December 13, 1998
National leaders as psychological poison containers


preparing to burn a wicker manA country's leaders often contain within them the nations' unconscious wishes and fears. In America, the dreams and trepidations of the land are embodied by an elected President. The psychological mechanism at work is projection, somewhat simplistically, which is the process in which that which is emotionally unacceptable in the self is unconsciously rejected and attributed to others. The idea that national leaders act as "containers" is not new, as Lloyd deMause and other psychohistorians can attest.

Have presidents or other national leaders ever lied? Have they lied under oath, or sent unwitting staff members and "sally forth" to do so? Of course. So what is it that's different about President William Jefferson Clinton, which evokes such visceral and vitriolic hatred in his political enemies? What is different about this era, that now would be the time that lying by a politician would be perceived as so horrible a crime that some would to overthrow the results of the last two national elections?

Are Clinton's apparent lies any worse than those of his predecessors in the White House, or those of lawyers or politicians generally? Or does the hateful vitriol of the Purity Brigade in the Capitol which opposes him say more about its adherent's own mental states, or perhaps of the society's psychology (if such a construct can be said to exist), than it does about the person of the President? The current assault upon the President reminds me of the ancient practice in some Celtic countries of burning a large wicker man on the heath, as a form of human sacrifice, to save the land from perils. In other times, civic leaders themselves have been killed. Joan of Arc, for example; or the ritual killing of kings reputed to have been common in pre-Christian Europe.

There may be some similarities between the dynamics which surrounded the impeachment of President Clinton and the impeachment of another Democratic president -- Andrew Johnson. Following the assassination of President Lincoln, the task fell to Andrew Johnson to carry out the difficult reconstruction of a nation ripped by civil war. By sacrificing a leader, nations seek catharsis to heal their self-inflicted wounds.

Historians agree that Andrew Johnson made political errors. Many also agree that the adoptive Tennessean became the container for the rage of Southerners who viewed him as a traitor, and of Yankees who distrusted him. Impeachment became the vehicle through which the nation vented its displaced rage, subjecting its leader to impeachment amid the process of healing the wounded national soul.

In our time, Clinton is the first child of the Woodstock generation to occupy the Oval Office. Even now a relatively youthful Democrat, Clinton embodies values against which the Republican party has struggled for decades. He smoked marijuana, protested the Viet Nam war, and campaigned for civil rights before it was popular to do so. As President, he has opposed big tobacco interests, advocated major health care reform, and (thus far) refrained from engulfing the nation in war. A man of his times, he is a product of the sexual revolution, as evidenced by his advancing the rights of gays to serve in the military, for example.

As leader of the free world, Clinton holds in his hands the highest hopes of the nation which placed him in office. Yet he also manages to contain the hatred of former proponents of the war in southeast Asia (which ripped the nation with an emotional intensity rivaled perhaps only by that of the civil war) and those who feared the influence of rock music and pot-smoking in the 1960s; as well as the post-Victorian puritans who in 1998 seek to impose their sexual and reproductive mores on the rest of the country.

If there is probable cause to show that Clinton committed a crime or crimes, let him be lawfully prosecuted like any other citizen. The impeachment process, as it has been played out thus far, is dysfunctional, subject to manipulations by adversaries who appear motivated first and foremost by a thirst for vengeance and destruction of what Clinton symbolizes. Does it not seem likely that the President will be acquitted by Democrats in the Senate along party lines as closely as it is now a near certainty that the Republican-held House will next week seek to symbolically offer him up to the Senate for burning upon the alter of impeachment?

The Constitution provides clear and time-proven procedures for prosecution of those accused of crimes. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required, as established under rules of evidence and rights of cross-examination, including the right to face one's accusers. Impeachment, on the other hand, has currently a fluid and highly politicized process in which the rules are made up by the opposition as it goes along.

In a era of partisan polarization, impeachment may simply be unworkable when it comes to Clinton; at least if an appearance of fairness is to be part to the goal. Members of the majority party on the House Judiciary Committee seemed to have their minds made up long before the recent vote adopting Articles of Impeachment was held. Likewise, Congressional Democrats were and remain united behind the President.

The continuing assault upon President Clinton will be a tremendous waste of the nation's resources. It may be remembered in the history books as a witch hunt. If he is guilty of lying to protect himself from personal shame, justice demands that he be held accountable to the same extent that anyone else would be under similar circumstances. Yet Such offenses can not justly be framed as a crimes against the state, as called for in the Constitution in its description of impeachable crimes.

A more difficult task lying before the nation will be to heal the divisive wounds now being inflicted by this symbolic goring.
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