RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif., July 30, 2013 — Our Nation currently has three outstanding examples of the impact of clinical narcissism in American politics: San Diego Mayor, Bob Filner; New York City Comptroller candidate, Eliot Spitzer, and New York Mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner. Based upon their personal histories, these three would be well advised to get in line in front of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion if they ever visit the Wizard in the Emerald City. Filner needs to “get a clue” (just ask Nancy Pelosi), Spitzer appears to only care about himself, and Weiner tends to hide behind the political skirt of his wife.
Before we examine the individuals, let’s first discuss the “Rule Book” that politicians follow when confronted with such crises. There are five stages to negotiating sexual faux pas within the political arena that essentially parallel the Five Stages of Grief: Denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. Politicians may rearrange the order depending upon the evidence and the advice they receive from their strategists, but they experience each of the stages. If you were a politician, here is the road map you would follow.
Stage 1: Denial
It is important to initially ignore the issue to see if it goes away. Maybe the accuser lacks solid evidence (i.e., some people dry clean their clothes). Perhaps the press will be disinterested. It’s even possible that some other crisis will arise (or can be manufactured) that will render the scandal irrelevant.
In the unfortunate event that at least one of these scenarios fails to materialize, refuse to answer questions, preferably in a dismissive tone that suggests that such questions do not even merit a response.
If the pressure continues, deny that there is any basis for the allegations. You may rest assured that loyal supporters and members of your Party will be eager to claim that it’s just a conspiracy created by the opposing Party to besmirch your reputation.
Stage 2: Anger
When articulating your denial, be sure to act shocked and appalled. Say that you “need to get on with the people’s business,” and “this is just a distraction manufactured by your opponents.”
Again, you may count on your supporters and members of your Party to reinforce the legitimacy of your anger.
Stage 3: Bargaining
If the press actually pursues the story with the vigor intended under the First Amendment and public sentiment begins to shift, seek counsel and start negotiating behind the scenes.
Speak with current representatives about censure. Speak with former presidents about impeachment. How did they live to fight another day, or serve another term — just not in prison?
A key determinant will be whether your Party still supports you. This may depend on a number of things.
Have you been an important shill for your Party (i.e., willing to argue the Party’s position regardless of its legitimacy)?
Do you have incriminating evidence on politicians (or fundraisers) in high places? Now is the time to play that card.
Does your Party need your vote to force its platform upon the People? Remember: it doesn’t matter what your Party thinks of you as long as they can “own” your vote.
If none of these circumstances applies to you, your Party will abandon you like rats fleeing from a sinking ship. Its members won’t want to suffer “guilt by association.” Instead, they will try to leverage your disaster to further their political careers by excoriating you in public.
Stage 4: Depression
Once your Party abandons you, you’ll begin to experience depression; not the same type of depression your behavior has brought to others, but the type of depression associated with knowing that you’ve been caught and that even your skill at misrepresenting the truth may not be enough to save you from a fate worse than death: the loss of the power that feeds your ego.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Your only recourse is to “come clean.” Admit that you have failed the people. Emphasize that you are “only human” (even though your past behavior may not support that suggestion). A substantial segment of the electorate has been conditioned to believe that type of mea culpa and even begin to feel sympathetic toward you.
Then, wait a few years (or weeks) and try to return to public life. Voters have relatively short-term memories other than for names, and you have name-recognition.
Your opponents will undoubtedly raise your past failings, but you can reprise your mea culpa and even run ads that emphasize how you were disgraced. After all, you’ve probably sought professional help and you’re a “new man” who has “put his problems behind him.”
Now, all that’s left to be done is to roll out a political spouse who will state, “You know, I’m not sitting here like some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” before behaving exactly in that way because too much power and money are at stake.
Now that you have this understanding, let’s examine how our current crop of politicians has responded to the test.
Stage 1: Denial
Filner, Spitzer and Weiner all passed with flying colors. Each initially ignored the allegations against them, and when they did address questions concerning those allegations, they did so in a dismissive or contemptuous manner.
Stage 2: Anger
Weiner perfected this stage. He blamed Andrew Breitbart for fabricating the story. He also claimed that someone had hacked his Twitter account and extracted pictures of his private parts from his computer’s hard drive, hoping the public would ignore the question of why he might have had such pictures on his hard drive. He even spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire a private investigator to investigate the matter.
Spitzer also did an admirable job in this stage. Unfortunately, he did not score as high as Weiner because his normal demeanor is condescending to the point of making it difficult to distinguish it from feigned anger.
Filner fell short of the mark with respect to the anger stage. Consistent with the Scarecrow suggestion above, he accelerated his Stage 5 mea culpa by releasing a DVD in which he apologized for having “diminished the office.” He stated that he was “embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.” He added that “I am also humbled to admit that I need help (and) I have begun to work with professionals to make changes in my behavior and approach. In addition, my staff and I will participate in sexual harassment training provided by the city.”
