Bill Clinton, our most adept practitioner of therapeutic politics, has always flirted with dysfunction. Six years ago, during his first successful presidential campaign, he discussed his dysfunctional family history during a televised interview. He acknowledged that growing up with an alcoholic parent may have made him particularly eager to please and placate. Veterans of the recovery movement, which remained popular in the early 1990s, would have instantly recognized Clinton as an ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic). Considering his abusive, alcoholic stepfather, his substance abusing brother, his mother’s penchant for gambling, and his own compulsive eating and alleged womanizing, Clinton’s family looked like a case study in a codependency book.
Whether you saw this as a weakness or a strength depended on your relationship with the therapeutic culture. “Real men don’t get on the couch,” a spokesperson for President Bush told the New York Times, standing up for the American tradition of rugged individualism. But for the millions of Americans who considered themselves survivors of dysfunction and abuse and believed fervently in the healing power of the couch or their support groups, Clinton’s implied awareness of his “feeling reality” was much more appealing than any display of machismo. Being “in recovery” is no weakness to people who consider being “in denial” the only alternative.
Besides, Clinton never actually presented himself as truly dysfunctional. (Who would elect a dysfunctional president?) Instead, his moments of apparent introspection humanized him and made him seem approachable. They helped him politically just as Princess Diana’s bouts of bulimia helped transform her into “the people’s princess.”
Clinton’s desire to please was a classic symptom of codependency, but those who recognized it as such probably felt closer to him when he acknowledged it. People who were not conversant in the language of recovery might see in his desire to please a talent for compromise–an essential political art. As a candidate, Clinton deftly balanced hints of codependency with the image of a leader in control of policy and the political process. If he could not always control his appetites–for cheeseburgers and doughnuts–he was someone voters could identify with. But his unmistakable intelligence, his ability to master the details of complicated policy matters, and his skills at communicating made him someone voters could also admire.
The most powerful charismatics are those who simultaneously invite identification and awe. (And even Clinton’s opponents are awestruck by his seduction and survival skills.) Charismatic personalities combine transcendent beauty, glamour, or talent with accessibility, providing a way in for people eager to identify with a higher being. They seem both ineffable and utterly familiar.
But this delicate balance of minor, private, victimless dysfunction and the ability to master public issues and events has been endangered by the current scandals. Clinton’s image as a “caring” leader, one who will help us heal, has been badly damaged by Kathleen Willey’s story, which has put his very membership in the therapeutic culture at risk. The president who ran on a platform of compassion allegedly acted cruelly to someone who came to him in need of it. If Willey’s story is true, he didn’t feel her pain. He used it.
People steeped in popular therapies seek explanations. “Is the president a sex addict?” some wondered when the Lewinsky story broke. In the aftermath of Willey’s 60 Minutes interview, the conversation has revived. According to Time, Clinton’s old friend and reputed former lover Dolly Kyle Browning claims that, in 1987, she confronted him with her suspicions that he was a sex addict, “just like her.” According to Browning, Time reports, the president broke down and cried. Whether or not this sensational story is true, it suggests Clinton is in danger of being defeated by the therapeutic culture that helped get him elected.
The recovery movement gave us the concept of sex addiction, which is a form of codependency. In the 1980s, the movement popularized the notion that behaviors could be as addictive as substances such as cocaine or alcohol, and it founded 12-step programs for compulsive shoppers, gamblers, sexaholics, and so on. Recovery enthusiasts would probably be sympathetic to a sex-addicted president, but might be unlikely to support him until he agreed to get help–which is hard to imagine.
To people who are most familiar with the term and most likely to take it seriously, if Clinton is a sex addict, he is clearly not in recovery. Therefore he is in denial. To recovery aficionados, that probably means he is not sufficiently evolved, spiritually or psychically, to lead the nation. They would not expect the president to be devoid of dysfunction, but would expect him to have recognized and vanquished his own abusive behaviors. To support him would be to support his denials, thereby making them “enablers.”
There is some symmetry in the diagnosis of Clinton, our therapeutic president, as patient in addition to healer. The personal development tradition greatly values the presumed authority of experience, and codependency experts–leaders such as John Bradshaw–routinely confessed their own struggles with various addictions in order to bolster their credibility. But they marketed themselves as people who had been through the “process” of recovery, surrendered their will to their higher powers, and freed themselves of addictive behaviors. From this perspective, Clinton has yet to get with the program.
F or people who are not immersed in recovery but are receptive to the notion of sex addiction, the president’s dysfunction simply means that, like Ken Starr, he is “out of control.” Nobody wants an out of control president. Meanwhile, people hostile to popular notions of addiction will dismiss the characterization of Clinton as a sex addict as an evasion of personal responsibility. (And, indeed, some of his supporters may prefer seeing him as the victim of a disease rather than as an intentional sexual predator.)
But let’s get clinical: Does the diagnosis of sex addiction make sense? Outside the world of pop psychology, it is likely to engender skepticism. The American Psychiatric Association does not formally recognize sex addiction as a mental disorder. Among experts who treat and study compulsive behaviors and chemical dependencies, there is controversy over the meaning of the term “addiction” and the efficacy of the disease model for a range of supposed addictions, from alcoholism to compulsive gambling.
Even if sex addiction exists, and even if Clinton qualifies, he is unlikely to claim the banner. Politically, it’s a loser. Or is it? It did work for Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, a self-professed sex addict who rehabilitated himself politically after a drug conviction by declaring his powerlessness over drugs and sex, repenting, and entering a program. “Most people are recovering from something,” he explained to the Washington Post. Barry won back the mayor’s office by embracing his own dysfunctions–but Washington is a dysfunctional city.