2. Bill's Character

Contents: Ego Defenses ... Conscience and Guilt ... Southern Ethos ... Death Instinct ... Mother's Day for Bill ... Psychotherapy

Bill's Ego Defenses

The understanding of Bill Clinton's behavior calls for an explanation of ego defenses or character traits which are a way of regulating the three realms of the developing personality: the id or the primitive force of the aggressive and lustful unconscious; the partly conscious ego which balances external reality such as parents and society with attempts to increase pleasure and decrease pain; and the superego or conscience, a sense of right and wrong operating by guilt, more of which later. The clash between the forces of the id and the social controls of the ego produces anxiety. The superego or conscience is often in conflict with the id too. The compromise is that the ego develops ways of behavior called defenses against the id and the superego. The structure of the character is determined by the effectiveness of these defenses. If they are solid and work well, the personality is strong and healthy. If they are leaky and fragile, the person is anxious, guilty, depressed and maybe neurotic.

Understanding Clinton's current behavior leads to a study of his ego mechanisms of defense that determine his visible style, habits, foibles, goals, accomplishments and failures. His physical and emotional development, traumas, parental and adult influences, social mileau and genetics all converge into the developments that form these ego defenses. We are not going to explain everything but some of our questions can be illuminated by the way his ego works.

Bill's ego produced several defenses against castration anxiety, guilt and separation thus fulfilling its goal to increase pleasure and decrease pain.

The defense of Repression is the forgetting or not remembering of the feelings and ideas in response to separation and castration threats so these signals of anxiety are ignored. Clinton may remember the move at four from his grandmother's house to his mother's new home with stepfather Roger but the emotions of this separation were mostly repressed. Such repressions affects the style of his responses. Later he repressed the feelings about the Vietnam draft threat so he had trouble recalling what had happened and when it surfaced it took a while to remember and respond.

Denial is a defense which affects the perception of reality so that what is seen and heard is not acknowledged. This lack of awareness of a painful reality is common among the children of alcoholics who don't perceive the alcohol-affected behavior in the home. Clinton mostly denied the experience of Stepfather Roger's abuse of his mother. More striking is the belief of some biographers that Clinton was also abused and he denied this too. It was Clinton's denial of the criticisms by the voters and the press of his first term as Arkansas governor which led to his defeat at the polls after two years.

Another defense is Reaction Formation which means turning an unacceptable impulse into its opposite so that anger and rage become charm, ingratiating and manipulativness. Is this learned from his mother, grandmother or his stepfather? Of course they were skilled at maneuvering and captivating and dissimulating, we're told by Bill's mother but they were often openly angry at each other so Bill's adaptation is his own. Bill's rages are short lived, often at himself or a close associate according to Bob Woodward.

A list of Clinton's defenses cannot ignore his gastrointestinal reflex, the regurgitation of stomach contents for which he takes medication according to his 1996 physical examination. Along with allergies and his obesity this is Somatization, the defense that channels conflicts into the physical realm away from the emotions. Psychosomatic conditions like reflux, obesity and allergies have a biological and often a genetic basis as well as emotional meaning but are no less a part of personality. For example, the psychological origin of Clinton's obesity is his oral fixation, the overindulgence of the infant who continues to use this pattern as a defense against the fear of oral deprivation or starvation while the reflux is a rejection of this same oral overindulgence. Clinton's excessive food intake is an Elvis-like addiction which reduces his stress from guilt, depression and anxiety.

Acting Out is exemplified by the bimbo eruptions during his Arkansas Governorship which may return again. The expression of the impulse is more pleasurable and less painful then its control despite the consequences.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior is a Clinton defense when his aggression is expressed through inappropriate passivity. Bill Clinton often fails to exercise leadership according to Bob Woodward who says, "Clinton did not project a sense of command," or even that "...he diminished the weight of his office." His periodic retreat from activity into Presidential passivity is described when he speaks of his fears as the captain of an old ship, " ... the people...can refuse to row...I can steer it, but a storm can come up and sink it..." When Clinton's castration anxiety becomes intense in a confrontation with the media and Congress, he retreats from aggression into passivity because of his unconscious fear of the loss of the penis.

