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Analysis Last Updated: Sep 25th, 2008 - 01:33:51

Character and the presidency: A comparison of John McCain and George W. Bush
By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 25, 2008, 00:14

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George W. Bush�s campaign deftly managed to obscure his deficits in experience and character in the 2000 presidential election. Wooed by his regular guy image and willing to set the bar far lower for Bush than for Gore, the mainstream press was complicit in this deception.

As soon as Bush became president -- i.e., once he had few constraints on his power, and he no longer had to pretend that he cared about people who didn�t agree with him -- he immediately began to push a right-wing agenda. His transformation from �moderate� and �uniter� to �right-wing partisan� and �divider� was instantaneous. Bush proved to be utterly ruthless in pursuing his agenda as his power grew in the years after 9/11.

Now we are at another presidential juncture in American politics. Once again we are being asked to trust the character of the candidates, and the stakes are higher than ever because never have there been fewer constraints on presidential power.

It is, therefore, of crucial importance to note how many striking similarities there are between the life experience and personalities of George W. Bush and John McCain.

A comparison of McCain and Bush

Both of these men were named after their fathers, famous men who rarely were at home and who were idealized by their sons.

Like Bush, McCain was born into a family that deeply suppressed emotional expression. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, each of them grew up with a volcanic temper that he was unable to control. Perhaps because of this uncontrolled anger, each got into fights as a child. Anger issues have continued to this day, though each has tried to downplay the significance of his temper.

In terms of personality, each man took after his mother and was the opposite of his father.

Each was extremely rebellious, craved attention, and loved the excitement of doing risky things, of being on the edge.

Each was cocky, held grudges, was a poor loser and slow to mature emotionally.

When it came time for Bush and McCain to go to college, both were forced by family tradition to follow in their father�s and grandfather�s footsteps. Bush was an average student, while McCain finished 5th from the bottom of his class of 899. Rather than focusing on education, each preferred to devote a great deal of time and energy to breaking rules and rebelling against authority.

Both men were ambitious -- drawn to fame, glamour, power and money -- and both turned to politics when they realized they couldn�t be as successful as their fathers.

Family connections provided many unearned privileges for McCain and Bush, and each man is defensive about it. For example, each was admitted to an elite college due to family connections, even though neither was qualified for admission on their own merits.

Each of them charms people by making jokes about their own shortcomings, and both vacillate between charming the world and defying it.

Each carefully has crafted a public image of being uncalculating, humorous, and self-deprecating.

Each has a tendency to make rash, impulsive decisions.

Hating to lose, each will bend the rules or prolong a fight to avoid finishing second.

Both are vengeful if they feel they have been wronged.

Politically, each man has had a cozy relationship with the press -- McCain has even referred to them as his �base� -- and the media have tended to have very low expectations of them, often giving them a free pass.


If America elects John McCain as president, the country won�t simply be getting a leader who continues many of the policies of the Bush administration. It also will be getting a man whose personality structure strongly resembles that of George W. Bush.

This is worth noting, since from a clinical perspective, Bush has an �antisocial personality� (also known as psychopathy or sociopathy). The principle traits of an antisocial personality are grandiose self-worth, a basic mistrust of people, a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse or guilt, vindictiveness, deceitfulness, and impulsivity.

As with any personality style, there is a range of potential character disturbance that exists on the antisocial continuum. Although McCain resembles Bush in background, temperament, and many personal characteristics, it is not yet clear whether he is as emotionally dysfunctional as Bush.

What does appear clear, however, is that McCain, like Bush is relatively emotionally immature; tends to see the world in a morally simplistic, black and white manner; comes from a privileged background and lacks empathy for those less privileged; has difficulty controlling his temper; is prone to vindictive behavior; and is given to impulsive decision-making.

For McCain, there is the additional question of how he has been affected psychologically by his years as a POW. McCain has capitalized on his POW experience throughout his political career, and continues to do so in the current presidential race.

One of his methods has repeatedly been to use the �POW defense� in order to deflect criticism of his shortcomings. The essence of McCain�s message has been: �I was a POW and you owe me.� Phrased slightly differently, his message is: �I am above criticism because I was a POW and suffered for my country.� In other words, he does not explain how the experience and wisdom he gleaned as a POW can better serve We, the People. Instead, he implicitly asserts that we owe him, beginning with our holding him to a lower standard because of his POW experience.

It is likely that McCain still suffers from some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his time as a POW. To be held captive all those years, helpless and unable to contribute to the war, must have been deeply shaming at a core level of his personality.

McCain lost power and potency by becoming a prisoner of war. Instead of flying combat missions, and feeling the might of his aircraft as it rained destruction upon the distant people below, he was reduced to complete dependence on the enemy. Compounding his emotional shame, at one point, under extreme duress, McCain signed a false confession, and then attempted suicide. Although he returned a hero, John McCain�s personal Vietnam was one he felt he had lost, whereby he felt emasculated. In all likelihood, the shame of that experience still burns deeply inside him, compounding his hatred of losing.

One has to wonder, when he defiantly states, ��I will never surrender in Iraq. Our American troops will come home with victory and with honor,� whether it is McCain�s own honor, as well as that of the troops, that he is trying to claim, and whether the personal shame of his Vietnam experience overrides all else in deciding a military course of action.

John McCain has set out to be elected president on the basis of character, yet there is much in his personality that makes him unsuitable to be president. On a psychological basis, he is a very risky choice. He is, at the very least, an emotionally immature man with a poorly controlled temper and a tendency to make rash decisions. In far too many ways, on the basis of personality, electing McCain will indeed be opting for four more dangerous years of George W. Bush.

Copyright 2008 Alan James Strachan

Alan Strachan, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in private practice. He is currently writing a book about the struggle between democracy and dominance in politics, religion and the individual psyche. He may be contatced at

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