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The Politics of Personal Self-Destruction

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

In analyzing leadership or in studying individuals who have been leaders, particularly political leaders, one finds a peculiar phenomenon: the individual who could lead and yet does not, the individual who destroys his potential without seeming purpose — the individual with that special grace to influence people, whether for moral or immoral ends, who loses faith in his own charisma, who subverts himself and, in so doing, seeks the subversion of an entire society or seeks to undermine a superordinate leader to no apparent purpose, to no rational end. History is full of leaders — Danton, Trotsky, Nkrumah — who seemed to arrange their own destruction as Raskolnikov arranged his own exposure in Crime and Punishment. The line between success and failure in leadership is narrow. If there is a typology for leaders, can there be a typology for anti-leaders? How does a leader become an anti-leader?

I want to examine in some detail the history and career of two men who, politically, once personified the polarities of contemporary American politics: Adlai Stevenson and Joseph McCarthy. In the case of Stevenson, I will deal with his years as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, because it was during this time that his behavior came to trouble his closest associates. In the case of McCarthy, I will deal with the five years during which he was magnified into an “-ism,” larger than life in both a positive and negative sense.

The anti-leader is a type that may be identified and understood from the standpoint of abnormal psychology. The anti-leader type is the man (or woman) who has led and lost. He is that rare individual who can still evoke grand memories even as he now sounds an uncertain trumpet, stimulating a half-hearted and foredoomed charge. Continually flirting with self-destruction, he lives his private nightmares in public places. While winning, he plans his defeat. He suddenly loses his will to prevail at precisely the moment when one lightning-flash stroke would grant all he might have willed.

In more precise terms — the terms set by Sidney Hook1 — the anti-leader as leader is not only an “eventful” man; he is also an “event-making” man “whose actions are the consequence of outstanding capacities of intelligence, will and character rather than accidents of position.” He does not seek the leader’s usurpation but rather arranges to usurp himself out of even the minor captaincy he may have achieved in a legal-rational accession. The anti-leader needs the limelight to demonstrate his daily destructiveness. It is against the leader who arranges his limelight that he turns his scorn and derision and announces great coups d’etat which in fact amount to little more than minnowlike nibbles.

Finally, the anti-leader is someone who no longer has faith in himself but believes in history.2 He is opposed to his own charisma and seeks to undermine its epiphany. His life as an anti-leader becomes extrainstitutional while he insists on living within the institution. Still, his raison d’être is moral, in his view; his deeds are moral; his words are moral; his life is moral.


Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Stevenson is an excellent example of the anti-leader. The qualities that made him one of the most attractive political personalities of twentieth-century American history — intellect, wryness, self-deflation, uncertainty, humor, and, above all, charisma — were the very qualities that forced him in the end to accept as dismal a fate as was ever accorded any man who has reached out for greatness.

Stevenson wanted and won the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, running twice for that office, in 1952 and in 1956, against General Eisenhower. He was defeated both times. Unable to make up his mind in 1960 whether to seek the nomination for a third time, he rejected a request from the Kennedy family that he nominate John F. Kennedy for the presidency. That rejection cost him appointment as secretary of state, something he could have had for the price of a nominating speech and which he wanted badly.3

In the event, he reluctantly took what was offered — the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. During the next four years, until his sudden death in 1965 on a street in London’s Grosvenor Square, he was humiliated publicly on at least two occasions by President Kennedy and on a third occasion by someone close to the president.

What might have happened between the president and the ambassador had Kennedy not been assassinated we cannot know. But the plain fact of the matter is that Stevenson was lied to during the Bay of Pigs controversy in April 1961 and found himself therefore unwittingly lying himself, denying before the un that America was involved in the invasion.4 President Kennedy later suggested to him that this had been a “failure of communications.” What was the effect of all this on Stevenson? Mrs. Edison Dick, a longtime friend, talked to him during the Bay of Pigs crisis and reports that when she asked him what was wrong,

he said quietly: “You heard my speech [at the un] today? Well, I did not tell the whole truth; I did not know the whole truth. I took this job at the President’s request on the understanding that I would be consulted and kept fully informed on everything. I spoke in the United Nations in good faith on that understanding. Now my credibility has been compromised, and therefore my usefulness. Yet how can I resign at this moment and make things still worse for the President?”

