In the coming months, we’ll be seeing a lot of smiling, handshaking politicians asking for our votes. But behind their cheerful public faces, politicians tend to be gloomy individuals. During the course of America’s history, many leading politicians (and even their spouses) have been given to long bouts of severe melancholy and even depression. Well-known cases include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and wife Rachel, William Henry Harrison and wife Anna, Abraham Lincoln and wife Mary Todd, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and wife Ellen, Lyndon Johnson, and a host of governors, senators, and members of the House of Representatives.
One reason that politicians are such a morose group is the elusive and ephemeral nature of their goals. Of course, all politicians claim to be motivated by high principles and the desire to serve (and some are), but most are driven by a narcissistic need for affirmation. Many are ready to assert whatever principles seem to be politically useful or to sacrifice principle altogether for another few years in office. Take the recent case of Senator Arlen Specter, who changed parties and ideologies as easily as the rest of us change coats and shoes.
Typically, politicians seek affirmation through a never-ending quest for power and status. Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, “A restless desire for power is in all men . . . a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Every year, thousands of individuals compete for local, state, and national political office. Some seem driven to constantly strive for higher and higher office, seemingly equating the desirability of the position with the power its occupant commands. A number of well-known American politicians invested years, even decades, seeking election to the presidency. Men like Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and Albert Gore Jr. devoted large portions of their lives to unsuccessful presidential quests. Others, like Richard Nixon, struggled for years and finally, if temporarily, succeeded. But what drives such individuals to commit themselves to endless meetings, official dinners and deals, fundraising and negotiations, and invasive media scrutiny? According to presidential scholar Richard Shenkman, these aspirants for high office are “frighteningly overambitious, willing to sacrifice their health, family, loyalty, and values as they [seek] to overcome the obstacles to power.” The modern presidential selection system, which virtually requires aspirants to devote years to a single-minded quest for office, probably selects for an extraordinary level of ambition and, perhaps, ruthlessness among the major contenders for office.
In addition to seeking power over their fellows, many politicians crave the related but not identical goal of status—the esteem of the community or nation. Competition over status is a common theme in the literature of politics. Indeed, one of the oldest literary accounts of a political assassination involved a rivalry over status: “And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect. And Cain was very wroth. . . . And it came to pass that when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” Shakespeare also saw competition over status as an important force in politics. In Julius Caesar, Cassius seeks to turn Brutus against Caesar, telling him, “‘Brutus’ and ‘Caesar’: What should be in that ‘Caesar’?/ Why should that name be sounded more than yours? . . ./ Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed/ That he has grown so great?” Brutus, of course, is swayed by Cassius’ appeal to his pride and joins the conspiracy to murder Caesar. Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that the desire for status is among the most powerful human drives. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example, writes in his book How the Mind Works, “People everywhere strive for a ghostly substance called authority, cachet, dignity, dominance, eminence, esteem, face, position, preeminence, prestige, rank, regard, repute, respect, standing, stature, or status. People go hungry, risk their lives, and exhaust their wealth in pursuit of bits of ribbon and metal.”
Two of the most important forms of status politicians hope to acquire are fame and rank. Fame is public renown and widespread recognition of an individual’s superior endowments and accomplishments. John Adams said, “The desire for the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger.” For many individuals in public life, the desire for fame seems, indeed, to be a potent driving force. One notable example is America’s first president, George Washington. Unlike most men of his era, Washington did not fully believe in the concept of an afterlife. As a result, he was determined to become famous in this life and to live in the memory of succeeding generations. Washington even saw his post-revolutionary retirement as contributing to his subsequent fame. He viewed himself as a latter-day Cincinnatus, trading current power for subsequent fame. John Adams was another prominent member of America’s founding generation who eagerly sought fame. Adams was jealous of the renown won by men he regarded as his inferiors, particularly George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. In one letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Adams wrote, “The History of our Revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington.”
Rank refers to the rung on the ladder or place in the pecking order that an individual occupies. Individuals seek political rank for its own sake as well as for the status such rank can confer in the larger society. Of course, societies vary in the extent to which even the most ambitious and talented persons are able to enhance their social and political rank. In societies, however, where mobility is a possibility, talented individuals who began life near the lower rungs of the social ladder are sometimes intensely driven to improve their rank in society through political effort. For example, as a young man, George Washington aspired, without much success, to be accepted into the elite social circles inhabited by his half brother, Lawrence. This was another factor spurring Washington to greater and greater effort. Throughout his life, Washington seemed determined, through military success, marriage, and prodigious political effort, to achieve the rank he desperately desired. Joseph Ellis writes of Washington, “Because he lacked both the presumptive superiority of a British aristocrat and the economic resources of a Tidewater grandee, Washington could only rely on the hard core of his own merit.” Another famous American politician whose original lack of social standing led him to strive for rank was Alexander Hamilton, whose illegitimate birth in the West Indies was often, as he wrote, “the subject of the most humiliating criticism.” Hamilton hoped, however, that his facility with words “would someday free him from his humble berth and place him on a par with the most powerful men of his age.” More recent American politicians driven to prodigious efforts to overcome humble beginnings include Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. And, of course, Lyndon Johnson strove for rank after the failure of his father’s business interests and political career left him feeling deeply humiliated.
Power and status are notoriously elusive goals and those who seek them in the political arena are generally doomed to lives of disquiet and unease. In the democracies, at least, political power is inherently evanescent. After Benjamin Disraeli was elected England’s prime minister he described his achievement as climbing to the top of a “greasy pole.” From the top it became clear that a sudden slide back to the bottom was inevitable. Status, for its part, is always uncertain and ambiguous. Most politicians are only too aware that someone who is famous one day can easily be forgotten the next. One prominent former member of Congress told a Johns Hopkins alumni group that not long after his retirement, a passerby stared at him at the airport and said, “You used to be somebody, right?” No wonder politicians are unhappy.
Should we care whether our politicians are happy or not? We might not be concerned with their happiness per se, but as we watch leaders surrender party and principle in a perpetual and inherently futile effort to retain their grip on power and status, their unhappiness becomes ours. And, just as our politicians never will achieve the affirmation they seek, most will forever fail to meet the lofty expectations we have for them. Our politicians are not heroes and sometimes they are not even appropriate role models. In many cases, they are flawed individuals whose underlying narcissism manifests itself in a variety of unsavory ways, including sexual misconduct. Yet, many among us are eager to follow them, to be inspired by them, to “believe” in them, only to be doomed to disappointment. Andrew Young, John Edwards’ former aide who initially claimed paternity of Edwards’ illegitimate daughter, explained in his recent autobiography that he was willing to ruin his own life to protect Edwards because he “believed” so strongly in the politician.
Two days before former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, aka Client No. 9, announced his resignation, he held a brief press conference and stated in part, “I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good, and doing what is best.” If only our politicians truly focused on doing what is best rather than climbing the greasy pole they—and we—might be happier.
Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science in the Krieger School. He is the author or editor of 20 books, including Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag During Radical Reconstruction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). His son, Alexander Ginsberg, is an attorney in Washington and a former congressional and White House staffer.