So a psychopath will often lash out at others in violent rage, blaming them for falling polls, failed legislation, editorial criticism, etc. And fifth, in connection with Clinton's frequent, "robotic," acceptance of fault in trying to do "too much, too fast": psychopaths are able to display faux insight when it suits them. They can analyze their own conduct with great psychological skill, but the words are, as Cleckley pointed out, as empty as are they.

Psychopaths are not hypocrites. They may or may not actually believe what they say when they say it. It hardly matters. They invest no emotional capital in it one way or another. They have none to invest.

A young patient cited by Cleckley had a typical history of truancy and delinquency. Finally, in desperation, his affluent family asked a friend to intervene. The friend was an older man with considerable practical experience helping troubled youths. He decided to take the boy on a long automobile trip -- with the purpose of maintaining a relaxed atmosphere while keeping his audience captive. The boy did most of the talking. He analyzed his own shortcomings with, seemingly, great insight and honesty. He volunteered that he needed to change and outlined steps that he might take to do so. The older man was very impressed. When they arrived back at the boy's home that evening, the man discharged his passenger at the curb and drove off. The boy walked past the house, through the back yard and out the back gate. He was next seen a week later, in police custody, having committed a spate of forgeries and thefts.

Was the boy aware that he was conning the old man? Who knows? Perhaps he was; perhaps he was not. We will never know and neither, in all probability, did he.

Let me offer as another "case study" a purely fictional account of the chance meeting of two psychopaths from the film, Freeway (a very black comedy). A young runaway girl from a completely dysfunctional household steals a car from her caseworker and set off down the California freeway. Her car breaks down. A sympathetic, middle aged passerby picks her up. He is a social worker at a school for troubled boys. With astonishing rapidity he breaks down her barriers and gets her to talk about her family and her problems. "Bob," she says in awe, "I trust you more than anyone else in the world." She has been with him less than an hour.

Suddenly, under the guise of rough therapy, he begins to abuse her verbally. She rebels and tries to get away. Her benefactor is now revealed to be the serial murderer we have heard reported about on the radio, who preys on young girls along this stretch of the freeway. Apparently, he also rapes them -- it seems, after they are dead. This apparently upsets the girl more than either her impending rape or death. Sitting next to him in the front seat, she pretends to have difficulty removing her panties, as he has commanded, and starts unlacing her boots. This brings her handbag within reach. She grabs a pistol from the bag and leaps into the back seat, holding the gun against the man's head.

With comical suddenness, the brutal expression on the man's face fades and he begins to sob piteously. "You are scaring me!" He moans. "I know now that what I did was wrong. I am a very sick man. I need help. I see that now. Let me go and I'll never do it again." This scene is, perhaps, the finest depiction on film of the psychopath's uncanny ability switch masks almost in mid-sentence as the situation demands. And of his knack for manipulating others through the false portrayal of emotion and, even, shame.

This time, however, it does not work. The girl -- later diagnosed as a psychopath, herself -- is not fooled. She orders the man to pull off the road. "Bob," she asks after much contemplation, "I have one important question for you."

"Stop, you're scaring me," he pleads.

"Bob, do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

One sees in his eyes that he is weighing the consequences. After some vacillation he finally blurts out; "Yes. Yes, I do."

"Good, Bob." She says and shoots him in the head. This is, by the way, the beginning of the film and only the first of his attempts to kill the girl and the first of her shots at killing him.

Psychopaths have, for the most part, been studied in prisons. These studies tend to describe the life patterns of losers -- men and women incapable of maintaining a "normal" life. These people have seemingly intact intellects -- may, in fact, be of superior intelligence. However, on practical matters involving themselves, they are totally unable to plan or make sound decisions. Usually, given the population being studied, this is manifested in an aimless pattern in their lives.

Recent research tells us how an emotional deficit can manifest itself as such cognitive dysfunction. In 1994, Antomio R. Damasio (Ph.D., M.D.) published a seminal work on the profound interrelatedness of our intellectual and emotional processes, "Descartes' Error -- Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain."

He started with a study of one Phineas Gage. In 1848, Mr. Gage was involved in a mining accident in which he blasted a sharpened sixteen foot iron rod, completely through his left prefrontal cortex. It landed some 100 yards away. He recovered consciousness almost immediately and was taken to town on a wagon. He walked unassisted to a nearby porch and sat patiently waiting for the physician, regaling his audience with the story of his accident. His brain was clearly visible pulsing beneath the horrible wound. Except for blindness in one eye, he recovered with no obvious mental or physical incapacity.

But he was not the same affable, hardworking, honest man that Phineas Gage had been before. He was completely changed. He could no longer hold a job. He became irritable and aggressive. His emotional life was shallow. He drank and brawled. And he displayed no ability to make intelligent decisions about his own life. His life spiralled downward from one personal disaster to another.

Gage's wound had deprived him of something besides his left eye. Something subtle. It had taken affect from him; it had stolen away his emotions. And for some reason, this produced a profound cognitive dysfunction that destroyed his life.