Pierre Salinger adds:

Governor Stevenson later told me that this had been the most “humiliating experience” of his years in government service. He was only partially mollified by President Kennedy’s explanation. . . . Stevenson felt that he had been seriously damaged. . . . On the Saturday [April 8, 1961], a week before the invasion [Arthur M.] Schlesinger and a top operative of the cia went to New York and gave Stevenson a partial briefing. Stevenson later told me, however, that “I was never told of the full extent of the plan.”5

It should be noted that Schlesinger — friend, admirer, and confidant of Stevenson — had been assigned the official role of White House liaison with the ambassador. Clayton Fritchey, then usun’s public affairs officer, saw Stevenson almost daily and recalls:

Stevenson’s worst moment perhaps was the Bay of Pigs when he unwittingly found himself making misleading statements to the General Assembly over the air attacks on Cuba.6

Salinger’s description of Stevenson as “seriously damaged”; Fritchey’s calling this “Stevenson’s worst moment”; Stevenson’s own declarations that his “credibility has been compromised and, therefore, my usefulness” and that he had been misinformed by his friend and confidant, Arthur Schlesinger — all of them indicate that as far as the president was concerned, Stevenson had no standing.

And what was Stevenson’s reaction to all this? “Yet how can I resign at this moment and make things still worse for the President?” Or, as the political columnist Mary McGrory remembers it:

Some time after the Bay of Pigs, when on instructions he denied flatly any American complicity, I saw him as he came away from a White House meeting. “That young man,” he said, shaking his head, “he never says ‘please’ and he never says ‘I’m sorry.’”

Why would a two-time candidate for president, an acknowledged, admired spokesman for that loose coalition which calls itself the liberal-left, a man with an international reputation, have accepted such “a damn’d defeat”?

It should be remembered that the U.S. ambassador to the un had become an important personage in the government foreign policy process. Stevenson’s two predecessors were distinguished Republicans — Warren Austin, who gave up a Senate seat to serve as our first full-fledged spokesman at the un from 1947 to 1952, and Henry Cabot Lodge, who served from 1953 to 1960, when he resigned to run for vice president on the Nixon ticket. Particularly during the Lodge period, usun had developed a startling will to autonomy and at times enjoyed an actual autonomy.7 Yet throughout the Austin and the Lodge incumbencies, the relationship between the un representatives and the two presidents — Truman and Eisenhower — were cordial and close.

With Stevenson, there began a definite estrangement between usun and the White House.8 On the surface, everything was correct. Like Lodge, Stevenson was considered a member of the president’s Cabinet — but the Cabinet rarely met, and when it did its decisions were hardly significant. Real decision-making power was in the hands of the National Security Council, whose sessions Stevenson rarely attended — except during the second Cuban missile crisis.

Even then, when he sat in the National Security Council during those fateful days in October 1962, he was subjected to a humiliation before the American public of such proportions that it is difficult to think of another instance in recent history.

Stevenson, of course, had no illusions about where he stood with Kennedy. For a president who would be seeking reelection in 1964, every vote would count (his victory in 1960 had been by 0.1 percent of the popular vote). Stevenson was a national leader with a loyal constituency and had to be tolerated. Yet there were men around the president who, for a variety of motives, felt that Stevenson had to be destroyed as a political force.

Their weapon was a leak, an article in the Saturday Evening Post in the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.9 The article, written by two journalist friends of President Kennedy, suggested that Stevenson was an advocate of appeasing the Soviets and quoted “a non-admiring official” as saying that “Adlai wanted a Munich.” It was the “inside story” of what had gone on in the weeks before the confrontation with Khrushchev, not only within the National Security Council but also within its inner core, the “ExComm,” the Executive Committee. In a Newsweek story (December 17, 1962) on how the Post had obtained its exclusive report, Kennedy was described as having approved the piece and given the okay for his close friends Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett to write it. Kenneth G. Crawford, a well-informed Washington correspondent at the time, wrote that a widely circulated theory that the president wanted to rid himself of Stevenson “was more or less supported by the failure of the White House in two reaffirmations of the president’s confidence in Stevenson, to repudiate the Bartlett-Alsop version of events leading up to the decisions to set up a naval blockade of Cuba.”

