The following post begins to explore the question of abuse of power, or failures of power. In my earlier post I asked, can we learn how to use power well, like we learn how to ride a bike, or does power really have some corrupting influence? Which, if any, features related to high rank alters behavior or even personality?
A lot has already been written about the now fading scandal concerning former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. In the heat of the discussion, the question reverberating through the blogosphere was, “What was he thinking?” The easy answer of course, is: he wasn’t. Thinking, as in carefully weighing pros and cons, considering consequences, cost-benefits, and all that, nope, that probably wasn’t done, or at least, done thoroughly. It couldn’t have been a very cogent thought process that led him to pay $80,000 over the course of several years for dates (sessions? appointments?) with high priced prostitutes.
My inquiry here isn’t about sex or prostitution. It’s about risk and the private lives of public figures. What possible thought or non-thought processes allow the Eliot Spitzers, Mark Foleys and Bill Clintons of the world to risk their careers in such high stakes pursuits? Or, in some secret recess of their mind, do they want to get caught, to torpedo a career they don’t, albeit subliminally, want? In his Newsweek.com article, Notes on a scandal, Howard Fineman, writes:
Spitzer is a type I have seen before: a candidate who needs to rocket at warp speed because he does not dare stop to consider whether he really wants to be living the political career he is living. Spitzer, it turns out, hated some or all of what he was, what he wanted to be, or what he had become. Why else would he knowingly risk destroying his life’s career?
One wonders, how many people, at the top, or near to it, find themselves in a life no longer their own? Surrounded by people they don’t like or don’t trust, doing a job they don’t like, or responsible to a public they scorn? Is it much different from anyone of us stuck in a job or role we don’t like? We manage to tolerate it by engaging in things that take the edge off, some illicit, others less so: drinking, hanging with buddies, hobbies, having affairs or visiting prostitutes, etc.
But for a leader in a public position, it’s a different story. We imbue the role of leader with heroic stature, we don’t want to know about the private doubts, fallibilities, and lack of perfection. We don’t want to see ourselves up there, some poor schlub bumbling and stumbling, we want to see heroes.
It’s a love/hate relationship we have with the human side of leadership. On the one hand, we love a personable, folksy, emotionally accessible person, the “Gipper,” the fatherly or motherly figure we can relate to. Yet on the other hand, we demand strength, infallibility, and heroism. And we are surprised to discover our leaders have human desires and needs, just like the rest of us.
This pressure to be perfect we put on the role of leader creates a schism between the public self and the private self. The public self is the hero, the private self remains inaccessible, hidden from public view. And so a gulf begins to widen between the public role and the private self widens, eventually morphing into a compartmentalized existence, a split personality of sorts. Over time, even the leader starts to believe in his or her public self, believing that what’s performed on stage is the real self. Likewise, the private self, the needs, emotions, self-doubt, and desires that are kept out of the picture become so secret that it is easy to believe they don’t exist, that others can’t see them. Because I don’t see this part of myself, others can’t either. But our secrets compel us. Our hidden selves are most dangerous; they become autonomous and push us to do things, even reckless things, in order to be gratified and indulged.
This is a problem for public figures and for all of us in jobs where the role demands a one-sided expression of the personality. And positions of power and leadership are typical of this. In so-called normal life, the boundaries between parts of ourselves are probably meant to be thin, almost permeable. It’s messy this way, but robust and secure. It’s what we call conscience. My professional self is there to remind me when I am at the office party, hey, you have to be at work on Monday with these people, watch yourself. Or, my parental self is never too distant, even if I’m holiday, or out for dinner, the parental antenna is on alert, just in case the phone rings.
But in roles where the stress, expectations and demands are super high, the boundaries thicken, sometimes necessarily so. Walls go up to protect and buffer the one self from the others. Police officers or soldiers for instance, frequently report that they cannot share their experiences with their close friends and loved ones. They come home, sit in front of the TV, or drink, and numb themselves out. They do not, and cannot transition easily between public and private selves because the experiences they have in their public selves are beyond what most people want to hear about.
When power comes into play, the walls between public and private self are fortified by the trappings of the job itself – unlisted numbers, personal assistants, wood paneling and leather furniture, a limo and driver, private jets, mobile devices, and layers and layers of intermediaries that protect them from contact with their everyday self. There’s a scene in the romantic comedy, The American President, where the President wants to get flowers for his girlfriend. But for the life of him, he can’t get past those walls. He picks up the phone, but discovers he can only reach the White House switchboard. He doesn’t have a car he can drive himself. He can’t leave the White House without the Secret Service. Once, he finally manages to get an outside line, the florist shop assistant hangs up on him when he says. “I’m the President,” certain it’s a hoax.
But if we see leaders as heroes, we should remember that heroes and gods are meant, in the words of Whitman, to contain multitudes. Our superheroes all have alter-egos for whom we cheer just as loudly as for their amazing feats of strength. We love Peter Parker as much as we love Spiderman. It makes our superheroes even better, that there’s a flip side to them, that there is someone we can relate to, someone who fumbles in conversation, who wears glasses and pocket protectors and is picked on by the school bullies. Even the Greek gods reflected this paradox. They were venerated for their superhuman abilities and strengths, while at the same time driven by jealousy, vengeance, and insatiable appetites. They were saviors and villains, all without contradiction.
But in our modern version of heroes, in our leaders, we don’t tolerate that dualism. So leaders become estranged from their alter ego, from friends, family, and most of all from themselves. The walls that protect the private self from the public one create a loneliness that can’t be assuaged. We can’t be our self, our full self in public, with needs and desires. But in private, we indulge them. We cannot seek solace in public, where we will be shamed, but in private, with strangers, with people who are paid to listen, paid to care, paid to be nonpartisan. And as Charlie Sheen says, paid to leave afterwards.
In Primary Colors, Senator Jack Stanton, (a thinly disguised Bill Clinton) is sitting in a donut shop, at what seems to be 1 am. He’s the only customer, sitting in that cold florescent light of the shop. The camera pans out wide angle, and we see the empty streets, the loneliness of the city, of the hour, and of the man, as he in turn soothes and is soothed by the guy behind the counter. And you sense, this is what he’s craving, and perhaps what brought him to politics in the first place, the desire to connect with people, the ultimate bringing together of the real self and the public role.