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John McCain's "histrionic pattern of personality adjustment"

By Aubrey Immelman

December 6, 1999


Medical records released today bear witness that, psychologically, Arizona senator John McCain is the most scrutinized presidential candidate in U.S. history. The senator participated in a prisoner-of-war study for 20 years following his release in 1973, undergoing extensive physical and mental evaluations. In their report, Dr. Jeffrey L. Moore and Dr. Michael R. Ambrose, conclude, "[Sen. McCain] has been subject to an extensive battery of psychological tests and following his last examination in 1993, we judged him to be in good physical and mental health."

The first account of McCain’s psychological functioning that I have been able to find in the public record is an ideologically skewed diatribe published Jan. 24, 1970 in Havana. The article reports the clinical impressions of Dr. Fernando Barral, a Spanish psychiatrist living in Cuba who had interviewed McCain during his captivity in Hanoi. This patently invalid psychological profile characterized McCain as psychologically balanced yet egotistical and insensitive to his "criminal acts" of war, and hardened to the plight of his Vietnamese victims. Taken at face value, Dr. Barral’s impressions suggest a narcissistic, sadistic character structure.

More credible than Barral’s account are references in the McCain campaign’s just-released report to "a histrionic pattern of personality adjustment." According to the Associated Press, Dr. Ambrose, director of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies, explained that this meant "an outgoing personality." Although this oversimplified definition of the personality pattern sounds less ominous than "histrionic," the psychiatric label is no cause for concern when viewed in context. True, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has a classification for "histrionic personality disorder," but it is worth noting that McCain’s examiners did not use the term "disorder."

Thus, we can safely conclude that the doctors’ particular choice of words merely reflects their professional—if clumsily phrased—determination that John McCain, within the parameters of well-adjusted personality functioning, possesses some facets of histrionic personality—most likely his distinctively outgoing, extraverted personal style. This assessment reflects my own analysis of McCain’s personality.

Indeed, it would be difficult for McCain’s main rival for the Republican nomination, Texas governor George W. Bush, to exploit McCain’s so-called histrionic pattern for political gain. My own study of the political personality of Gov. Bush revealed a similarly outgoing (i.e., "histrionic") personality pattern. And, as for critics on the Democratic side, my assessment of Bill Clinton suggests that the president is even more "histrionic" than either Bush or McCain.

To the extent that "histrionic" character is deemed a disqualification for office (it is not), the natural beneficiary would have to be Vice President Al Gore. My research suggest that he is by far the most introverted ("anti-histrionic," "anti-Clinton-Bush-McCain") of the current crop of presidential candidates.

For voters to be able to decide on the relative merits of the introversion-extraversion dimension in politics, let’s briefly examine how extraversion plays out in the core domains of psychological functioning, employing the framework developed by personality theorist Theodore Millon.

First and foremost it must be pointed out that, as with all personality patterns, the outgoing pattern occurs on a continuum ranging from normal to maladaptive. At the well-adjusted pole are warm, congenial personalities. Slightly exaggerated outgoing features occur in sociable, gregarious personalities such as Bill Clinton. And in its most deeply ingrained, inflexible form, extraversion manifests itself in impulsive, self-centered, overdramatizing, histrionic behavior patterns that may be consistent with a clinical diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder. In a nutshell, then, this is the essence of the outgoing personality pattern:

I conclude this analysis with the caveat that my initial assessment of John McCain’s personality, based on his autobiography and other materials in the public domain, departs from the analysis of McCain’s naval examiners. In my opinion, the outgoing pattern is of secondary significance in McCain’s overall character structure. Of greater primacy is a dauntless, dissenting personality pattern, which McCain shares with Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush.

As a parting thought—lest we come too quickly to conclusions concerning John McCain’s character—consider this: With the exception of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, outgoing candidates have prevailed in every presidential contest since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman, USPP director and Suzanne Wetzel, USPP contributor's_'histrionic'_personality.html

Last Updated: 16 April 2000