The “Dry Drunk” President
Copyright © 2004 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Here at the conclusion of George W. Bush’s four years as president, as he fights for another four years, one fundamental feature of his character has been neglected. During the last campaign we learned of Bush’s history as an alcoholic (although his involvement with cocaine was quickly buried). We were told of his trading alcohol for evangelical Christianity in his forties under the influence of his wife. For anyone familiar with substance abuse, however, it is obvious that W. remains a “dry drunk” — one who has stopped using alcohol without completing a therapeutic program to deal with the underlying personality issues of an addict.
According to Jeri Fortier, a juris doctor with some expertise in such programs, George Bush’s failure to achieve full recovery has kept his addiction active. “Merely stopping use simply suppresses the most overt symptom while giving the illusion of being in control and cured,” she observes. “Failure to work through all the steps of recovery results in a retention of the character defects and self-destructive behavior that were hallmarks of addiction.” While the disorder is more subtle in one not actively using, the traits of the unrecovered addict remain the same:
- lack of positive concern for others
- a fear-based personality
- megalomania fueled by low self-esteem
- an inability to know what can be changed and to accept those things that can’t
- an inability to learn from one’s mistakes
As Ms. Fortier concludes, “Sound familiar?”
J. G. Hall, a psychologist who published many studies applying cognitive theory to the problem of alcohol abuse, has recorded a number of ways that alcohol affects brain processes. Not surprisingly, the chemical decreases self-awareness and thus diminishes self-evaluation, reducing the “propensity of an individual to use higher-order encoding and elaboration processes necessary for self-control.” Under the influence, therefore, drinkers are less able to recognize their own negative traits or possible consequences of their actions.
Problem drinkers, whether using or not, are also prone to what is termed “alcoholic myopia” — that is, they can see only their immediate environment or short-term cause-and-effect relationships, but not the big picture or long term. Thus, an alcoholic will tend to have a short attention span and seek immediate rewards, with little regard for the more remote future. In order to change his behavior, the addict needs to liberate himself from his addiction long enough to achieve a more realistic self-evaluation, a process which takes time, work, and a supportive environment that reinforces control until the character flaws can be overcome.
Unfortunately, in Bush’s case the end of substance abuse came without the alteration in character. As a well-connected son of privilege, he was protected from the necessity of change since he was not allowed to fail, regardless of the negative consequences of his acts in personal and public life. As an evangelical convert, he simply replaced the substance high with the adrenaline high of self-righteousness. Even in those recovery programs that encourage a spiritual commitment, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, religion is not meant to be a substitute for addiction but one step in the process of healing. Faith emphasizes the grace of God, which accomplishes the healing that the user is unable to achieve on his own. It embraces humility, an acknowledgement that one cannot play God in one’s own life or over the lives of others. And it urges tolerance — a recognition that there are many paths to spirituality and one can only be responsible for one’s own.
Despite the classic symptoms of his disability, as president Bush has managed to convince half of American voters that he is doing a good job because his addictive personality reflects elements of American ideology. Psychologist Anne Schaef, in her 1987 treatise When Society Becomes an Addict, traces parallels between traits of the addict and the widely accepted if dysfunctional social templates that mirror them, identified in chapter titles like “Self-Centeredness,” “The Illusion of Control,” “Dishonesty,” “Denial,” “Defensiveness,” and “Abnormal Thinking Processes.” The latter, she observes, reinforces “the illusion of control by simplifying the world to such an extent that it seems possible to have control over it.” The addict mimics our political arena through the use of “innuendos, assumptions, vague statements, planned misinformation, and suggestions.” Again — sound familiar?
Schaef notes that in “AA language the addict is a ‘con’ . . . who will cheat you, lie about themselves and/or the products they are representing, and take advantage of you.” She describes such patients who “practiced ‘impression management'” as “so out of touch with themselves that they did not realize how dishonest they were being. Lying was the only way they knew . . . .” As even Ron Reagan asserted in an article in the September 2004 Esquire, deception has been the Bush administration’s signature M.O. When caught in one lie, the White House simply counters with another.
The most dangerous tendency of the uncured is the psychological projection that comes with denial, often leading to active paranoia. As Schaef writes, “Rather than deal with their own anger and hostility, paranoids project them out onto those around them . . . . Paranoids see them as angry, hostile, and ready to attack — and respond to them accordingly. In the most extreme cases, paranoids will kill another person out of a belief that person is about to kill them.” Or, we could add, launch an unprovoked pre-emptive strike against an entire country.
Schaef goes on to say, “Whenever we make assumptions about others and then act on those assumptions, we are skipping a crucial step in the thinking process: checking out our assumptions. Paranoids have bought into the Addictive System so thoroughly that they have forgotten how to perform this step.” Such a dysfunctional thinker would not, say, actually need proof that weapons of mass destruction exist; he would just act as though they do.
What we see in George W. Bush, in other words, is an unrecovered substance abuser now literally drunk on power. The question is, are Americans ready for the cure?