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism which refers to the use of ideas as a substitute for emotions, an excess of thinking to control the unacceptable impulses that signal the danger of castration and separation. Woodward says, "Clinton spoke so often, said so much on so many subjects, that he further confused people about him and about his goals as President."

Sublimation is a defense in which sexual and aggressive aims are replaced by socially acceptable goals so serving the need of others and religious belief are solutions of the id-ego conflict. Arkansas biographer Brummett describes Clinton as a "...person demonstrating compassion, emotionalism, and an uncanny ability to connect and empathize with all kinds of people..."

The pop psychologists often blame Clinton's lack of a father or the presence of the strong women raising him for his lack of leadership, ambivalence, indecisiveness and fear. This ignores the castration anxiety of boys with powerful fathers like Woodrow Wilson whose lack of leadership about the Treaty of Versailles was his psychological disaster according to the psychohistorical study by Freud and Bullitt. Nixon and Kennedy, both Presidents with dominant fathers had significant leadership flaws as their psychohistories explain.

Is Clinton a coward? Clinton's unwillingness to serve in the Vietnam military called draft dodging in some of the media was a part of his reasonable concern about violence and death in an unjust war. Of course some who supported the Vietnam War like Presidential candidate Phil Gramm and Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't serve either. The fear of death was a stimulus for many Americans of Clinton's generation who were pacifists and antiwar draft resisters but every political position also has a personal psychological face so this is also a castration fear. Clinton's disinterest in combative sports in his teens is another confirmation of this fear of violence. He selected band as his extracurricular activity in high school and was successful on the saxophone, a pacific high school choice suggesting a fear of injury. Nonetheless, Clinton was competitive, a winning contestant for high school class offices and awards.

Bill's Conscience and Guilt

What about his conscience or superego? The development of Bill Clinton's conscience begins with castration anxiety, the fear of the loss of the penis as he learns that he can't kill his stepfather and possess his mother. His world is one of castration fears from threats about masturbation and a primal scene that may interpret the female genitalia as having lost a penis.

An icon for castration anxiety is the leg broken by the attack of the classmates but fear alone isn't a conscience. The guilt-producing part of the mind, Bill's superego came into existence with grandma's flash cards when he was three. She trained him in guilt by using the power of reward and punishment for the recognition of the alphabet on flash card. His mother's book tells us that this family's system of control and authority was driven by guilt and Bill learned quickly and well. The earlier training for conformity of Virginia by Bill's grandmother confirms a family pattern of strict superego development. Virginia explains, "Mother had always been very strict, very protective...trying to control my life."

The conscience or superego includes the moral and religious systems with their special rewards and punishments in heaven and hell. Interestingly in this culturally Baptist family, Bill was the only one who was a churchgoer. Guilt is the trigger of the conscience, an internal sense of right and wrong. Much of this is unconscious although its expression reflects the personal, family and religious beliefs. Bill Clinton's religion is another sublimation of infantile incestuous and murderous wishes as a response to a fear of castration or separation as a punishment.

Does Bill Clinton feel guilt? Some of his public promises not kept and his political manipulativeness and his extramarital affairs argue against an effective conscience or a full quota of guilt. After all, he resolved his castration anxiety by besting the unstable alcoholic stepfather in the contest for his mother's love although there never really was any question of his mother's loyalties. He felt guilt about his idealized real father's death, but he died before Bill was born so it is both harder to hate him and to resolve it by identification with him. His stepfather whose name he used when he began school was weakened as a person and image by his alcohol addiction while his powerful uncle Ray Clinton was a more distant part of the family. But it was Bill's superego that determined his conformity and achievement in school classes and in saxophone practice for band and in his high school political leadership. He could take the initiative to please his mother and teachers achieving their esteem and avoiding the internal pain of self-punishment from his conscience. This conscience was elaborated during his teens into an ego-ideal with John Kennedy and Arkansas Senator William Fulbright as the models.