Since then, Filner announced that he will be taking two weeks off for “intensive therapy,” which might set a record for affecting significant behavioral change in a 70 year old man.
In each individual’s case, supporters and members of his Party dutifully asserted that the accusations were false and were nothing more than a conspiracy set forth by the opposing Party. Apparently, the Scarecrow has a lot of competition.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Filner currently holds office, so we can only speculate as to whether he will be able to negotiate a satisfactory settlement to his present situation. However, you can rely upon the fact that he is seeking a deal.
In an unrelated incident, Filner allegedly approved a necessary permit for a particular project after the developer made a $100,000 donation to two of the Mayor’s favorite causes. When first discussing this issue, he said, “What we’re trying to do is make sure that people that get things from the city understand that they also have to give things back. You don’t get free things.” The FBI is now investigating that particular transaction for the Department of Justice. In the interim, it might be reasonable to assume that Filner will not step down as Mayor unless he gets something in return.
With respect to Spitzer and Weiner, they failed to successfully negotiate graceful exits and were forced to leave office in disgrace. Their personalities probably didn’t help them in this regard. Both had made a relatively long list of enemies by verbally assaulting influential people for their own political gain.
Spitzer’s fatal error may have been in aggressively attacking Wall Street when he served as the State of New York’s Attorney General and, later, as Governor. He forgot that both Parties are involved in a form of political prostitution when it comes to their respective donor base. As the saying goes, “Payback is hell.”
Conversely, Weiner was an “attack dog” who was willing to argue and condemn any viewpoint that was inconsistent with that of his Party. Coupled with his Party’s minority in the House and his wife’s long-term affiliation with then-Secretary of State Clinton, this normally might have been sufficient to provide him with some bargaining power. However, he had also been critical of the Administration, suggesting that it hadn’t been aggressive enough on the issue of healthcare reform. When combined with his relatively ineffective record as a legislator and the nature of his Twitter perversion, his Party saw him as expendable.
While Senator Schuman has demonstrated some degree of loyalty to his protégé (Weiner) by refusing to comment, most other Democratic members of the House and Senate have decried the behavior of former Representatives Filner and Weiner.
House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi stated, “It is so disrespectful of women, and what’s really stunning about it is they don’t even realize, they don’t have a clue. If they’re clueless, get a clue. If they need therapy, do it in private.” The fact that she served with Filner for 20 years and Weiner for more than 12, apparently without ever noticing or hearing about their peculiar behaviors, leads one to hope that there is at least one clue left for her.
Similarly, Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz did not find time to comment on the misogynistic behavior of Bob Filner until late last week. Given her propensity for evoking the mantra of a War on Women, it is amazing that it took her so long to join the discussion.
Stage 4: Depression
As he is still in office, Filner may not yet have come to grip with the inevitable depression associated with Stage 4. To a degree, he seems to be stuck in the denial of Stage 1. He appears to think that his commitment to two weeks of “intense therapy” will be sufficient to convince people that his previous 70 years on Earth can be overcome by this microwave version of behavioral change. It might also be because he’s actively engaged in the bargaining cycle of Stage 3.
Weiner and Spitzer seemed to have negotiated past the depression stage quickly.
As we learned recently, Weiner apparently found comfort in reverting to his prior behavior when confronted by “a difficult time” in his marriage. Apparently, the citizens of New York City need not be concerned about Weiner’s fitness for office if they believe their city will be free from any “difficult times” during his term as Mayor.
To his credit, Spitzer may have skipped Stage 4 altogether. Despite his particular peccadillo, his ego was assuaged with two opportunities to serve as a host of primetime shows on CNN. It’s difficult to be depressed when you’re independently wealthy, when the media celebrates you as one of its own, and when you still believe the world revolves around you.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Filner has already admitted to his behavior (or at least alluded to it) on two separate occasions. He may have recognized that the reputation of his accusers does not provide him with the leeway that Spitzer and Weiner may have enjoyed.
To date, seven women have accused Filner of sexual harassment ranging from inappropriate touching and sexual innuendos to demeaning treatment in the workplace. He is currently being sued by his former Communications Director and has been accused by the city’s Chief Operating Officer (retired Navy Rear Admiral), the head of the San Diego Ports Tenants Association, a Dean at San Diego State University, a prominent businesswoman and others. Filner is simply living in an alternate universe in which he believes he still deserves to be mayor and can serve effectively in that capacity.
Eliot Spitzer is legitimately intelligent. After providing the obligatory apology and leaving the public eye for a brief period of time, he used CNN to rebuild his brand. Then, he entered a relatively uncontested race for a position that is well beneath the past offices he held, potentially introducing a sense of humility in his character. Next, he ran a well-orchestrated mea culpa ad in which he stated, “I failed … big time” and added “When you dig yourself a hole, you can either lie in it the rest of your life or do something positive. That’s why I’m running.” People respond to the underdog theme. They like to give someone a second chance, and Spitzer knows it.