Damasio studied the Gage case (his wife, herself a neurologist, reconstructed the damaged brain from the skull, which is on public display), and he, himself, saw many living patients with similar -- although less dramatically sustained -- trauma to the prefrontal cortex. All suffered serious lowering of affect with no direct physical damage to their motor or language capabilities. And most manifested a similar severe impairment of practical intellectual capacity: they were unable to reason about things that had a bearing on their own lives (as opposed to purely theoretical puzzles) and were incapable of making rational decisions.

Allison Barnes and Paul Thagard (of the University of Waterloo in Canada) write in a paper called, "Emotional Decisions":

Compare EVR's dilemma with Efron's descriptions of Clinton's frenzied and unsuccessful decision making.

Damasio's neurological studies show, write Barnes and Thagard, that

Damasio's hypothesis, widely accepted today, is that there is a strong connection between emotional processes and intellectual processes: our emotions are equal partners, if you will, in our intellectual lives. This is especially true in practical decision making. Domasio theorizes that "somatic markers" are the mechanism by which emotions conspire with thought to produce decisions. Essentially, every goal, every means to that goal, every intermediate step and all possible alternatives along the way are encoded with emotional attributes of which we are not consciously aware. As Barnes and Thagard write:

To oversimplify a bit: our minds make decisions much the way Deep Blue makes chess moves. The brain spins at incredible speed through, and discards, thousands and thousands of alternative paths before percolating one or more up into the conscious mind for final action. For each, it makes a complex calculation based on the somatic markers; it uses them to weight the relative acceptability of each option. People with reduced affect -- flattened emotional life -- simply cannot read the somatic code and find themselves paralyzed by simple decision making tasks. They manifest, in short, exactly the sort of behaviors that Efron describes in Clinton: a preoccupation with details as a substitute for the decision making.

(If this sounds fanciful, remember that brain damage or dysfunction has revealed many wondrous and unsuspected things about human consciousness. For example, there is the famous case of the man -- an accomplished college professor -- who, because a brain lesion, mistook his wife for his hat.)

Let me try to explain, with an analogy, why a simple inability to read somatic markers produces the bewilderment of Cleckley's indecisive diner and Efron's indecisive president. OS/2, the computer operating system I prefer, allows files to have "extended attributes" of up to 64 kilobytes of data. Let us say that we design an application that can sort out desired files rapidly by narrowing the search according to data stored in these extended attributes. Now we move that application and all the files to a machine running DOS, which has no facilities for recognizing or storing extended attributes. Without the data previously found in those extended attributes, the application will thrash around without effect.

There is a close resemblance between psychopathic traits and the symptoms attendant upon brain trauma of the sort just described. Some researchers actually argue that psychopathy is the result of either trauma to or arrested development of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. One theory is that the psychopathic brain is organized differently (resembling the consequences of physical trauma) as the result of imperfect socialization in the very early years -- arising either from inherited deficits or from a pathological family environment (or both). Whether this is true or not, both psychopathy and such brain trauma are functions of a similar, profound emotional deficit, both apparently arise in the same brain structures and both manifest remarkably similar symptoms.

If there is a subtle difference in the descriptions of indecisiveness in psychopaths and of brain trauma victims, it is because psychopaths tend to be studied in prison settings and brain trauma patients in hospitals. But all these studies indicate that pure reason is unimpaired in both. The subjects can pass tests designed to identify intellectual impairment. But all these tests are theoretical. If the element of practical, personal decision making is added to these tests the subjects fail -- flailing about helplessly. This is equally true of both psychopaths and trauma patients. One of the latter, for example, after hours and hours of questions designed to test his ability to solve theoretical ethical problems -- tests which he passed with normal scores -- commented to the clinician, "You know, after all this, I still would not know what to do."

The emotionally crippled psychopath does not know, in situations calling for decision, how to think. In the unsuccessful psychopath this results in a ruined life. In the successful psychopath, it results in a career of constant crisis -- and the ruination of the lives of others.

Earlier, I referred to Clinton as an "adaptive psychopath." In part, this merely means a successful psychopath, one who has avoided jail or asylum. A psychopath more able to function in the real world whether, as Rieber says, because of "superior endowment or because their survival was facilitated by adopting an outwardly [normal] facade." But Rieber means something more subtle by "adaptive psychopath." And this can only be understood in terms of his description of the underlying psychopathy -- not that he disagrees with Hare and Cleckley. He has a slightly different emphasis, which arises from studying "Psychopathy in Everyday Life," the subtitle of his book, instead of psychopathy in prison populations.

"In my view," he writes,

'Thrill-Seeking"

This is more than merely impulsive behavior. Often considerable planning is involved, as well as the cooperation of accomplices. This behavior may be due, in part, to a higher threshold of "perceptual stimulation" among psychopaths, leading to thrill-seeking, drug use and violence (sexual or otherwise).

Also psychopathic thrill-seeking is qualitatively different from normal boredom defeating pursuits.

Adaptive psychopaths, he says:

Clinton manifests this in all aspects of his life; from his golf Mulligans to his interpretation of the ten commandments. Some psychopaths also manifest fearlessness -- even seek out physical danger. Clinton. a physical coward (remember the expression of testy panic when the crowd broke through the barricade in Africa?), does not share this aspect, perhaps the result of the swollen ego trying to "maintain viability." But his entire adult life, lived under a microscope, has been one long game.