A punitive superego requires some activities while others are forbidden. A desire to be liked by adults, teachers and peers is prominent in the Clinton story and is said to be compulsive during his political career when agreeable legislators were the key to a Governor's and a President's success. One expression of this psychic energy is FOB, the Friends of Bill mystique, a clique of admirers. Biographer Meredith Oakley says it differently, "He loves to chase anything - an attractive women, a recalcitrant legislator, a skeptical editorial writer, a cynical voter."

Bill's chase to success is the rule of his internalized superego or conscience. The superego represents the parents and Bill Clinton's superego is his mother speaking to him. She describes herself as "street smart...tough...never ruthless..." so this becomes his style. Of course, the force of the conscience is separate from its content so a "bad" goal may be pursued just as avidly as a "good" goal. Bill does feel guilt but it may not be in the same value system as the observer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The compulsive performance of success-driven Bill is based on his superego which cannot be measured because it is buried in the unconscious along with the id.

One of the unsolved paradoxes of psychoanalytic theory is the close linkage of the aggression and lust of the amoral id and the principled superego, in fact we're told that the id energizes the superego and that the ego, our conscious self is at the mercy of this balance.

It is past time to warn the reader not to let this murky Freudian jargon obscure the puzzling behavior which needs to be explained.

Bill's Southern Ethos

The South as the mythic and cultural context of Bill Clinton's psychology demands special attention. Arkansas was a slave state and a member of the Confederacy that was defeated in the Civil War and it remained rural, poor, Protestant and untouched by European immigration. The individual psychology of white Southerner in the modern era is affected by the ways in which the mythology of the South is different then the rest of the United States and also from the African Americans who often left the South for the Northern cities.

Bill Clinton's ethos or collective unconscious was the poverty of the South, Protestant fundamentalism, the military and rural life. Of course Bill was not poor, avoided the military, never was a fundamentalist and grew up in the second largest city in his state, Hot Springs but the powers of myth reside in the unconscious. Beneath the Southern brag and boast of the good ol' boys and their ladies is a fear that you are really white trash, that is irreparably inferior. Why? The South lost the Civil War and afterwards was punished by over a hundred years of regional poverty compared to the industrial, banking and railroad wealth of the North. The nexus of the South was country life, Bible Belt religion, violence, guns, the military and patriotism again in a formula that differed from the rest of the country.

The burden of the white Southerners, at least those not descended from planters or aristocrats was the dread of being considered white trash, shiftless and worthless as described by Dorothy Allison in Bastard Out of Carolina. But the core of the white trash imago is the unspoken and unconscious belief that inside you are really a Black, a changeling who should be reclassified even lower in the white South's traditional hierarchy. This mythology explains some of the psychological force of the South's racism, the Klan, lynching and segregationists like Arkansas' Orval Faubus.

The racism of the Northerner is just as destructive but is not fueled by this mythology since Northerners lived separately from Blacks mostly in cities and often were part of the post-Civil War often Catholic immigration from Europe. New Orleans with its Cajun Catholic culture is the exception to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant South which received few immigrants after the Civil War until the 1970's and 80's when Cubans came to Miami and a few Vietnamese fisherman moved to the Gulf Coast.

All of Bill Clinton's grandparents were poor share croppers according to his biographers even though his maternal grandparents eventually owned a store and his father Bill Blythe was a salesman. The culture was fundamentalist although Bill's mother and stepfather spent little time in church and Bill's mother says that her family values were in opposition to the conservative Pentecostal preacher who lived next door in Hot Springs.

This is worth explaining since the Southern ethos and myths are part of Bill Clinton's psychosocial ego identity, that is the ideas and values of adolescence that form the content of the adult personality. Despite Clinton's handshake in the Rose Garden with John Kennedy at 17, the real models for Clinton's inner self are the Southern presidents, Truman, LBJ and Jimmy Carter.

