The Phallic Presidency:
The Clinton Scandals and the Yugoslav War as Purity Crusades
by Lloyd deMause
The Journal of Psychohistory
25 (4) Spring 1998
Jackson, Buchanan, Cleveland, Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy,
Johnson, Bush, Clinton--adulterers, fathers of illegitimate children, prostitute
chasers, sex addicts.1 Why do Americans so often choose as leaders
men who betray and humiliate their wives with their compulsive sex affairs rather
than mature men who are capable of loving their wives and not betraying them?
It is no coincidence that of the thirteen womanizer presidents listed above, all but two also commanded major military ventures, while the twenty-eight other presidents who were not unfaithful were more peaceful. It is useful to ask the obvious question: might nations, when they are ready to go to war, unconsciously choose their leaders as some primitive tribes do--for their ability to conquer both women and enemies?
The consensus about Clinton initially was that, because he was a "draft dodger" during Vietnam, he wouldn't take America to war. Yet even before Yugoslavia this was quite untrue. Clinton, according to Ramsey Clark's book, The Children Are Dying: The Impact of Sanctions on Iraq,2 managed through his embargo of Iraq to kill one million Iraqi children--nearly as many as the number of Jewish children that were killed in the Holocaust! Clinton's delegated role in America seems to be to provide sacrificial victims in a way that doesn't stir up our guilt feelings: in Iraq by his "invisible" killing of children, in Yugoslavia by focusing on the expulsions of Kosovars that his bombing triggered and even in the case of his own scandals, where he provided America for a whole year with himself as a suitable victim to punish for our sins.
That Clinton unconsciously volunteered to be a sacrificial victim is clear. The weeks prior to his starting his affair with Monica Lewinsky were filled with media reports and late-night staff meetings in the White House about how the Chief Sacrificial Priest Kenneth Starr was hot on Clinton's trail for sexual misdemeanors for which he could be convicted. Staffers warned Clinton daily not to risk another "bimbo eruption" lest he be caught this time. Yet Clinton, sensing the group-fantasy of sacrifice was asking him to volunteer as the victim, started the affair nonetheless, looking out the White House windows while he was being sexually serviced by her to see if Starr's snoopers were looking in.
According to his biographer, Clinton's family role was also as a sacrificial hero, who was "caretaker and protector of the family" and of his mother, Virginia.3 His alcoholic stepfather was so violent toward his mother that Clinton recalls him firing a gun at his mother when he was five, and little Billy "twice had to stop real violence when Roger threatened to kill Virginia."4 Clinton's "Family Hero" role was of course what has made him such a superb politician, being able to sense the unconscious emotional needs of others and sacrifice his own values for the adulation he gained. There was little love in his family. His stepfather physically abused him during his drunken rages, and his grandmother, who was his primary caretaker in his early years while his mother was elsewhere, had a "fierce temper" and undoubtedly used "a whip" on him as she had done on his mother when she was a child.5
Besides this physical abuse, Clinton was also a rejected child, whose mother left him as an infant for two years with her mother while she moved to another city to learn nursing and then routinely left him while she gambled as he grew up. "I was raised in that sort of culture where you put on a happy face, and you didn't reveal your pain and agony," he says.6 Psychotherapist Jerome Levin attributes Clinton's sexual addiction with hundreds of women directly to his lonely childhood:
Virginia Kelley [Clinton's mother] looks extraordinarily like Lewinsky.
Kelley's hairstyle, heavy makeup, and the overall impression are strikingly
similar to Lewinsky's. Bill Clinton, the man who had lost his mother, had found
a replacement for her....His legacy as an adult child of an alcoholic compelled
him to fill the emptiness of his childhood and to repeat the addictive pattern
of both his biological and his adoptive parents...7
That Clinton repeated his longings for his absent mother with Monica Lewinsky can be seen when he said to Monica after she was transferred out of the White House, "Why do they have to take you away from me?", the same question he had for his mother when she left him as a young boy. Even Juanita Broaddrick--who accused Clinton of biting, assaulting and viciously raping her twice--looked very much like Clinton's mother, and was, in addition, a nurse like Clinton's mother.
