The Narcissism of John Edwards: Impostor Success or Failure?

In my first preview of one of Kipling’s two impostors, triumph, I casually nodded to hubris as the most obvious mechanism that turns success into disaster, then went on to give another example that I thought was a bit subtler.

And now John Edwards forces me to come back to hubris. In case, you’ve been behind the moon, we now know that he cheated on his wife. More interestingly, we have now heard why he thinks he cheated. The key phrase in his mea culpa to ABC’s John Woodruff, was this: Becoming a “national public figure”, he said:

fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you’re invincible and there will be no consequences.

We always knew, of course, that Edwards had a narcissist in him, at least since we watched him preening here:

Narcissus, at least in Ovid’s version of the myth, was the handsome youth who fell in love with his own reflection as he bent down to drink from a stream, and then wouldn’t touch the water lest he ruffle the beautiful image in it, and so died of thirst. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say. Impostor beauty, as we might paraphrase.

So narcissism is slightly different from hubris, although Edwards conflates the two. Hubris is the classical Greek notion that power and success make people arrogant, and that this arrogance then invites disaster. Think Ken Lay, Eliot Spitzer, et cetera. And now, John Edwards?

Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you one contra and one pro. The contra is Steven Berglas, a specialist in “narcissistic disorders” at Harvard Medical School for many years, who writes here that Edwards is kidding himself, and that it was in fact Edward’s failure to become Vice President in 2004 that is to blame:

I feel that Edwards had a need to re-assert his power and his masculinity (via an affair) because of his history of believing that his entire self-worth derived from success. Had Edwards not “proved his potency,” I feel he would have suffered ego-annihilation when he failed.

The pro comes from research by Cameron Anderson at Berkeley’s Haas School and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern, who found that perceived power does make people excessively optimistic and blind to risk. In one of their experiments, they discovered that those participants who were more powerful were less likely to use condoms. Who says academics never have fun?


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