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Dan Liljenquist: Narcissistic politicians need help but not votes

Published: Thursday, Aug. 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Anthony Weiner leaves his Park Avenue apartment.

Associated Press

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Greek legends tell of a young Narcissus, renowned as a hunter, beautiful in feature and form, contemptuous of others' admiration, yet proud above all reason, captivated by his own reflection in a clear pool. Narcissus' obsession with himself is so deep, his love unrequited by his reflection, that he chooses death rather than to live incomplete, separated from the object of his passion. Were those ancient Greek poets who gave us Narcissus able to recast him in a modern day role, he would not be a hunter but a politician, his clear pool a camera lens. He might even be running to be the mayor of New York City.

The Anthony Weiner sexting saga, once mercifully remote (like the disgusting stench from a road-kill skunk that time, distance and fresh air had only just removed from your car) is back, as rotten as ever. While we need not examine the salacious details here (these pages deserve better than that), Weiner's response to the scandal, including his glib spin that he is "going to be a successful mayor because of it," is an indictment on his mental competence to serve in public office. Few people in our political history have demonstrated such a stunning ability to disassociate their own undisciplined, self-destructive behavior with their unbounded confidence that they are uniquely suited to lead. New York City residents should reject Anthony Weiner, as should any other young lady who receives a Facebook friend request from "Carlos Danger."

For far too long we, as a society, have defaulted to an untenable double standard when assessing political candidates. We seem to expect honorable, public-spirited behavior from our politicians while discounting the importance, or even the relevance, of what they do in their "private" lives. In a republic, however, our leaders make the vast majority of public decisions in private settings. Roll-call votes, press conferences and other public appearances are like waves on top of the ocean, with the real currents running well below the surface, often shrouded in darkness. In such fluid circumstances, character matters, integrity matters, honor matters.

Politicians walk a fine line between confidence and narcissism. It takes confidence to stand up before hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens and campaign for their support. Winning is an exhilarating experience, often accompanied by glowing praise from the press. It is all too tempting for elected officers to read their favorable press clippings and begin to believe them. Politicians who are not anchored by foundational habits of honesty, integrity, humility and decency can be carried by the maelstrom of adulation and lost on the currents of their own delusions of grandeur.

In the words of the incomparable Demosthenes of Athens, "nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true." This is a particular risk for politicians, who are often encased in a bubble of admirers who shield them from criticism, poison them with praise and proclaim their transcendent destiny. Admirable character traits are regularly overstated, reinforced, mythicized. Character defects can easily be overlooked, justified with an "after all he is only human" refrain.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, formerly known as Megalomania, afflicts millions in this country. Those suffering with this mental disorder have a "sense of entitlement," "unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment," and "require excessive admiration." They also demand that others see them as they wish to be seen. When such traits bubble to the surface in the actions and behavior of politicians, we should encourage them to seek professional care, rather than reward their behavior with our votes and trust.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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