He’s accused of talking about an ambassadorship, a Cabinet post in the Obama administration, even someday running for president – all while clearly aware of a federal corruption investigation hovering over his administration.
“Wacko” is among the unscientific diagnoses suggested by many after prosecutors this week accused Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of essentially trying to sell the president-elect’s open U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Delusional, grandiose and narcissistic are some of the official terms offered up by mental health specialists, who have their own theories.
“When hubris creeps through the door, judgment just flies out the window,” said David Levy, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University’s graduate school.
Assessing the embattled governor’s state of mind has become a sort of parlor game as the enormity of the stunning allegations against him sinks in. Everyone seems to be wondering, was it lunacy, or just an extreme form of politics-as-usual?
“Blagojevich’s defense lawyers might want to consider an insanity defense,” wrote Mark Brown, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. “He’s utterly mad. Completely and totally off his rocker.”
Not so fast, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said (any surprise the two papers differ?): “The pundits who make such diagnoses have never talked to a Chicago machine politician in their lives. How do they think Chicago politicians talk in private when they’re muscling some other guy for cash? Like Helen Mirren playing the queen?”
Yet, even in a state where corruption seems to flow like water, the governor’s alleged actions and words caught on tape stand out.
“These charges are absolutely stunning and it’s because it’s kind of transcended simple greed,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “This is not like giving somebody a sewer inspector job. This is an abuse of public trust 100-fold.”
Like rubberneckers drawn to a highway crash, Levy said he’s been riveted by the developments.
“I’m really intrigued by this guy’s brazenness,” he said. “The recklessness is remarkable.”
New York City therapist Jonathan Alpert said he was struck by “the grandiosity, the grand sense of self and entitlement,” the arrogance.
Those traits are consistent with a mental condition called narcissistic personality disorder, he said. Its other symptoms can include taking advantage of others for personal gain and lack of empathy.
That could be a cynical job description for politicians. They are, after all, often lured to the job at least partly by the heady sense of power it promises. And Alpert said just having some of those behaviors doesn’t guarantee mental illness.
But Chicago psychoanalyst Mark Smaller said Blagojevich’s alleged behavior seems to have gone beyond bad judgment.
“This is somebody who knew he was being investigated, so you would think that would be the type of person” who wouldn’t want to increase the probability of being caught, Smaller said.
Instead, according to the complaint against Blagojevich, he conspired to sell or trade Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat in recent weeks, knowing he was the target of a longtime federal probe of alleged pay-to-play politics.
Just a day before FBI agents arrested Blagojevich at his home Tuesday, he defiantly told reporters he didn’t care about reports he was being secretly taped because his words were “always lawful.”
Smaller said the self-destructiveness is stunning: “There’s something going on here that doesn’t look like normal political corruption.”
Still, some experts suggest that being in a position of power can make people feel they are impervious to danger. Levy said there’s no easy answer when it comes to Blagojevich.
“There really is no clear line between what’s normal and pathological,” he said.
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