Confidence Man

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, August 14, 2005

One of the things that worries me about the president is his lack of a healthy level of self-loathing. He seems to have no self-loathing at all. Psychologically healthy people will pause at least once a day to say, out loud, "I hate myself." This is a kind of purgative, a casting-out of the demons that cause one to do stupid things. You feel better instantly. And you can be proud that you have the courage to get in touch with your Inner Loser.

Now, you might argue that a sane person seeks contentment, and that an inability to writhe in spasms of self-abnegation doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. But you would be incorrect. Show me someone who is serene, and I will show you someone who's not trying hard enough.

The most successful people set goals that are borderline unrealistic. They sense that they will probably never be the person they want to be, but they keep reaching, keep grinding, keep dreaming, all the while realizing the sad truth of human existence: Failure is an option.

Our president has several challenges when it comes to self-loathing. First, he is a man who, up to the age of 40 or so, never hoped to be anything more than the commissioner of baseball, and thus very likely is amazed and slightly bewildered to discover that he has 10,000 or so nuclear weapons, an Army and a Navy, a jumbo jet, and lots of other cool stuff that every guy wants. Particularly the jumbo jet. It's just hard to ride in that thing and hate yourself. Since the dawn of time, the male of the species has known that his measure of success is exactly commensurate with the size of his plane.

A second reason the president lacks self-loathing is that so many other people are already doing the loathing for him. They've got it covered.

Third, his job description forbids self-loathing, or even the mildest display of self-displeasure. This is because, aside from the occasional joke that is "self-deprecating" (a Washington staple, allowing the speaker to pretend he is not the megalomaniac everyone knows him to be), a president must be presidential. No one knows exactly what "presidential" means.

For George Washington, it meant affecting an air of hyper-dignity. He was a big poser, a white-horse rider, a man who designed the ornamentation of his ceremonial coach. But of course he was fully human underneath the fluff and varnish, and I strongly suspect he had a healthy level of self-loathing. The record indicates that, in a foul mood, he would declare that he had been miserable in every moment of his presidency. When he finally turned the job over to John Adams, he skedaddled with great delight and never looked back.

He said: Outta here.

Our current president has hammered together a public personality that is part preacher, part cowboy, part Julius Caesar. He is partial to absolute truths and clings to them as though they were rafts in a roiling sea. He's in a particularly touchy situation, what with that business of invading and occupying another country, which is not the kind of thing you'd want to say that you did erroneously, or as a lark, or because you were feeling unusually good about yourself that day and couldn't find any other way to express it. If you goof up a war as president, you're not allowed to admit it. You can't get up on TV and say, "Jeepers, I am such an idiot."

That is what the press wants him to say. The press wants a president, whoever he may be, to admit that he is a ding-dong. (When Nixon said, "I am not a crook," it was like a confession that he was. He put the c-word in play.) A president in wartime has to say that he remains firm, has resolve, will stay the course. He must continue to walk around with his chest stuck out. The worse the situation gets, the farther the chest must protrude. You know the country is in trouble when the president's chest rounds a corner before the rest of his body.

It's good, then, that presidents sometimes take time off. They need to unwind, ride a bike, run, clear brush. Far from public view, they can loathe themselves to their heart's content. They can walk the lonely miles from one end of the ranch to the other. They can flagellate the brush to within an inch of its life. And then they'll feel better. They'll be whole again. They'll sense what it would be to live a normal life, with the full spectrum of useful emotions, from joy to despair.

But then it's time to go back to work.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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