The two burning questions that most people are tempted to ask the ambitious men brought down by their own kinky sexual obsessions are always: “Why?” and “How could you be so reckless?” Much to our dismay, thoughtful answers never come; that’s because the Anthony Weiners and Eliot Spitzers of this world lack the capacity for self-reflection. If they could look within, they wouldn’t have engaged in the silly escapades in the first place. These workaholics are driven by all sorts of impulses, which they rarely take the time to evaluate and to which they have a hard time saying “No.” But paradoxically, some of their intense internal preoccupations also have the potential to fuel remarkable achievements. Without his zeal for fighting corruption, Eliot Spitzer would never have evolved into the widely admired Attorney General, whom former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson once called “the future of the Democratic Party.”
As I argue in my recent collection of short biographies, America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, hard-charging dynamos with runaway libidos have long constituted a significant subset of America’s movers and shakers. While aviator Charles Lindbergh had a wife, three long-term German mistresses (with whom he fathered seven children) as well as various part-time squeezes, librarian Melvil Dewey, the author of the Dewey Decimal Classification System—the premier search engine of the 19th century—was forced to retire in his early fifties for repeatedly hugging and kissing the female members of his guild. (The influential head of Albany’s New York State Library thus operated from the same playbook as San Diego Mayor Bob Filner). Likewise, during his brief marriages, Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams would put his room number at Boston’s Somerset Hotel on baseballs that he signed for nubile women.
Surprisingly, the type of man who is inclined to seduce or harass many women has sometimes had just what it takes to succeed in our fiercely competitive society. These high-octane individuals tend to be perfectionist control freaks with a short fuse and these traits are more likely than not to give them a leg up in the workplace. The only new development here, which dates backs just a few decades, is that journalists—not biographers—are uncovering these extra-curricular activities and reporting on them in real-time.
Despite being inundated with reports about the sleazy sex lives of our leaders in politics, business and sports, as a society, we still don’t know how to answer the why question. In the postmodern age, knowledge is partialized and scholars no longer address the human character; the very concept has been rejected as too squishy. Today psychiatry focuses almost exclusively on the treatment of the major mental disorders—depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. While there is a benefit to this direction—the patients who need the most urgent care fall into these categories—twenty-first century mental health professionals have no three-dimensional model with which to understand the foibles of high-functioning individuals. When asked to explain for a quick comment on the self-destructiveness of a Wiener or a Spitzer, many a psychiatrist will suggest the presence of an undiagnosed mood disorder such as depression. The latest version of psychiatry’s bible, the DSM, has done away with the multiaxial system that gave a prominent place to personality disorders and there is now a broad movement in the profession to dismiss these conditions as a Freudian relic and to remove them entirely.
Psychoanalysis is guilty of devising many laughable scientific hypotheses—penis envy, anyone?—but Freud and his followers did initiate a lively discourse about character, whose insights still prove instructive. Perhaps the most articulate proponent of the Freudian position was Erich Fromm, the German-born social philosopher with the common touch. The subject of a comprehensive and moving new biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm, by Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Harvard University’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Institute, this co-founder of the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology connected with readers around the world with his sensitive primer on the human heart, The Art of Loving (1956). This airport book, which ended up selling thirty million copies, was based on earlier scholarly treatises such as Man for Himself (1947). In that volume, Fromm divided human beings into four main character types—the receptive, the exploitative, the hoarding, and the marketing—which are based on how the person relates to others. Whereas the receptive looks to connect and the exploitative to dominate, the hoarding aims to collect and the marketing simply to sell himself. The brilliance of Fromm’s framework lies in his ability to show how each type has both an upside and a downside. Though the receptive type is the most capable of genuine love, he or she is liable to be unduly submissive (as Huma Abedin has demonstrated repeatedly). On the positive side of the ledger, the marketing type can be undogmatic and adaptable, but he is usually without principle and tactless (as Mitt Romney has revealed).
Don Juans are a unique blend of the exploitative and the hoarding types—with a marked tilt toward the latter, as women constitute their favorite collectible. They are clueless about how to bond one-to-one. The married, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd tried to seduce his employee, Jodie Fisher—the reality TV star whose sexual harassment allegations would later force his resignation—by bragging that he regularly slept with one mistress in New York and another in San Francisco. Other negative traits abound, including arrogance, stubbornness and stinginess. Some of the pluses are quirky such as the love of order and cleanliness. Just as Anthony Weiner has never allowed his wife to get anywhere near the laundry, Tiger Woods, as he once confessed to Oprah, is so concerned that his shirts look perfect that he often irons them after they come back from the cleaners. But hoarders, as Fromm stressed, are also capable of achieving spectacular success. Along with their compulsivity can come an otherworldly ability for intense focus. The late Belgian-born detective novelist Georges Simenon, who lived in America in the 1950s, wrote about 500 novels, many of which he cranked out in just 11 days. He also claimed to slept with 10,000 women—a total that was probably only a slight exaggeration. To their credit, Don Juans also know how to take the initiative and are typically composed under stress.
This summer’s NYC elections aren’t just a soap opera featuring two sex-crazed stars; these hotly contested primaries also provide a window onto central tensions at the heart of Western culture. While we say that we value interpersonal bonds, we have always put a premium on efficiency, productivity and the bottom line. As Fromm lamented, few of us ever become truly skilled in “the art of loving”—by which he referred to the capacity to love not only one’s partner, but also one’s neighbor with “true humility, courage, faith and discipline.” This is something that takes practice and patience and can be damaging to your career. “To analyze the nature of love,” Fromm concluded nearly six decades ago, “is to discover its general absence today and to criticize the social conditions which are responsible for its absence.” While we now are privy to more of the sleazy particulars than ever before, the general problem remains the same.