The Magazine

THE SOLIPSIST-IN-CHIEF

Sep 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 03 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Clinton's need for such validation is endless and constant. It explains his unnatural love for the rope line, his thirst for approval and applause, his indiscriminate desire for the adulation of audience and acolyte. It makes his life a maw for the instant and shallow gratification delivered by people he barely knows. It explains his lifelong dream of the White House: Being the most bountiful trough on the planet, it is the Holy Grail for the creature that is forever feeding.


Ambition is universal in politicians. But insatiable need is not. All presidents are ambitious or they never would be president. But our good presidents, even our mediocre presidents, did not become president or conduct their presidencies solely to validate their own worth.


Ronald Reagan was ambitious to enact an agenda and spread an ideology. George Bush lacked those polestars, but he saw himself as an aristocratic steward whose role it was to guide America through great crises, such as the breakup of the Soviet empire and the invasion of Kuwait. Jimmy Carter's agenda was not political but moral: His ambition, both internationally with human rights and domestically with personal probity, was to bring a new uprightness to American political life.


Eisenhower and Truman, of course, were men who knew who they were long before they became president. Nixon, by contrast, did not. Indeed, the one president of our time who comes the closest in psychological hunger to Clinton is Nixon. For Nixon, too, the presidency was a way of validating his worth. And in the end, that insecurity, that need to have and use the office to prove himself and to show them -- the elites, the snobs, the Kennedys -- was his undoing.


Nixon's narcissism was nervous and transparent. Clinton's is masked by the charm and cool of a sociopath. But now the charm is gone. Clinton stands naked. All that's left is the hunger, and we stand aghast at the sheer volume of his personal need.


As Clinton has seen himself exposed, as he's watched his spiral descent into mortified irrelevance, his solipsism has acquired a desperation. And in that desperation lies national danger. Personal survival is everything, and he'll take the country through anything -- through seven months of surreal dissimulation, for example -- to ensure it.


America is caught in his psychodrama. One day, he observes that perhaps his troubles will help heal the nation. Another, he runs about giving speeches, raising money, and going through the motions of governing. "White House officials," explained ABC's Chris Bury, "insist the president finds it therapeutic to focus on his job." On yet another, he feels good about a phone call from France about a policy failure that endangers the United States. Lines between self and other, between Clinton and country, had always been blurred. Now they have disappeared entirely.


Until now, having a therapeutic presidency hardly mattered. The country was living off the accumulated capital of a half-century of astonishing diplomatic and economic success. With the enemies of the United States still in stunned retreat from their defeats in the Cold War and the Gulf War, and with the economy humming, there was no obvious harm in having an entirely personalized presidency. The luxury of having a narcissist-in-chief can be tolerated when there really is no need for anyone at the helm. But now there is.


Saddam has broken out. The Balkans are seething. Greece and Turkey are nearing a showdown over Cyprus. The Middle East will erupt next May when a Palestinian state is unilaterally declared. North Korea has just attempted the launching of an orbiting satellite, which means that it is working on three-stage rockets, and three-stage rockets can reach anywhere on earth, including the United States. And, oh yes, the world economy is teetering.


The world looks to America. And what does it see? A man who feels good to be relevant.


The articles of impeachment drawn up against William Jefferson Clinton will list lying under oath and obstruction of justice. We should add: solipsism. The world's "indispensable nation" can no longer be led by a man incapable of seeing, or feeling, anything beyond himself.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.