Of course, in addition to restaging the betrayal he felt by his mother, Clinton's continuous humiliations of his wife over the years can be seen as expressing his unconscious rage toward his mother for her early abandonment of him--with the difference that in his affairs he would reverse roles and he would be the betrayer and his wife would be the betrayed.
Indeed, the Clinton scandal wasn't "all about sex," it was "all about loss." Clinical studies of sex addicts find they aren't "expressing their drives" so much as combating desperate inner feelings of maternal abandonment, impotence and self-fragmentation through their repeated conquests of women.8 Feelings of impotence, not excess potency, is the source of all sex addictions. And wars.
Purity Crusades--like the impeachment of Clinton and the Yugoslav War, which The New York Times described as a necessary "Cleansing of Serbia"9--are periodically encountered in history, usually after periods of peace and prosperity.10 They are usually conducted against "too much sexual freedom," with various designated sacrificial scapegoats. The most famous took place prior to WWI, with a hysterical Vice Commission closing down brothels and regulating dance halls. Before the Civil War, reacting to the feminism and new sexual freedom of the 1850s, purity reformers suddenly decided to "protect the sexual purity of America" by starting a civil war to clean up the "one vast brothel" in the South. Before the Vietnam War, following the first legal publishing of Henry Miller's books, Citizens for Decent Literature conducted nationwide letter-writing campaigns and harassed drugstore chains to stop the distribution of "obscene" literature. Time even ran a cover story in January 1964 on "Sex in the U.S.," full of shocked prose on how America had become "one big Orgone box of Freudian" pornography and promiscuity. America's Purity Crusade during Clinton's secnd term wasn't justabout Presidential sex.From New York to California, cities were attempting to close down X-rated video stores, politicians were "outed" as adulterers as "the sex police runs around Washington checking everyone out," and television programs featured specials declaring "The whole nation needs to repent!"11
That impeachment of Clinton functioned for a time as what columnists called "a renewal process" and a "cleansing of America"12 seems odd until it is considered as an age-old device for purification of a nation for its hubris, its prosperity, its sinfulness. In ancient Mesoamerica, when the state became convinced its prosperity had made it too sinful, the Chief Priest would tear out the heart of its best football player on a sacrificial stage and present it to the bloodthirsty goddess, who might otherwise punish all the people by not raising the sun the next day.13 The "Sacrificial Hero" was turned into a god himself since he, like Clinton, had willingly volunteered to be sacrificed. Thus Clinton's polls, which had been sub-par until his affair was revealed, soared to over 70 percent approval "for the job he was doing for his country"--in other words, for being a sacrificial scapegoat, a poison container for our guilt--an approval level never before reached by a peacetime president.
That nations sometimes choose their leaders because of their personal emotional dysfunctions seems an odd notion. Of course, other nations often choose dysfunctional leaders--like Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein--who have serious emotional problems, starting wars that end by costing the lives of millions. But we usually think: "not us." Yet I wonder. Many historians, for instance, now argue that America chose John F. Kennedy for his phallic cold war personality, so it should not have surprised us when he ordered the Cuban invasion and risked incinerating millions of Americans with Russian nuclear missiles during his Cuban embargo, saying, "If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it's all over."14 In fact, it turns out that it was Kennedy's taunting of the Russians with a 1962 "practice invasion" exercise near Cuba that actually pushed Khrushchev into putting his missiles into Cuba in the first place.15 With Kennedy, there was an intimate emotional link between his sexual addiction--requiring almost daily conquests of mistresses and prostitutes--and his equally compulsive need for military conquests. The same is true of Clinton. He has many of the characteristics of what Robert Tucker calls the "warfare personality"--self-dramatization, extreme narcissism, repeated feelings of conspiracies against him by enemies and an ability to call for a great Crusade that will defeat Evil abroad and cleanse the world of its sinfulness.16 I would only add to these: a deep well of loneliness, frequent revenge fantasies and an ability to dissociate.