The ability of Clinton to offer civil rights and racial reconciliation is inherent in his Southern ability to tap into his white trash-black identity. Again this is a perspective that goes beyond Clinton's conscious moral and legal beliefs or the choices made after polls are consulted. The voters receive the power of Clinton's racial attitudes as either positive or negative according to their own value systems.

Bill's Death Instinct

Does a death instinct operate in Bill Clinton? Freud formulated his ideas about the death instinct which he called Thanatos after witnessing the human and psychological destructiveness of the First World War. Nowadays most psychoanalysts don't believe there is a death instinct or consign it to the realms of philosophy and biology rather then psychology but I believe that it can be resuscitated to help understand Clinton.

Thanatos is an expression of human self-destruction or a return to the inorganic which is paired with Eros, the life instinct, sexuality and self-preservation. The libido's aggressive instincts are thought to have an origin in Thanatos. A blend of the instincts reach their goals from the unconscious indirectly through the flow of psychic energy usually called libido into love and sexuality and sometimes toward destructiveness and aggression. How can sunny and smiling Bill Clinton be confounded with the sadism and masochism of the death instinct?

Clinton supported the death penalty during the 1992 presidential campaign when as Governor of Arkansas he refused to halt the execution of a mentally defective inmate and underlined his action by a flight back to Little Rock to announce this decision. Rickey Ray Rector was a convicted murderer whose intelligence was so diminished that he saved the desert from his last meal to eat later on. This endorsement of capital punishment already widely resurgent was a personal as well as a national message. Death penalty doesn't mean death instinct but it does suggest that Clinton and a many citizens are receiving new aggressive libido from their fear of crime, hatred of the criminal and a desire to solve the problems of murder by the death of the killer. Why? Pleasure from the destruction of others, sadism often hides its opposite, pleasure in suffering, masochism. I recall that Gennifer Flowers wouldn't let Bill Clinton tie her up in their sex games although he let her tie him up. "...Sadistic behavior may hide unconscious masochistic aims," psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel explains.

President Clinton is preoccupied with crime and punishment although the crime rate was falling before he entered office and this decline continued. His Crime Bill in 1994 was opposed by fiscal conservatives because of its cost and by civil libertarians because of First Amendment problems and included Federal three strikes provisions. He continued with an anti-terrorism bill that again compromised constitutional safeguards and many said offered no real shield against terrorists. Automatic weapons control was supported by Clinton and the police chiefs in a confrontation with the National Rifle Association. Clinton's death instinct chooses a political preoccupation with violence, death, crime and a need to strike back.

It's a gross oversimplification to say that Thanatos jumps out of the ego of an adult and makes him do things. But it or something in his psychology is energizing Clinton's personal fear of death, crime and murder. The self-destructive tendencies of the death instinct are often manifest by both fear and aggression.

A simpler and less controversial explanation of Bill's preoccupation with violence is the interplay of sadism and masochism in his character. Sadism, pleasure from the pain and suffering inflicted on another often hides its opposite, masochism, the satisfaction from one's own suffering. It is well accepted that these experiences originate in infantile aggressive and sexual impulses during the oral and anal stages of development even if the death instinct plays a role. Although sadism and masochism are usually disguised by ego defenses, we also see behavior which is properly labeled sadistic or masochistic. Bill's fear of violence, a theme from his early years is blended with an powerful commitment to win. This combination of aggressive and sadistic drives hide the an underlying masochism and passivity. Psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel explains, "...Sadistic behavior may hide unconscious aims." I recall the Gennifer Flowers said she wouldn't let Bill tie her up in their sex play, Bill's sadistic impulse although he let her tie him up, Bill's masochism.

These are the facts in the mainstream media about Clinton and the death penalty and Clinton and crime and guns as seen through a psychohistorical lens. But there is conspiratorial side to the equation which speaks of a "A Blood-Spattered Trail," from the Ozarks to the Potomac in the words of George Carpozi, a Clinton biographer. The hate-Clinton movement speaks of a "Clinton Body Count ...A list of dead people connected with Bill Clinton." There are lists of 40, 41, 61 or 90 deaths that "require further investigation." There is a "Clinton 'Death List' " of F.O.B.'s who have died under mysterious circumstances because they were on Clinton's "hit list." There are several sources but Sam Smith's Progressive Review presents this data on the Web.

