Are All Politicians Crazy?

Photos: Classic Political Meltdowns Paul Sancya / AP

In 1964 a now-defunct magazine called Fact surveyed more than 12,000 psychiatrists as to how they might diagnose conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater, who at the time was running for president against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Roughly half of the 2,417 psychiatrists who responded described Goldwater as having a personality disorder. They diagnosed him as "paranoid," schizophrenic," and "narcissistic." And all the results were published, says Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist and FBI consultant. The Fact cover line read: "1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!"

Ouch. Whether the story led to the Republican senator's defeat or just added extra nastiness to the anti-Goldwater campaign—one popular Democratic slogan at the time was "In your guts, you know he's nuts"—is unclear. But specialists understood that it was highly inappropriate. The incident led to what is still referred to as the "Goldwater rule," a phrase describing an ethics policy of the American Psychiatric Association that bars mental-health professionals from voicing opinions on specific public officials unless they've personally conducted an examination and have been granted authorization to speak about it. In a column this past March, Psychology Today's John Mayer wrote that although the Goldwater rule offers important protections, it may impede an important public discourse: "I wonder who is to protect the public from unstable and problematic politicians?"

These days, the job is left to reporters and armchair psychiatrists on cable TV to diagnose whether President Obama lacks empathy and therefore is incapable of emoting to satisfactory levels (which people say they want in a president), or to figure out how fraught George W. Bush's relationship is with his father, and whether that played a role in the 43rd president's decision to go to war in Iraq.

In the end, we end up knowing little about the mental states of the people we pull the lever for. Not that we couldn't, in theory, learn more about what makes them tick. "Very good tests are available to measure personality. What would it take to ensure that no one ran for high public office without having a clean Personality Assessment Inventory, drug screen, and criminal record?" asks Dietz, who is also president of the forensic consulting firm Park Dietz & Associates, Inc. "Why leave it to the press to investigate their backgrounds? How about suggesting that candidates voluntarily disclose [a psychological assessment] plus birth certificate, school records, and employment records?" He points out that anyone applying for a CEO position is asked to provide these kinds of records, and yet we don't require that of our political leaders. (While candidates must provide basic information such as citizenship and criminal history, most of what Dietz mentions above is not necessary to file for candidacy, according to sources at the Federal Election Commission and other state and national organizations that regulate election activity.

So what about the type of person who tends to run for office? Turns out there are certain personality traits that may be common among politicians, according to several professional profilers who spoke to NEWSWEEK. What we do know about these people, says Dietz, is that they may often display two general qualities: extroversion and narcissism. "It takes no great insight to recognize that extroversion would be common among politicians, who make good use of being gregarious, talkative, enthusiastic, assertive, and comfortable with others," he says.

Narcissistic traits are more problematic, of course. These can include a grandiose sense of self-importance, a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited power, and believing he or she is "special." Narcissistic people may require excessive admiration, and possess senses of entitlement, envy, and arrogance. They also tend to exploit others and lack empathy. Narcissism may be more prevalent among pols than in the general population, Dietz says, but, he adds, it's at least as prevalent among news anchors, Hollywood stars, and top trial lawyers as well. "It's hard to stay humble at the top," he says. "Narcissism helps drive achievement and is also fed by uninterrupted success." Politicians who are exposed for corruption may have their own problems, possibly antisocial traits such as deceptiveness, failure to plan ahead, recklessness, irresponsibility, and lack of remorse, says Dietz. "Most of the politicians who are exposed for corruption have prominent narcissistic and/or antisocial traits."

Power over others can be intoxicating, says John Douglas, a retired FBI agent and criminal profiler who makes a living out of studying what motivates people. Violent offenders—his line of work—and politicians can often both have narcissistic streaks, needing constant stimulation and having a heightened sense of self, he says. For example, though Douglas hasn't met with Rod Blagojevich, he believes the former Illinois governor is "definitely a narcissist." (Douglas is often called on to analyze public figures without meeting them directly, he says, and uses his years of background experience and lengthy research.) When it comes to getting caught red-handed—for a criminal it's perhaps committing a violent act, and for a politician, it may be an affair or a corruption scandal—passing the buck is common. Despite a mea culpa culture that pushes some politicians into public apologies, there are plenty of others who "show a failure to accept responsibility and a desire to project responsibility onto others," Douglas argues.

Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says there is no profile of the typical politician, just as there is no profile of a typical murderer. "These are very heterogeneous groups," he says. Politicians are certainly driven by positive forces, too, such as wishing to lead and to do good by others, he argues.

And, as Dietz points out, "extroversion is not pathological." We certainly need these types: strong leaders, who like to work with people, ideally with a dose of authentic humility, says Douglas. "Politicians are tenacious. Because they like power, they can take charge and show leadership where others would prefer to follow. They know how to motivate. That's good."