Running from himself

Condit’s decision to run illustrates the self-delusions common to career politicians

Gersh Kuntzman is a columnist for the New York Post and

There are only two possible theories that can explain why Congressman Gary Condit has decided to run for re-election: Either he is smoking crack or he is a self-obsessed narcissist.

I’m banking on the latter, and have even lined up medical experts willing to testify that Condit is so egomaniacal that he simply cannot see that he will lose his re-election bid by a margin so humiliatingly wide that the local Socialist Workers Party candidate has a chance of rising above last place for the first time since the 1930s.

Condit is such damaged goods that a matchup against Saddam Hussein would go down to the absentee ballots.

By now, we all know the Condit story by heart: Fifty-three-year-old congressman, an undistinguished backbencher if there ever was one, has an illicit affair with a 24-year-old Washington intern who later disappears under mysterious circumstances (are there any other kind?).

When the D.C. police (which breaks open cases about as well as Geraldo Rivera breaks open safes) finally start putting two and two together, Condit denies the affair. When he can deny it no longer, he denies that the public has a right to know.

Call me unfair, but all that stuff kinda trumps all the great work Condit heralds on his official Web site, like securing “21st Century Learning Grants” for three schools in his district and being named one of MSNBC’s top “Democratic Power Brokers” (an “honor” that he won in December 2000—even before Chandra Levy was a smile on his face that his wife didn’t understand).

By now, a normal person would have apologized to his constituents for lying, apologized to his wife for those “night sessions” on the Hill and tried to rebuild his life. But Condit is a career politician. He has no “life” to rebuild.

So two weeks ago, with the media’s “All Condit All The Time” coverage a very distant memory, there was the blow-dried Congressman at the Stanislaus County clerk’s office submitting the necessary number of signatures to earn a place on the March 5 ballot.

Even sympathetic polls show that the seven-term congressman doesn’t stand a chance. Lawmakers in his own party redrew the lines of his district to make it harder for him and former allies withdrew support. Roll Call even quoted a “Democratic leadership aide” saying that key party leaders were going to “remain neutral” in the race (for those of you unskilled in the vernacular of politics, when key House members say they are “remaining neutral” rather than backing an incumbent of their own party, they might as well be saying that they would like to see the incumbent receive a FedEx package full of anthrax).

So, thinking soberly, I just figured that Condit is insane to enter this race. But, hey, I’m no Freud, so I called a few psychologists—good ones, in fact, not those ones with 900-numbers that would bust my puny expense account—and found out that I was actually onto something: Condit is experiencing a form of self-delusion that’s typical among our elected officials.

“In order to be a politician, you can’t be someone who will get upset if some people criticize you or don’t like you,” said Ervin Staub, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “But if you always ignore other people’s feelings, you begin to feel that you are above the rules, that you are invincible.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, Staub said. Politics is the egg. Condit’s delusional narcissism is the chicken.

Problem is, someone with this psychological makeup must keep behaving badly, even to the point of losing a humiliating election, or else he’ll have to confront the very core of his being.

“Clearly, if Gary Condit had an ounce of shame, he would not run,” said Stanley Renshon, who’s not only an expert in political psychology, but you know he knows what he’s talking about because he wrote a book a few years ago called High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition.

Renshon said that studying Bill Clinton provides an insight into Condit’s need to make himself the victim. “Because he lacks that sense of remorse, he has to run this race. Because if he didn’t run the race, he would have to admit he did something wrong.”

It’s almost Nixonian. Now, before you send me those hate letters, I’m not attacking Nixon, merely remarking on the extent that his sense of being wronged dominated his entire career—think Dick Nixon of the “Checkers speech,” the “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech or all the other speeches with their “expletives deleted.”

But Nixon did eventually resign, admitting publicly that he had erred (even if he didn’t believe it privately). Without that resignation, Renshon said, Nixon could never have achieved his eventual comeback, never have emerged as wise elder statesman and never even gotten past the stage where we’d have to spit on the ground and clutch a garlic-filled amulet to our chests every time we mentioned his name.

For a few weeks there, it looked as if Condit might pull his own Nixon and not make this re-election run. But his psychological shortcomings kicked in.

Having diagnosed Condit’s problems, my own sympathetic urges washed over me. I asked the head shrinkers whether there was any hope for Gary Condit, optimistic that there was treatment for his delusions.

But, alas, my hopes crashed on Condit’s rocky coastline of deceit.

“If he had the ego strength to admit a mistake, he could save himself from this humiliating fall that awaits him,” said Los Angeles psychoanalyst Peter Wolson, likening Condit to a dot-com wunderkind whose business soars so high that he becomes convinced that it was his own genius that got it there. Then, when the business goes belly up, he has two paths: admit that his company was poorly conceived or blame society for not seeing its genius.

“People who choose the former path tend to bounce back,” Wolson said. “People who go down the latter path tend to blame everyone else for their problems, never moving on and spending the rest of their lives saying, ‘I coulda been a contender.’” Hmm, sounds like something Condit himself said on the day he dropped off his petitions, again blaming the media for ruining him.

“You guys,” he told reporters, “will have to decide whether you’re going to be fair to me or not, and whether [the Levy case] is your main issue.”

So there it is. The scapegoat in Gary Condit’s mind has already been created. And when he loses, he won’t have to admit a thing to himself.

Less than 24 hours after I’d spoken to him, Staub called me back. Apparently, he’d seen Condit make the above comment and wanted to offer a diagnosis that stopped short of delusional narcissism.

“Having seen Condit on television, if I were writing this story, I’d hold out the slender possibility that he really is a man of principle who feels he has to run this race to take a stand against the notion that a good man’s career can be destroyed by something that was essentially part of his private life,” Staub told me. “In that case, it wouldn’t be delusional narcissism at all.”

Well, it’s a good thing Staub isn’t writing this story. I’m pretty much set on the delusional narcissism angle. Unless someone can find me that smoking crack pipe.