An aura of death and murder in Bill's unconscious resonates with the Clinton crazies who translate it to events like the death of Vincent Foster, drug wars and murders over the cocaine smuggled through the airport at Mena, Arkansas, the death of Kathleen Willey's husband and even the suicide of Admiral Borda. The facts in Bill Clinton's life lead to his unconscious where the mythos includes Thanatos or the death instinct. The American national mind with its own unconscious Thanatos shares in this Death Clintonia as explained later in the section, Clinton's Equivocal Decade with references to sexual repression, environmental destruction and political nihilism.

Does this mean that Bill Clinton will make war? He avoided this at first withdrawing from Somalia after the death of American troops, entering Haiti cautiously and acting as a peacemaker in Korea, Ireland and the Middle East. Nonetheless, American forces are in Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and the Persian Gulf. Other dangers and temptations remain so American missiles were fired at Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 after terrorist bombings of U. S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Iraq and Yugoslavia were both bombed by the U. S. Armed Forces in 1999.

The bombing campaign against Yugoslavia was conducted without ground troops despite the judgment of the hawks in Congress and in NATO like England's Tony Blair that ground forces would be needed to win. This military action started after the diplomatic failure to resolve the question of Kosovo and its Albanian population. There was a debate about whether the United States had already been too patient with Milosevic's failure to carry out pledges of nonviolence in Kosovo or whether negotiations finally broke down at Rambouillet when we delivered an ultimatum demanding military control of Yugoslavia. In any event, the Balkan politics and NATO policies that led to the bombing itself were filtered through Bill's mind with its psychological defenses based on his active death instinct.

Why were no combat troops in the Balkans like those fielded by Old Soldier Bush in Desert Storm against Iraq? Clinton's avoidance of military service because of his fear of death in an unjust Vietnam war is an expression of castration anxiety and this is the personal factor in his fear of using ground troops. Of course the polls, consultants, Congress and military advisors played their roles. Clinton's aggression fueled by his death instinct and his castration anxiety were now in conflict so we had a 78 day air war which was frustrating to both the peacemakers and the generals.

A ground troop option of at least 150,000 men was debated as the advent of the Balkan winter worried everyone but it was done without the presence of NATO's American commanding general, Wesley Clark. "The Pentagon told him not to come," Jane Perlez says in the New York Times. As I read this I wondered if his name would even be mentioned at Bill Clinton's June 3, 1999 White House war council but I knew that a character named Denial was on stage in this theater of diplomacy.

Mother's Day for Bill

In 1996, Bill Clinton wrote a public Mother's Day tribute mentioning their year of separation when he was four and she was away in New Orleans training as a nurse-anesthetist. He uses words almost identical to those in her book when he says, "I remember, as a small child, watching my mother on a railway platform in New Orleans, sobbing and waving good-bye to me...she sank to her knees..." Both Virginia and Bill suffered from separation anxiety. Bill remembers the separation but he repressed the powerful emotions of this experience which reemerge later in his ego defenses.

Bill's repression is underlined by his recollection of his mother's death in 1994, ...after she got home (from Las Vegas), she called me. Hillary, Chelsea and I ...had a four-way conversation. Just a few hours later, she died in her sleep...And while I regretted not having the chance to say good-bye, I knew... we had said all we needed to say...There were no accounts to settle...no words or emotions left unsaid." The verity and finality of these words also points in the opposite direction toward an endless reservoir of buried Oedipal emotions.

A few days before Virginia died of cancer, she was a guest at Barbara Streisand's New Year's Eve show in Las Vegas. They met at Bill's inauguration and became special friends and I recall the rumors of Bill's brief affair with Barbara. Virginia's visit to Las Vegas as she is dying of cancer reaffirms her choice of Barbara for Bill as an Oedipal prize and so she is Oedipally united to Bill.

