John McCain is struggling to define himself in front of the American people. Best known for his subsistence in a Vietnamese prison compound, McCain has parleyed that episode into a Senate seat and now his candidacy for the presidency.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 12, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

A Man at War with Himself: John McCain's televised identity crisis

John McCainJohn McCain is struggling to define himself in front of the American people. Best known for his subsistence in a Vietnamese prison compound, McCain has parleyed that episode into a Senate seat and now his candidacy for the presidency.

Although he presents (and likes to think of himself) as someone who follows an independent path, McCain has now been sucked into the high-stakes game of presidential politics. If he wins, he becomes one of a few score men who have led the United States!

McCain has written about his regard, his awe, for his father and grandfather - both U.S. Navy admirals - in Faith of My Fathers. (It is a mark of America's psychological culture that McCain is running against a man who wrote about his absent father in Dreams from My Father, while the notably nonintrospective sitting president's relationship with his father is being dissected in a new film).

McCain learned to conduct himself honorably at all times. That is, although he was a mediocre student at the Naval Academy, the only way he could violate his family standards was if he behaved dishonorably - for example, by bullying, cowardice, or betrayal. He believes he must stand up against the crowd if needs be. The same moral code enabled him to survive imprisonment and torture.

Now, in his frenetic drive for the presidency, McCain has been grasping at straws. The most obvious manifestation of his desperation has been Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska he picked as his vice presidential running mate.

He selected Palin to act as his pit bull (albeit one who wears lipstick). She serves as his uninhibited id - slamming presidential rival Barack Obama with every kind of charge and innuendo. McCain sometimes seems to be slightly shocked by Palin, who outshines him on the campaign trail. And sometimes he follows her lead, jumping in to assail Obama along with her.

At other times, McCain seems ambivalent. When confronted by the more ardent of his supporters - who label Obama a socialist, a terrorist, and an "Arab" - McCain sometimes smiles. But sometimes, when Palin isn't around, he shakes his head and defends his opponent as "a decent person" and "a family man" (can't an Arab be these things?).

One can just see McCain processing the incoming charges and taunts against Obama through the screen of his family values: "Is it right to say that?" Face-to-face with the Democratic candidate, McCain couldn't bring himself to repeat the charges of treason and lying that he and his running mate so glibly throw around in interviews, rallies, and advertisements. He couldn't even look at Obama or use his name!

This brings us to the psychodrama of the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night. It is McCain's final chance - possibly for all time - to present an image of himself to the American people. Will he throw everything into his effort to be president, honor be damned? Or will he recall the standards he learned at his forbearers' feet?

Use this scorecard to determine which side of his identity crisis McCain comes down on:

1. Does McCain look Obama in the eye and address him directly?
2. Does McCain state or imply that Obama is a traitor or liar?
3. Does McCain make any positive comments about Obama or his positions?
4. Does McCain look ill at ease and uncomfortable when he addresses Obama?
5. Do you think better or worse of McCain as a person at the end of the evening?