Politicians' Biggest Battle: Themselves

The former presidential hopeful said he is "egotistical" and "narcissistic."


Aug. 12, 2008 — -- John Edwards, former senator, one-time vice presidential nominee and two-time Democratic presidential hopeful, can now add one more title to his resume: self-proclaimed narcissist.

The North Carolina native, who just last week admitted to cheating on his wife with documentary filmmaker Rielle Hunter, told ABC News that his time in the political limelight fed into his self-adoration so much so that his personal life eventually became the latest high-profile sex scandal.

"[My experiences] fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want," said Edwards, admitting that he cheated on his wife, Elizabeth, with Hunter to ABC News' Bob Woodruff. "You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."

"And nothing, nothing could be further from the truth," added Edwards in a press statement he released later that day, reiterating that his time on the campaign trail made him become "increasingly egocentric and narcissistic."

Feeling invincible and having no regard for the consequences your actions may have, is not uncommon for men who fill powerful posts, several psychologists told ABCNews.com, and are common attributes of narcissists.

"There is something about a lot of the people in power that they think the rules no longer apply to them or they're above the rules," said Wendy Behary, an expert specializing in narcissism and the author of "Disarming the Narcissist."

"They have a sense of entitlement that comes with their prestige or place in the political sphere," Behary said.

Mark Held, a clinical psychologist in suburban Denver who specializes in treating overachievers, told ABCNews.com that the Edwards story line is nothing new -- many politicians who have come before him have suffered from similar downfalls due to their self-absorption.

"People who go into certain fields are much more prone to get involved in these kinds of things -- they're people who seek power and need validation," Held said.

And, as time spent in the spotlight lengthens with each campaign, politicians' egos become so inflated that they begin to believe they can get away with anything, Held said.

"When you're powerful, you get away with a lot of things," he said. "And when you're attractive, you're given a lot of slack -- that's just how the world works.

"So, then there is this feeling that they'll get away with [bad behavior]," Held said.

Miami-based psychotherapist Samuel Lopez De Victoria describes narcissists as people who get a high from getting attention and who often are unaware of the chance that they might get caught misbehaving.

"There is a euphoria attached to the relentless feeding of the ego," he said. "The grandiosity in their own mind tends to make them so vain that an illusion of invincibility is created."

In turn, De Victoria said, not only does a narcissist become unable to consider the effect his actions could have on his own career or personal life, but it also inhibits him from considering the feelings of those around him.

"[Narcissism] creates an over-amplification of who someone thinks they are, and it creates self-deception," he said.

"They are insensitive to the reality of events and relationships around them until they fall off the skyscraper and find that the law of gravity applies to them, too," De Victoria said.

And while Edwards may have finally been brought back to earth after his recent admission of adultery, psychologists aren't so sure that his days of narcissism are behind him.

Founder and director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey, Behary said that the degree of the long-term effects of Edwards' adultery will determine whether the former presidential hopeful will change his ways.

"His recovery depends on the consequences," Behary said. "If there is no meaningful consequence of what he's done, typically change will not happen."

But, she added, "If he loses power or a job or there is legal intervention, then he might."

While some may see Edwards' interview as an acknowledgement of guilt and a genuine apology, others still might be wary, remaining sure that the admission is yet another calculated move of a professional narcissist.

"Going on television says two things: one, that he can't hide anymore because he was up against the wall, and two, that narcissists are always thinking about themselves and their appearance to the audience," Behary said.

"Edwards may just be thinking that the best way to preserve his ego is to take some ownership and [give his behavior a title] by saying he's narcissistic," she said.

Edwards, Behary points out, is the first of the fallen politicians in recent history -- former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, to name a couple -- to label his indiscretions.

"Edwards is using terminology that others have not dared to use," Behary said. "He might just be doing it to say, 'Look, I have this syndrome, I have this problem.'

"By putting a diagnostic label on it might be another way of not taking responsibility."