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When Pride Turns to Hubris

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Full text of Starr's report and the White House rebuttal are online.


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By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 1998; Page E02

The ancient Greeks called it hubris – wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or passion. It is the classic temptation of mortals who, finding themselves garbed in the unaccustomed robes of leadership or success, start imagining themselves bulletproofed against disaster – and so tempt the fates.

Think of Antony and Cleopatra, Hitler and Russia, Catherine the Great and her horse. Now we have independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report detailing behavior President Clinton obviously believed would never be known.

Those who succumb to hubris convince themselves there's really no risk in their fatal attraction to the spinning prop. How could there be when they're smarter, luckier, craftier and uniquely blessed by both God and destiny?

Tell it to the little short guy who wound up on St. Helena.

Washington, of course, is littered with the lessons of hubris. But nobody reads them. Nixon? LBJ? Former House speaker Jim Wright? If winning elections can't fill the bottomless hunger for validation, maybe dancing on the cliff-edge can.

"I think there are really three things operating," says Betty Glad, professor of government and international studies at the University of South Carolina. Glad, who has written both a biography of Jimmy Carter and a psychological history of tyrants, says self-destructive leaders "gain power in part because they're smart or clever, and then start believing they're smarter and cleverer than anyone. They start to underestimate others."

In addition, she says, the more power or success they gain, the "more they lose the sense of the limits of that power. And nobody reminds them of those limits. They think they can take big risks and win forever."

Finally, she says, their record of successes and their accumulation of power leads them to indulge fantasies of omnipotence and invulnerability – a "pathological narcissism" that leads them to "lose all touch with reality."

Glad says there are degrees of those three factors in leaders as wildly different as Carter and Saddam Hussein. "The difference is a tyrant like Saddam lacks any values but his own, . . . any real connection to other people."

Throughout history, she says, leaders drunk on their own illusions and success wander into situational cul-de-sacs where they meet one disaster or another. Cambyses I of Persia, who ruled from 529-22 BC, invaded Ethiopia without ever inquiring what his troops would need for such a journey. No one dared to challenge him, and when his troops ran out of supplies they were reduced to cannibalism. Hitler followed much the same path when he sent the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union in 1941 without winter clothing.

Whether it's Richard Nixon scheming his way into Watergate or Joseph Stalin purging his armies of almost every competent general on the eve of World War II, the self-destructive leader suddenly finds himself captive of events and lashes out, seeking scapegoats.

"The ancient Greeks thought it was the nature of all humans to try to go too far, . . . to challenge the gods," said Susan T. Stevens, assistant professor of classics at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. "And in their culture they were both praised and punished for doing so."

The classic case, she and others note, is that of Icarus, who used wings fashioned from feathers and wax by his father, Daedalus, to try to escape an earthly prison. But, intoxicated by the achievement of flight, Icarus disregarded his father's warning and flew so high the sun melted his wings and he fell to his death.

Greek mythology teems with other examples of hubric self-destruction, like Arachne, who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest and ended up being turned into a spider. Or Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. As a penalty the head god Zeus chained him forever to a rock, where a vulture comes each day to eat his liver, which grows back each night.

But is there a natural self-destructive quality in leadership people?

"Not in all leadership people, but empirical evidence finds suggestions of it in many," says Larry Staples, a psychoanalyst who practices in Washington and Annapolis.

According to psychoanalytic theory, he says, the classic cases of hubric self-destruction contain three ingredients: a weak or failed father, a strong and ambitious mother and a gifted son.

"The mother, disappointed in the father's failure to achieve the status her ambitions demand, withdraws her hopes and ambitions from the father and lays them on the gifted son . . . to redeem the family pride. The son in effect replaces the father. Consciously the son loves winning this special place. But unconsciously he feels guilty because the father is always the boy's first image of God.

"To replace him is to psychologically kill God the father and thus to incur guilt. And at the unconscious level the only way to atone for that guilt . . . is to . . . come down from the Olympian heights. . . . The unconscious thus arranges compulsive behavior that leads to mistakes in judgment and eventual failure."

Staples sees degrees of that equation in the lives of Nixon, Julius Caesar, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even at times Winston Churchill, among others, with Bill Clinton as example A.

Yet as intriguing as psychological theories are, the behavioral sciences have been increasingly overtaken by the proven biochemistry of the brain. And the biochemistry of hubris may end up proving that the Greek myths were right.

Peter Kramer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University, has written of the "increasing evidence for a biology of risk-taking. Some people seem to be 'novelty seekers' – predisposed to a willingness to take risks in pursuit of stimulating sensations. Novelty seekers have distinctive strengths – they tend to be innovative thinkers – and characteristic weaknesses, such as gambling and addiction."

"One thing that is pretty firmly established at this point is that an individual's fundamental personality is at least 50 percent genetic," says Frederick K. Goodwin, director of the Psychopharmacology Research Center at George Washington University. "And people who inherit a tendency toward risk-taking react to it like a moth to a flame."

Research in recent years, he says, has discovered that high-risk situations trigger, among other effects, the release in the brain of a chemical called dopamine. "When the average person encounters a risky situation and survives, he tends to become more cautious," Goodwin says.

Not the risk-taker. For him the dopamine release triggered by the risky situation acts something like a shot of speed or cocaine. Not only does he become addicted to dopamine – and to the risks that release it – he requires ever stronger doses released by riskier and riskier situations.

As Kramer has noted, the very qualities that permit many talented people to take and survive risks are often those that make them effective leaders. But it is that extra, over-the-top dimension that obsessed the Greeks: that moth-and-flame factor that pulled Icarus toward the sun.

"The Greeks used to have poets like Pindar come in to remind their leaders at moments of triumph that they were mortal and that all mortal glory is fleeting," said Mary Lefkowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College who taught there when Hillary Rodham Clinton was a student. "Classic hubris is the self-indulgent misuse of power so that it brings disgrace and unhappiness on others."

It is the great warning flag of all Western philosophy and the great lesson of all human leadership.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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