Paternity, love and democracy

NEW JERSEY - Watching, fitfully, the Republican convention now taking place in Tampa, Florida, I thought, not of politics, but of the pathological need to be loved.

Lee Siegel,

02 de setembro de 2012 | 01h00

Professional actors and professional politicians are the only two creatures I know of whose very success depends upon a maniacal craving for absolute affection and adoration. Anyone else would be crippled by such a need. Business executives would break down and sob before the icy faces in the boardroom. Artists and writers would never be able to be alone with themselves. Air traffic controllers would be sprawled out on the floor of the control tower, utterly depressed, while the planes above made antic circles in the air as pilots sang and told jokes in the cabin to win the love of the passengers. But without a steady stream of adoration, actors and politicians cannot function.

This almost lunatic need to be loved has the most positive effect on an actor. He or she is driven to fully inhabit one alien life after another in order to win the love of the spectators. It can have the most debilitating and destructive effect on a politician. He or she is driven to adopt one position after another in order to win the love of the voters. You might even say that anyone who wants to run for office should be disqualified by his very desire to do so.

But of course there are beautiful exceptions to love-starved, servile politicians, people whose self-esteem derives from their image of themselves as virtuous, principled and courageous. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one such figure. Lyndon Baines Johnson was another. These are politicians upon whom democracy confers the greatest potential-even as, without them, democracy itself becomes less able to achieve.

Yet it seems that such figures are in short supply. If there is in America now an almost total lack of interest in a presidential election that offers the starkest choice in at least a generation, it's because there is a general feeling that the political players are not independent agents, but puppets. They seem to be manipulated by impersonal forces, like ideology, the state of the economy, the country's shifting demographics. Among these impersonal forces, though, one is more powerful than any of the others. That is the relationship between fathers and sons.

Nothing determines the intensity of the need to be loved in a boy than the relationship with his father. No amount of love from the mother seems to compensate for the lack of paternal affection. Modern American politics are full of men maimed by their fathers. Their fathers are either weak and present or powerful and absent.

Ronald Reagan's father was a hopeless drunk, whom the young boy sometimes had to pull out of bars and drag home. Clinton lost his real father in an automobile accident when he was 3 and was raised by an abusive stepfather. The current Vice-Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan, found his father dead of a heart attack when he was 16. Obama's father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned the family when Barack was a boy. In defensive response to their weak or absent fathers, Reagan and Ryan constructed a fantastical ideal of absolutely autonomous individuality. Clinton combined ideological spinelessness with a fatal need to seduce. Obama seems to combine political spinelessness with a morally appalling need to prove his toughness with merciless drone attacks in Pakistan. All four men suffer from an eagerness to please bordering on obsequiousness.

Presidents whose fathers were hard-working failures seem to develop the strongest characters. Lyndon Johnson's father was a sustaining, affectionate figure who foundered as a farmer and cattle speculator. Harry Truman's father was a tough, bad-tempered man, abrasively devoted to his son, who lost a farm and then was unable to make a second one work. On the surface, the father of FDR-to my mind America's greatest president-was a true aristocrat, who kept a cool if affectionate distance from his son. It was the onset of polio that humanized FDR and confronted him with the struggle with setback that Truman and Johnson experienced through their fathers' failures.

George W. Bush-to my mind the country's worst president-had a father who had been director of the CIA, vice president and president. In other words, he had a father who was ruhtlessly absent from his son's life. The product of that absence was a son deformed in mind and spirit who gave the presidency to his vice president and spent 8 years playing at war like a stunted child.

In this Oedipal context, Romney presents a paradox. His father, George Romney was a state governor and cabinet official who was also a failed presidential candidate and a failed-if wealthy-businessman. The father was both powerful and absent and weak and present. Perhaps this is why Romney takes one contradictory position after another yet is adamant about each position he takes. If only the father had failed without great success. Then the son could have developed the stronger side of his character.

For all the differences in the father and son relationship, each of these men possessed or possess the pathological need to be loved (with the exception of George W. Bush, who seems too stupid to know what love is). The men who made the best presidents added to this another quality. They fatally loved their weakened yet dignified fathers. As Father Zosima says in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, "What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." So long as the modern democratic politician's almost deranged need to be loved is accompanied by the quixotic need to love, even in the abstract, the human element in life, democracy is safe.

 

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