That Clinton dissociated and distorted reality when he began the bombing of Yugoslavia is little reflected in the media, since Americans overwhelmingly have dissociated along with him on the key facts of the outbreak of the war. Virtually everyone tacitly agrees by now that the NATO bombing began because Kosovars were being killed, raped, and forced out of their homes. But that wasn't what in fact happened. Even the head of the CIA told congressional leaders the bombing would cause the Serbs to attack, for "military action could include the chance of ethnic cleansing...[since] if we stuck a stick in this nest, we would stir it up more."17 Richard Holbrooke agreed, warning that bombing would undoubtedly trigger ethnic cleansing. The following report from the Princeton University student newspaper was the only one that gave the true figures about the actual lack of violence before the bombing began:
Key members of the U.S. Senate sat slack-jawed through a confidential
briefing last Thursday from the Clinton administration foreign-policy team...After
the foreign-policy wise men asserted that the United States has a moral imperative
to stop the murderous Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, one senator
asked: How many Albanians have Milosevic's troops massacred this year? The president's
emissaries turned ashen. They glanced at each other. They rifled through their
papers. One hazarded a guess: 'Two thousand?' No, the senator replied, that
was the number for all of last year. He wanted figures for the last month--or
even the year to date, since the president had painted such a grisly picture
of genocide in his March 24 address to the nation....Nobody knew. As it turns
out, Kosovo has been about as bloody this year as, say, Atlanta. You can measure
the deaths [prior to the bombing] not in the hundreds, but dozens.
That the Serbs then used the NATO bombing as an excuse for the expulsion of a million Kosovars is not the same as proving it would have happened without the bombing. Any local sheriff knows that when a crazy bank robber has a bank full of hostages, one doesn't start bombing him. The bombing obviously triggered the expulsions, not the other way around. And a ground war is likely to trigger even more needless horrors. But the time is ripe in America after the recent years of peace and prosperity for a new war, a new Purity Crusade, a new sacrifice to cleanse us of our sins. Milosevic is an ideal Hitler-substitute, the Serbs, products of generally brutal childrearing, are ideal enemies, and NATO, as Madeleine Albright once told Colin Powell, is an ideal instrument of war, saying that, after all, "What is the use of this marvelous military force if we can never use it?"18 We have entered a new war trance; the ritual sacrifice may now begin.
is director of The Institute for Psychohistory, editor of The Journal
of Psychohistory and author of Foundations of Psychohistoryand Reagan's
1. Wesley O. Hagood, Presidential Sex: From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton. New York: Citadel Press, 1996.
2. Ramsey Clark, The Children Are Dying: The Impact of Sanctions on Iraq. New York: World View Forum, 1996.
3. David Maraniss, The Clinton Enigma. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 49.
4. Nancy Collins, "A Legacy of Strength and Love." Good Housekeeping, November 1995, p. 115.
5. David Maraniss, First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 22.
6. Newsweek, March 30, 1992, p. 37.
7. Jerome D. Levin, The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1998, p. 19
8. Patrick J. Carnes, Don't Call It Love. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.
9. The New York Times, May 9, 1999, p. D1.
10. Lloyd deMause, "American Purity Crusades." The Journal of Psychohistory 14 (1987): 346-347.
11. MSNBC-TV, August 19, 1998; WABC-TV, September 18, 1998.
12. MSNBC-TV, December 19, 1998, The New York Times, December 11, 1998, p. A35.
13. Vernon L. Scarborough and David R. Wilcox, Eds., The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991
14. Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993; Theodore C. Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy. New York: Macmillan, 1969; James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1991.
15. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "One Hell of a Gamble": Chrushchev, Castro & Kennedy, 1958-1964. New York: Norton, 1997, pp. 166-170.
16. Robert C. Tucker, "The Dictator and Totalitarianism." World Politics 17 (1965): 555-583.
17. Stephen R. Shalom, "A Just War?" Z Magazine September 1999, p. 28.
18 Z Magazine, May 1999, p. 32.