By clever public relations, Stevenson won a good deal of editorial support in response. His public affairs officer, Clayton Fritchey, telephoned editors throughout the country, arguing that the issue was not whether or not they liked Adlai but whether there should be leaks out of the National Security Council. According to sources at usun, there were some 5,000 letters received in the aftermath of this affair, most of them favorable to Stevenson. A friend of Stevenson’s who was at the mission at this time told me:

Adlai was furious at the story because it was an obvious plant. Yet he had shown he had a constituency with all the letters, telegrams and editorials. The Administration couldn’t ditch him thereafter. The article actually strengthened his position. The Administration realized they needed Adlai and his role in future policy-making was strengthened and his views were taken more into account.

At no time did President Kennedy repudiate publicly the Bartlett-Alsop story. What did Stevenson do? He gave an interview to Murray Kempton in the London Spectator a few weeks later, and what he said was quite remarkable:

[Stevenson’s] summary of the last two years’ performance of the United States delegation here is full of reminders of his own pressure on the President: “Mr. Kennedy, at our insistence, has been closer to the United Nations than any President before him. . . . We have kept the Administration’s nose to the line on the Congo.”10

Stevenson was described as wondering why “Mr. Kennedy is so sensitive about his popularity, so obsessed with what the newspapers say about him, and so concerned with the appeasement of hostile domestic elements.” More striking was a long paragraph that disclosed “a recent conversation with the President” during which Stevenson had discussed Cuba and the “Administration advisers who were for an immediate strike against Cuba.” According to Kempton,

[Stevenson] did not, he said, agree with their advice but he had considered it, under the existing circumstances, a defensible one. But now, after the attacks on him, he wondered what these people had wanted then and might want still. The most important lesson he could offer the President from this incident was that it would be perilous to disregard the existence of a war party.

This was rather unusual behavior for a man in Stevenson’s position, for a man of his strong views. Having twice been humiliated by the White House, and with the lack of presidential confidence overt and demonstrable, he could have resigned and carried his plight to the general public.

Instead, he stayed in his job, allowing his gnawing doubts and his ever-mounting insecurities to find an outlet in the occasional newspaper interview. These interviews exemplify what I mean by anti-leadership. Had they been consistent, organized, and aimed at creating a counter-public opinion to be swayed by Stevenson, they might have made sense. But they only confused his audiences — as, apparently, his own position confused Stevenson himself. He found it necessary, to keep himself intact, to separate his identity from an administration that neither trusted nor wanted him.

The death of John Kennedy and the passing of the presidency to Lyndon Johnson changed little. Stevenson, remaining at the un, isolated himself from the new administration, engineering a coup of sorts over the enforcement of Article 19 of the un Charter. This section of the Charter says that a country in arrears in the payment of its contributions to the un loses its vote after two years unless the General Assembly grants a dispensation. The U.S. government decided the Article 19 sanction should be enforced, with an agreement worked out by President Kennedy and, later, Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State Harlan Cleveland, and Stevenson himself. A circular telegram was sent to American embassies all over the world instructing U.S. ambassadors to warn host governments to stand with the American position on Article 19 or risk negatively affecting American relations with their countries.

Although the decision to enforce Article 19 had been taken in full consultation with Stevenson and the un Mission, Stevenson, on his own initiative and with no word to Secretary Rusk or the president, did something that completely reversed the policy of enforcement. He called on Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Federenko Friday afternoon, November 20, 1964, and after some preliminary discussion, proposed a voteless General Assembly. Thus, the annual meeting could be held with a tacit agreement on all sides that there would be no call for a roll call or voice vote.

Not until that night, when Stevenson sent a telegraphic report to Washington, did the State Department learn of his proposal to Federenko. A confidential source of high reliability told me: “in effect, the strategy agreed to in months of meetings between the Mission and the Department — the position to which the U.S. had committed itself unambiguously in repeated public statements — was suddenly changed.”