On the other hand, Anthony Weiner chose to run for the high-profile position of Mayor of New York City. The recent admission of his relapse falls in stark contrast to his wife’s assertions that “Anthony has spent every day since [the scandal] trying to be the best dad and husband he can be. I’m proud to be married to him.” It was almost painful to watch her read from a script in a relatively emotionless voice that “I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him, and as we have said from the beginning, we are moving forward,” until you realize she trained at the feet of a master in this regard.
Of course, any staunch Republican who is reading this is probably enjoying the evisceration of these Democratic “leaders.” Here are two words for you: Mark Sanford. He may not be “news” at the moment, but he certainly deserves “dishonorable mention.”
While the former Republican Governor of South Carolina recently won election to a vacant seat in the House of Representatives, he is quite familiar with the five Stages we have discussed. He was caught having a tryst in another country proving that we are in danger of exporting everything to other nations these days. Perhaps for effect, he even began the trip that led to his downfall on Father’s Day.
His “Appalachian walk” through the denial stage was short-lived only because he was caught at the airport deplaning from a flight from Argentina. That also killed any chance he had to act angry.
However, he was able to return to it when he claimed, “There’s been a lot of speculation and innuendo on whether or not public moneys were used to advance my admitted unfaithfulness. To be very clear: no public money was ever used in connection with this.” Unfortunately, he later had to say, “I am going to reimburse the state for the full cost of the Argentina leg of this trip” after a reporter gathered damaging facts through the Freedom of Information Act.
Sanford almost immediately entered the bargaining stage during which he successfully avoided impeachment proceedings. However, he was censured and fined tens of thousands of dollars for ethics violations.
Any further depression he may have suffered probably came at the hands of his now ex-wife, who divorced him in an act of independence that demonstrated she was not the “Good Wife” (politically speaking) to which Anthony Weiner’s wife referred in the latter’s similarly titled article in Harper’s Bazaar.
This opened the door for Sanford to propose to his Argentinian paramour (who is now his fiancée) and to successfully return to politics this year. Apparently, everyone enjoys a love story.
Sarcasm aside, we have a serious issue in this country. We have been conditioned to accept less than we deserve. New York City has over 8.3 million residents, and San Diego has nearly 3.2 million. Do Spitzer, Weiner and Filner represent the best leadership these cities can offer?
Our political system attracts narcissists who need to “win” their elections to validate their existence. They are willing to do whatever it takes to “win,” and once in office, feel justified in abusing their power to reinforce their image of themselves. Along the way, many innocent (and some not-so-innocent) people may get hurt.
So, how do we overcome this issue?
First, stop confusing a person’s name-recognition with the “content of their character” (to paraphrase Dr. King). By definition, a “celebrity” is a person who is “widely known.” The term does not define one’s moral or ethical strength nor does it necessarily reflect a positive talent. It merely means the person is famous or infamous in some regard.
Celebrities, such as professional athletes, performers, movie and television stars, and political “leaders,” are often viewed as role models: people who are to be emulated by others. While these individuals may not aspire to be role models, they must accept the fact that the decision is a societal one. While we can only cast “dollar” votes with respect to most of these role models (i.e., choosing whether to attend their games, concerts, shows, etc.), we can exercise a greater degree of control over our elected officials.
Political groups have tried to use pledges in the past to exert pressure on elected officials to further specific elements of a political agenda.
- What if the “pledge” were non-partisan?
- What if it inured to the benefit the People regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or political affiliation, etc.?
- What if the “pledge” were mandatory rather than permissive so that every elected official was required to sign it?
An Ethics Agreement represents a single, simple solution that would address the issues of political corruption, misrepresentation, and moral turpitude that plaque our political system. Its operation would be uncomplicated:
- If you choose to run for public office, you are required to commit to a clear set of guidelines.
- If you violate those guidelines, you will immediately be relieved of office and will not be eligible to serve the People again unless you are exonerated or acquitted of the related charge.
Is this harsh? Not really. Is it practical? Yes.
It’s actually a relatively common practice in the private sector in the form of straight ethics agreements, confidentiality agreements, patent and invention agreements, drug-free environment agreements, etc. The only difference is that our elected officials control their own destiny unless we pressure them to change.
Let’s assume that we would all be better served by a political environment that was bound by ethics. Your assignment (in the Comment Section below) is to articulate what limitations you think should be incorporated into an Elected Officials Ethics Agreement. Our politicians are unlikely to regulate their own behavior absent our assistance. Let’s show them that we care. Let’s end this War on Ethics.
A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for YOU. You are invited to offer your opinion and to discuss your position with other commenters who may agree or disagree with your position. Just because many of our elected officials seem to be incapable of participating in this type of dialogue doesn’t mean that you should be precluded from doing so. CAVEAT: Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors, and in 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States.
T.J. will be providing nonpartisan political commentary every Tuesday on The Daily Ledger, one of One America News Network’s featured shows (check local cable listings for the channel in your area or watch online at 8:00 and 11:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 and 8:00 PM Pacific).