Is Bill Clinton a psychopath?

When I first started reading neurology and psychology texts several years ago I would often come across interesting facts like “12% of the human population could be diagnosed with X mental disorder.” This was eyebrow raising but felt a little odd. If these weirdos were walking among us, where were they? Most people I know seem pretty normal. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it. “So-and-so always has been obsessed with arcane details which could be a symptom of Asperger’s,” I would muse. Or, “other-so-and-so has always been self involved, even narcissistic.”

I was thinking about psychopaths the other day. Contrary to popular fiction, not all psychopaths are blood thirsty mass murderers. Rather, psychopathy tends to describe people who possess traits such as “resistance to self-blame, an enhanced capacity for dishonesty, a disregard for the feelings of others, and a complete lack of remorse.” (I’m quoting from the article linked below.) It struck me, could this describe Bill Clinton?

Now, I was generally a fan of the Clinton presidency, but I was, like many, amazed at his sexual risk taking and brass balls lying about it. Were I president, and a willing intern had presented herself, there would have been a million voices in my head saying, “This is going to come back to bite you!” (Especially if I already had several similar indiscretions in my past.) And I would been sweating like a pig while staring into a television camera and saying, “I did not have sex with that woman…” But not Clinton.

So let’s look at those traits again: resistance to self-blame, an enhanced capacity for dishonesty, a disregard for the feelings of others, and a complete lack of remorse. Hmmmm

Some will say that Clinton’s empathy would protect him from being described as a psychopath. However, I’m reminded of Darryl Hammond’s SNL impression of Clinton. The insinuation there was that Clinton could turn on the “I feel your pain” empathy a little too easily, and it’s an insinuation that felt true to a lot of us. Clinton was charming about it, but there was a phoniness there.

Researcher Kevin Dutton has a book out called “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” which makes several interesting points. One being that, like all mental conditions, psychopathy is not an on or off switch – it’s a gradient. Also, psychopathic traits which could charitably be described as “coolness under pressure” are somewhat desirable in high pressure worlds of business, medicine and, yes, the Presidency.

In fact, Dutton mentions a study by psychologist Scott Lilienfield, who looked at the results of a survey that queried presidential biographers about the personality traits of former White House occupants. As Dutton explains, “the results made interesting reading. A number of U.S. presidents exhibited distinct psychopathic traits, with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton leading the charge.”

This is not to say Clinton was some kind of Ted Bundy – a serial killer waiting to happen. Murderous psychopaths are rare (though less rare than murderous non psychopaths.) But the high pressure position of the Presidency does seem suited to the abilities of a psychopath.

1 Response to “Is Bill Clinton a psychopath?”

  1. john

    Murderous psychopaths are rare? There are a lot more of them than Presidents!