This is a Mother's Day card at a midpoint in Bill's life and perhaps his Presidency. He recalls, "I miss her laugh...hugs...fire in her eyes...never-say-die attitude. There are still some Sunday evenings when I have the urge to pick up the phone to call her and suddenly realize that I can't do that anymore." Beneath this rational and loving appreciation of his mother there are the unconscious forces of a mourning reaction. Clinton, the child-man is depressed over his loss, guilty about his survival and angry at his mother who left. These emotions after his mother's death mirror his childhood separation reactions of depression, guilt and anger.

This gives us some insight into his periodic mood fluctuations as Governor and then as President noticed by the journalists. Woodward describes his wavering "...between optimism and some level of anguish" with responses that include "... raging at those closest to him and at himself." These are brief depressions masked by anger and frenetic activity. They are different from the kind of long lethargic depression that George Bush had during the 1992 campaign. They will occur again so watch for an increase in unfocused activity, new bimbo eruptions and arguments with Hillary like the one when she is said to have thrown an ashtray.

Bill's Psychotherapy

The question that tugs at our sleeve as we read his psychobiography is what about psychotherapy? Should Clinton seek psychological self-understanding and personal change now? Could psychotherapy, secretly if necessary for political propriety offer psychological self-understanding and personal change?

We know that Bill went to family counseling while Governor when his half-brother Roger was arrested for drug sales and Bill and Hillary saw a minister for marital counseling in 1989. In the White House Hillary is visited by psychologist-philosophers Michael Lerner and Jean Houston. It's worth mentioning that one of Hillary's teachers at Yale during her year of child studies was Anna Freud.

The selection of California internist Dean Ornish as a White House physician suggests that the Clintons' interest in a healthy diet and preventative medicine is also an oblique approach to stress reduction. The widely read and accepted Ornish program for the rehabilitation of heart attack patients includes stress management, meditation and psychotherapy.

As I wrote this essay, I wondered if Bill was already in psychotherapy. It turns out he is but it's Bible reading, prayer, spiritual growth and staying "centered." One clergyman uses words like candid, rebuke and blunt to describe the sessions. The New York Times on March 18, 1997 says that he has weekly fifteen minute telephone appointments since 1993 with his Arkansas clergyman, Rev. Rex Horne of Little Rock's Immanuel Baptist Church and also separate monthly meetings in the Oval Office with Rev. Bill Hybels of South Barrington, Illinois and Rev. Tony Campolo of St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Is this old time Bible Belt religion or the New Age channeling of God or a spiritual flavor to the Freudian popsicle? Of course psychotherapy comes in 256 varieties like the colors on your printer but Bill's Christian therapy sounds like a resistance. Resistance is a defense against the conscious awareness of the unconscious desires, the repressed complexes of incest, murderous rage, masturbation guilt, castration fears, narcissism, indecision and manipulativeness. This psychotherapeutic judgment about Bill should not be taken as a comment on Christianity as a belief or a way of life nor any lack of appreciation for the close links between Christianity and psychotherapy.

I reread my words and I realized they don't sing. They neglect Clinton's impact on the American psyche which in turn affects him. If Clinton is really a new national spirit, then this exploration should be of the national mind as well as Bill's. Hillary's role demands a study of its own. My analysis is focused primarily on Bill's flaws and faults while his virtues and successes remain in the background because they are harder to explain. Maybe psychohistory is like Milton's Paradise Lost where the Devil is more interesting then God.

There is always more to be said but finally I stopped for help. One editor who read this report refused to comment explaining, "Your analysis of Clinton will harm him. I like Clinton so it would be immoral to help." This gave me hope that there are some forbidden secrets here that will offend as well as illuminate.

Last update: 21-Aug-99

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An excerpt from Bill Clinton Meets The Shrinks, by Paul Lowinger
Copyright 1998,99 by Paul Lowinger