Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Does Bill Clinton Keep Saying Nice Things About John McCain?

Why is Clinton saying nice things about McCain?

During this week Bill Clinton has appeared on a series of national television shows talking about the presidential campaign. On The View, he addressed the fact that people have criticized him for saying nice things about John McCain. "I've made everyone mad during this election because I genuinely like both candidates. I genuinely admire both candidates. I think we make a terrible mistake finding something wrong with the candidates we can't vote for." Though predicting Obama will win, Clinton made sure to refer to McCain's heroism during Viet Nam. "The American people, for good and sufficient reasons, admire him," Clinton said, referring to his war record, "He's given something in life the rest of us can't match." This has enraged some. In his Trailhead blog for Slate, Christopher Beam wrote under the title "Why Bill Clinton is such a lousy surrogate," Chris Beam takes Clinton to task for praising McCain on The View and noted with incredulity that he did it again on Good Morning America. "Clinton can't help himself," Beam concluded.

However, I think Beam is wrong. This in not an instance in which Clinton "can't help himself," though there certainly are many such instances with Clinton. As I write about in my book, In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography, Clinton has a hypomanic temperament that makes him biologically prone to all sorts of impulsive behavior in multiple areas, not just sex. He compulsively overeats, loses his temper and says things he shouldn't off the top of his head. So it seems to make sense when Beam says, there he goes again. Except, there's nothing impulsive about this behavior. I watched Clinton on half a dozen appearances over a week, and he praised McCain each time. This behavior was clearly systematic and planned, not impulsive.

So what's going on here? If you listen carefully, Clinton always tries to makes the sale for Obama, and has since his soaring endorsement at the Democratic convention. What he won't do is trash McCain or Palin. Why not? Clinton has an expansive inclusive view of the universe. Where most politicians divide the world into their friends and their enemies, Clinton strives to find room under the big tent for everyone: Room enough for he and former president Bush to collaborate on tsunami relief, and room enough for both Obama and McCain to present at his annual Global Initiative. In large part this is what allowed Clinton to be such an effective peacemaker. Only Clinton, it seemed, could convince the people of Northern Ireland that there truly was room for both Catholics and Protestants on their small island, no small feat indeed.

Clinton has been this way his whole life. In part it is because of his innate empathy. When people want to lampoon Clinton, they will sometimes quote his famous line, "I feel your pain." But Paul Begala, who was with Clinton the day he said those words, told me "It wasn't phony." He believes that Clinton's empathy is his greatest political gift. In his somewhat cynical book about Clinton, Because He Could, Dick Morris, the former Clinton advisor turned professional Clinton critic (he works as a commentator on Fox News and now advises Republicans exclusively), gives Clinton his due on this point. In a chapter entitled "Running on Empathy," Morris writes: "Clinton's uncanny capacity for empathy is the key to understanding him...He truly felt people's pain and it impelled him to action."
Empathic people have a natural tendency to be forgiving and seek harmony in relationships. But in addition, Clinton has an ideological commitment to the Christian command to "love your enemies." Many people don't realize how deeply influenced Clinton has been by Christianity. It was one of my more surprising discoveries. Since he was a boy, Clinton has striven to forgive and be reconciled to those who have hurt him, beginning with his abusive alcoholic stepfather, Roger Clinton. Teenage Bill Clinton physically intervened to put an end to Roger's beatings, but he never turned against his stepdad "Bill had as much reason as anyone to hate him, to hold a grudge, but he didn't. He loved and forgave him and was even instrumental in getting me to put my own anger at Roger aside" wrote his mother Virginia.

That same attitude has translated to his political rivals His childhood friend Rose Crane told me that, "Me with my mean, sharp tongue, I'd say something critical about one of his political enemies who had pulled some dirty trick on him, and he would say: ‘you have to understand, it's not their fault, they're just having problems.'" When Terry McAuliffe brought up, with great satisfaction, the news that Linda Tripp had been indicted for her illegal tape recordings of Monica Lewinsky, recordings that both betrayed her friendship with Lewinsky and paved the road to impeachment, he was taken aback by Clinton's response: "You know, Mac, I've got to tell you I really feel sorry for that woman...She's really had a rough life. She had a really, really bad marriage and she got divorced....It wasn't her fault, Mac. I hope it's behind her."

No one it would seem would have more reason to hate the Republicans than Bill Clinton. Impeachment, one of the most serious threats to the Constitution in our nation's history, really was the result of a vast rightwing conspiracy at the highest levels of the Republican Party. But Clinton won't go there. His highest role model is Nelson Mandela, who forgave his jailers when he got out of prison. While I was in Africa with Clinton in 2007, the day he celebrated Mandela's birthday, as he does every year, he said he could not have survived impeachment psychologically had it not been for Mandela's example.

So yes, Clinton will affirm and reaffirm his respect for McCain and Palin. And no, it is not party disloyalty or petty peevish feelings over Hillary's defeat that drive him to do so. After the Jewish Holidays, Clinton will begin campaigning in swing states to win over Hillary supporters who could make the difference in this election. Clinton will try to make the sale-in the way only he can: by appealing to a higher moral vision, not by devaluing the Republican ticket. When Clinton was in Derry pleading for peace in Northern Ireland in 1994, he issued a challenge to the people that defines his philosophy: "Are you going to be somebody who defines yourself in terms of what you are against or what you are for?"

More from John D Gartner Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from John D Gartner Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today