Why engineer a coup on Article 19? It was an odd choice, given how little he did to follow up on other issues that purportedly troubled him like Vietnam, for example, or the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic. Why accept public humiliation at the hands of President Kennedy on major issues with no counterattack, except for a few newspaper or magazine interviews, and then suddenly initiate a crisis over Article 19?

What we see here is a sudden power grab by a leader turned anti-leader moved by impulses we can only guess about today. It is not unusual for political figures to seek power. But ordinarily in such a case, there is some visible design — even if it is only power for power’s sake and not for the sake of a policy or an ideology. It is hard to see what Stevenson’s coup was intended to accomplish, except perhaps to assure himself that there was a Stevenson identity and a Stevenson presence. As an anti-leader, Stevenson was his own prison-keeper with his own key to his own cell. His was a constituency-in-being which he could not call upon, any more than Coriolanus could seek the votes of the mob. Stevenson did not seek to institutionalize opposition with himself at the head. Instead he sought to balk power with his latent prospect of power. In the end his coup seems to have led nowhere — except to a momentary weakening of the existing White House leadership.


Joseph McCarthy

Joseph mccarthy, though utterly different from Stevenson, nevertheless also conformed to the ideal type of the anti-leader. He had, to quote Danton, “L’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.” In a matter of four years he became one of the most amazingly powerful men in the American government. One can say of him that he was the most gifted and successful demagogue the country has ever known.

In Senator Joe McCarthy, Richard Rovere describes McCarthy as a man who “usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him,” held “two Presidents captive” — Truman and Eisenhower — and had an “enormous impact on American foreign policy at a time when that policy bore heavily on the course of world history.” He was not a totalitarian, Rovere says, or even a reactionary, but rather a nihilist, “an essentially destructive force, a revolutionist without any revolutionary vision, a rebel without a cause.” He was the first American “ever to be actively hated and feared by foreigners in large numbers.”

The author distinguishes Hitler, with whom McCarthy was frequently compared, from the junior Senator from Wisconsin:

Hitler had a program for the coming millenium; McCarthy had no program for tomorrow morning. Hitler’s aim was to win control of the machinery of the state; it is still arguable as to whether McCarthy was up to anything of quite this magnitude. He never encouraged direct action by his followers; he did not organize uniformed groups or even raggle-taggle street fighters. Politically, he never tried to organize outside the existing party structure, and there are reasons for supposing that he never intended to do so. . . . Because McCarthyism had no real grit and substance as a doctrine and no organization, it is difficult to deal with as a movement.11

McCarthy was a one-man movement who said what he pleased about anyone he pleased. While it may seem hyperbolic to suggest sedition, he was really seditious about the values of a democratic society. McCarthy in his four years became an extra-legal sharer of powers with the coordinate executive branch. Rovere quotes former New York Times military correspondent Hanson Baldwin: “Whether President Eisenhower realizes it or not, Senator McCarthy is now sharing with him command of the Army.”

And yet, as Rovere points out, McCarthy “revealed no lust or greed for power; he never seemed — to me at least — to be consciously moving toward the American summit, the Presidency.” What, then, was he? “He was a chronic oppositionist, a dissenter for dissent’s sake; he had to depart every majority and to attack every authority.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Rovere’s book is his citation of the report of an anonymous “eminent” psychiatrist, whom he quotes extensively. The report, which was prepared in 1954, looked at McCarthy’s behavior through the eyes of a clinician:

 . . . extraordinary intensity of his neurotic drives, shrewd and apparently excellent intellect and, until recently, the asset of extraordinary physical stamina. . . . Although at times, McCarthy seems to have gone beyond the borders of sanity, he has a remarkable resilience.

Rovere relies as well on the work of psychoanalyst Robert Mitchell Lindner, whose study of a psychopathic personality, Rebel Without A Cause (Grove, 1944), has particular appositeness here:

[The] psychopath is a rebel without a cause, an agitator without a slogan, a revolutionary without a program: in other words, his rebelliousness is aimed to achieve goals satisfactory to himself alone. . . . All his efforts, hidden under no matter what disguise, represent investments designed to satisfy his immediate wishes and desires. The psychopath, like a child, cannot delay the pleasure of gratification: and this trait is one of his underlying, universal characteristics. . . . He cannot wait upon the development of prestige in society; his egoistic ambitions lead him to leap into headlines by daring performances.