"Pathological Glibness: The Manipulation of Meaning in the Communication of Deceit"

All psychopaths, at every level of intelligence, are remarkably glib and persuasive. Cleckley also talks about "semantic dementia," by which he means that the psychopath is unmoved by the ordinary emotional demands of a situation and act as if they do not exist. Rieber takes this further:

If there is one trait of Clinton's that stands out, even against the backdrop of hairsplitting lawyers, politicians and consultants, it is his use of language. His grand jury testimony is a case study in semantic dementia and verbal dissociation. A careful look at moments such as the lesson on the meaning of "is" reveals a tiny flash of triumph on Clinton's face. He has cheated in plain sight and won.

"Antisocial Pursuit of Power"

Psychopaths are preoccupied with power relationships. Not only are they interested

This also typifies Clinton's approach to the use of power -- over women, over opponents and even over allies. To highlight but one instance: look at Clinton's justification for exploiting his lawyer's gullibility in believing his own client, Clinton, himself. It also underlies Clinton's dealings with Congress -- both majority and minority -- and his ongoing shell games with policy.

Psychopaths, it has been noted, tend to invade the space of others to intimidate or dominate. Often this takes the form of a piercing, unwavering gaze. Women sometimes interpret this as seduction, as Monica Lewinsky reports about herself. Men also feel it, although in different ways. Bob Woodward mentioned on Larry King recently that this is what he first noticed about Clinton during a face to face meeting. Even a glass of diet Coke never occluded that unblinking laserlike stare.

"Absence of Guilt"

Psychopaths are not ignorant of law and its sanctions. They simply ignore the former and seek to evade the latter. They are, therefore,

If one thing marked Clinton's great apology tour, following discovery of the soiled dress, it was total and absolute insincerity. Where are the religious counselors now that he has escaped removal? If you read all the statements of regret and the comments about mutual forgiveness, only one conclusion is possible: Clinton is, on the one hand, presenting a facade of guilty shame to evade repercussions while, simultaneously, taking pleasure in manipulating the words so as to never say what his "sucker" audience thinks he is saying.

The sum of these parts is what Rieber refers to as the "Mephisto Syndrome."

I have been asked by readers of early drafts of this manuscript, whether there is some sort of inherent, instinctive defense that some people have against the awful, mesmerizing charm of the psychopath -- an instinct such as the one that causes people to "fear snakes and spiders, for instance." I, too, have suspected as much. Both my wife and I manifest what I jokingly call "CRS": Clinton Repulsion (or Revulsion) Syndrome. We noticed it one evening when our hands collided reaching for the remote to mute the television. It first manifested itself long before Clinton was a frontrunner and long before we began discovering his pathological personal life. Since then, I have seen ample evidence that we are not alone. In fact, I would suggest that some significant minority of the American population feels (literally feels, on a visceral level) as we do. About an equal number, apparently, are fully under his spell and would enter the fires of Hell for him.

I have written Robert Hare, the foremost living researcher into psychopathy, about my ideas about the way people react to psychopaths. (Not specifically about Clinton but using some notorious examples from the literature.) He seems to agree that my insights have value and ought to be explored.

At the core of the "Sun King," William Jefferson Clinton we see hidden in plain sight this intractable pathology, this emptiness and its horrible power. Psychopathy in the world's most powerful leader creates a terrible dilemma for a democracy. The psychopath is not mentally ill or mentally impaired as these terms are meant in the law or the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. But he is, as noted by all the experts, just as dangerous as if he were, perhaps more so. Just as unfit for high office, perhaps more so. Psychopaths do not just blunder blindly into evil; they seek it out. Can the Vice President and the Cabinet remove the elected leader of the nation on the basis of "moral dementia"? Do we really want to re-enact the Caine Mutiny on a national level? Any move to remove this clearly unfit creature from office must, it seems to me, come from the Congress. This route, however, has now all but been foreclosed.

A chorus of soft voices has arisen calling for "counseling" for this man who sits at the pinnacle of power -- allegedly suffering merely from some popular form of addiction. This is arrant nonsense. There is no pill, no treatment, no therapy and no exorcism that can "cure" him or those like him. These creatures are profoundly alien. Visitors from a parallel moral universe. They can never interact with ours as anything but soulless predators.

Unfortunately, I believe that I have also made my case that the policy chaos and paralysis that Efron described in Clinton and his administration are -- along with his grandiosity, dishonesty, recklessness, unreliability, sexual predation -- symptoms of a profound emotional deficit arising from either true psychopathy or some youthful trauma to his prefrontal cortex. Someday, perhaps, his medical records will solve the mystery. In the meantime, we are governed by an adaptive, charismatic psychopath, a supreme intraspecies predator, armed with mesmerizing powers of seduction -- even mass seduction. A leader with profound emotional, cognitive and moral deficits that paralyze his reason and interfere with the simplest decisions -- and endanger this Nation.

And there is virtually nothing we can do about it.