Rick Santorum: How Politicians Juggle Family, Adversity and Tragedy

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The presidential historian said death seems to be a "trigger" for entering public life and seeking public office.

"It's the ultimate pain, and it has a kind of freeing. It frees you up to suffer what you're going to have to suffer in public life," he said. "Death is ... very present and very much a big factor."

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, said politicians are "exceptionally good" at dealing with personal hardships because the character traits that draw people to public office also make them more resilient.

Politicians tend to be "risk-taking, resilient, self-confident people who can thrive on change and challenge and uncertainty," he said. "They have that resilience and ability to handle a suddenly changed situation, because they are handling change all the time."

How a politician copes with their grief or personal suffering can "humanize" them to the public, Farley said, making them a role model for others going through similar ordeals.

"Politicians in a sense ... want to be role models for the nation, and therefore dealing with tragedy and loss with balance and perspective is a form of being a role model," he said.

Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in the 2000 presidential election, was one of the first national politicians to discuss openly his seeking therapy in 1989 after his 6-year-old son was critically injured when he was hit by a car in 1989. His son eventually made a full recovery.

Three elections before Gore lost to George W. Bush, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis took the opposite approach to the story of his brother's dying in a hit-and-run car accident years earlier.

Rather than embracing his hardship, Dukakis downplayed it, immediately seeking to squash any rumors that he'd sought therapy after his brother's death, said Gerald Koocher, a pediatric psychologist and professor at Simmons College.

Koocher said there used to be the "expectation that our leaders were somehow magical, superhuman cullers who were never subjected to adversity."

But as public figures' personal lives become more widely broadcast through the 24-hour news cycle, those stigmas against tragedy are dissolving, he said.

"We see much more openness today than there was in the past," Koocher said. "People being able to go through a coping process by virtue of being sad or anxious about something is much more accepted today than it was before."

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