There are psychopaths and psychopaths. There are those whose rebellions consist, perhaps, in catatonia — total withdrawal into total blankness. There are those who, somehow, seek their assertion of personality in politics or culture. There are those who are leaders in one area of their followers’ lives and become anti-leaders when they seek to move their followers away from what Amitai Etzioni has called their “normative orientations.”

As far as one can judge, McCarthy had no interest in political success. Or perhaps he had a different concept of what success meant. He was able to defeat eight senators who crossed him; and if one were to argue post hoc ergo propter hoc, then the eight senators who succeeded them surely believed McCarthy had elected them. Powerful men certainly quailed before McCarthy at his most outrageous.

The end came for McCarthy in an unfavorable Senate censure vote, but it needn’t have come at all. According to Rovere, “there existed for a time the possibility of avoiding the issue of censure by a compromise.” This would have involved “nothing costlier than a small speech of apology by McCarthy to some of those he had called ‘handmaidens of Communism’ and a pledge of better behavior in the future.” Rovere argues that McCarthy refused to accept the compromise because he didn’t want to “hurt” his two Senate supporters, William Jenner and Herman Welker. I find this explanation simplistic: It hardly describes the action of a man who had triumphed using nonrational behavior techniques.

In every anti-leader there is a quality of self-destructiveness that is never far from the surface of seething action. Hitler the leader became an anti-leader and subverted his own leadership. Danton, who might have triumphed over Robespierre, welcomed in the end his own decapitation with this admonishment to his executioner: Tu montreras ma tete au peuple, elle en vaut bien la peine. (“You will show my head to the people: It is worth the trouble.”)

To call McCarthy a charismatic leader is to leave unanswered instrumental questions. One can accept the demagogue who, whether or not he has an ideological base, pretends to live by certain principles, defined or undefined; but McCarthy had no consistent pattern of public behavior, despite his putative anti-communism. (He was elected to his first term in the Senate with support from the communist-controlled United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, cio, which preferred the unknown McCarthy to the anti-communist Robert M. La Follette.) Yet people — 50 percent of the respondents had a generally “favorable opinion” of him, according to a January 1954 Gallup poll — endorsed him, cooperated with him, or just ignored him.


The similarity in opposites

So different, so totally different was Adlai Stevenson from Joseph McCarthy that one must work to see the resemblance. Yet there is one. The Stevenson credo is generally accepted as “liberal,” but in his public addresses in the 1952 and 1956 campaigns he expressed modest ideas about civil rights that dissatisfied black voters. His mild criticism of anti-labor legislation offended trade unions, which expected strong words from him. He demonstrated a sad opportunism with respect to foreign policy during the 1956 campaign, whose climax coincided with the Hungary and Suez crises. And yet, somehow, his charisma was such that to hundreds of thousands of people he remained the white knight, above fear and reproach.

Thus, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action created their political credo and then announced it as Stevenson’s. Thereafter, no matter what he said or what he did to repudiate that credo, they remained loyal. When, writing in Newsday in 1960, he defended the French position in Algeria, those of his admirers who were anti-colonial explained it all away. Similarly, whatever McCarthy did benefitted from the doctrine that to understand all is to forgive all. Why did these men have such followings regardless of their actions, their defeats, their fecklessness? Do anti-leaders create “anti-followers”?

I think in answering this question we may find the key to the anti-leader: He is born to be martyred or to give the appearance of a permanent progression to his own crucifixion, which he accepts as warranted, just as Kafka’s Joseph K. accepted his fate. The more he is denounced and betrayed, the more he is humiliated, the more he feels his vindication; and the more he feels his vindication, the more he arranges his defeat. McCarthy could never understand why people he had pilloried or whose careers he had destroyed disliked him or would not shake his hand. And Stevenson wondered aloud why and how he could work for somebody who never said “please” or “I’m sorry.”

I realize I am talking in deterministic terms when I say “they are born to be martyred,” and I am particularly mindful of Lewis J. Edinger’s words:

Neither individual character structure nor the contextual configuration can by itself explain a leader’s behavior; but careful analysis of their interaction, in as many instances as possible, may reveal certain patterns and facilitate understanding.12

Edinger was discussing Kurt Schumacher, who, had he lived, might well have been the anti-leader with his public insistence on the guilt of the German people. Yet one must concede that unless one has made a thoroughly documented study of the subject’s life, there is always a greater risk of choosing “as many instances as possible” to suit the thesis. In Stevenson’s case, however, the expectations placed upon him by his followers, his admirers, his “masses” were at total variance with his behavior in his role. His friends would tell you privately that deep down “Adlai” (as he was most often called, in this warm, intimate way, even by those who only half-knew him) disagreed with American foreign policy, particularly on Vietnam. Yet one half-hour before he died, he recorded a talk in bbc’s London Studios in which he said:

There has been a great deal of pressure on me in the United States from many sources to take a position — a public position — inconsistent with that of my government. Actually, I don’t agree with those protestants. My hope in Vietnam is that resistance there may establish the fact that changes in Asia are not to be precipitated by outside forces.

Nevertheless, the impression was abroad in the world that Adlai’s “opposing self” was on the side of the liberal angels; so, too, Joe McCarthy — rough though he could get — was regarded by his supporters as being on the side of the angels. As intelligent and perceptive a reporter as Eric Sevareid wrote about the “personal humiliations” visited on Stevenson, the effect of “frustration” created by Washington policies he didn’t approve of. Yet Stevenson remained on the job, speaking for a cause definably not his own, for a president he did not like, and refused to join the dissenters while giving the impression he would dissent if he could. Once he was a center of gravity, as once McCarthy was, too, and they bestrode their separate worlds like colossi. But they let power dribble away from them like sand from a rusted beach-pail.

1Sidney Hook, The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility (John Day Company, 1943), 153.

2Here are the words of Leon Trotsky: “The Party in the last analysis is always right because the Party is the single historic instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its fundamental problems. . . . I know that one must not be right against the Party. One can be right only with the Party, and through the Party, for history has created no other road for the realization of what is right.” Quoted in Merle Fainsod, How Russia Is Ruled (Harvard University Press, 1965), 149.

3Arthur Schlesinger Jr. confirmed this in a conversation with me.

4Edward P. Doyle, ed., As We Knew Adlai (Harper & Row, 1966), 263. Francis T. P. Plimpton, deputy Ambassador to the un at the time, writes: “In April 1961, a young cia representative came into the then usun gloomy offices and guardedly indicated to Stevenson and top usun personnel that something was likely to happen on the shores of the erstwhile republic. The financing was to be Cuban emigres; no U.S. facilities were to be involved. When what did happen happened, usun was as surprised as anyone else. Stevenson accepted as true the cia photos of the defecting Castro pilots bombing Castro airfields which in good faith he showed to the un General Assembly’s First Committee. The disclosures that these were fakes caused him wounds over which the scar tissues were never healed.”

5Pierre Salinger, With Kennedy (Doubleday, 1966), 147.

6“Our Heroes at the U.N.,” Harper’s (February 1967).

7Robert Murphy, in Diplomat Among Warriors (Doubleday, 1964), chapter 25, “Difficulties at the United Nations,” discusses this “autonomy.” See also Arnold Beichman, The “Other” State Department (Basic Books, 1969).

8Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy (Bantam Books, 1966), 284. The relationship between the two men began badly: “[Kennedy] was, for example, irritated by Stevenson’s delay in deciding on the un Ambassadorship and publicly announced that it had been offered in order to make rejection all the more difficult.”

9Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett, “In Time of Crisis,” Saturday Evening Post (December 8, 1962).

10Columbia University Forum (Spring 1963), 4. Kempton’s article is quoted.

11Richard Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959), 4 et passim.

12Lewis J. Edinger, Kurt Schumacher: A Study in Personality and Political Behavior (Stanford University Press, 1965), 4n.