The Nation; 'Enabling' Is Now a Political Disease

By JOE SHARKEY New York Times September 27, 1998, Sunday

''A NATION of Clinton Enablers?'' a headline in The New York Post queried. ''We have all been enablers for Bill Clinton,'' declared Time magazine. Last week, an editorial in this newspaper spoke of Mr. Clinton's ''documentably dysfunctional personality'' and warned that ''we must not become a nation of enablers.'' In a recent speech, the television evangelist (and sometime Clinton counselor) Robert Schuller asserted that ''we all share part of the shame'' for stubbornly high public approval ratings that have enabled President Clinton so far to avoid confronting the problem of his sexual behavior.

The American electorate has been called many things from the pulpit and in editorial pages. ''Enabling, to describe the behavior of a nation, though -- that's a new one,'' said Stanton Peele, an author and clinical psychologist who has studied what he regards as the two-decade-long march of the therapeutic ideal and its clinical concepts from personal behavior into ever-wider areas.

''We've developed a tendency in America to describe every personal transaction in clinical terms,'' he said. ''So I guess, in the spirit of our times, if you're applying a clinical label to all unwanted behavior, you could apply the label 'enabler' to people who continue to support Bill Clinton.'' The term has recently been applied to those close to the President like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Betty Currie, his secretary, and his friend Vernon Jordan. (Grand jury testimony from the latter two is expected to be made public this week, so watch for it to crop up again.) But when commentators and clerics start using enabling to describe behavior by the general electorate, ''we're entering a pretty rarefied realm,'' said Dr. Peele.

Some find it hard to suppress a chuckle. ''A whole nation full of enablers? Is anyone treating it? What an opportunity,'' joked Tana Dineen, a psychologist in Ontario and the author of ''Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People'' (Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing, 1996).

Enabler is a noun used in clinical and support-group settings to label someone who is close to (and often diagnosed as clinically ''co-dependent'' with) an alcoholic or other presumed addict, and whose love and emotional support allow the sufferer to deny the addiction and avoid seeking treatment. The clinical concepts of co-dependency and enabling began flourishing in the early 1980's, when employee health insurance coverage was widely expanded to cover treatment for addiction and other mental health problems. Best-selling self-help books, intense media coverage and lobbying by therapists soon widened the range of what were considered to be clinical addictions -- compulsive gambling, shopping and sexual behavior among them.

Over the years, enabling has gradually moved from the clinical to the cultural vocabulary, said Dr. Peele, who in 1989 decried what he called America's ''treatment binge'' in ''The Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control'' (Lexington Books). Now, he said, the term seems to be metastasizing again -- into the civic vocabulary of politics.

''Now we're enablers because we haven't risen up to demand that Clinton seek clinical treatment,'' he said. ''That's a pretty whimsical concept.''

In Vogue

As a purported disease, sex addiction is in vogue. Though not yet classified as a specific disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, it is being widely treated as a compulsive disorder in proliferating sex-addiction support groups and clinical settings. In print and on television, leading sex-addiction therapists routinely assert that as many as 70 percent of American men suffer from some form of diagnosable sexual compulsion. And as with in any clinical addiction, it is concurrently assumed that a significant number of a non-confessed sex-addict's loved ones, acquaintances and even co-workers are ''enabling'' the denial to seek treatment.

Asserting that the American public is ''enabling'' President Clinton's behavior is ''sort of the equivalent of describing the entire American society as being addicted or clinically co-dependent,'' said Dr. Peele. ''Does that mean that all of America now has to enter therapy?''

Yes, in a manner of speaking, replied Jerome D. Levin, a psychotherapist and the author of ''The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction'' (Prima Publishing, 1998). The book argues that Mr. Clinton is a clinically addicted sex addict in denial who has been ill-served by the enabling behavior of family and associates.

The President, suggested Dr. Levin, who trains alcohol- and substance-abuse counselors at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, should ''put aside the spin doctors and lawyers,'' invoke the 25th Amendment, and enter a ''rehab program'' for addiction treatment.

''If the President were to drop his denial and get appropriate help, then I think the public would finally come to realize that in supporting him, whatever other valid reasons we might have had for that support, we were in fact enabling his behavior, in a way similar to a wife who stays in a destructive relationship with an alcoholic.''

Laughing, Dr. Levin added: ''Then, if you really want a reductio ad absurdum, the President could return to work and invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning he couldn't be fired for his disability. It would drive the right-wing lunatic fringe nuts.''

But the increasingly pseudo-clinical tone of the discourse on Mr. Clinton's problems is dismaying to Wendy Kaminer, the author of ''I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions'' (Addison Wesley, 1992), a book that skeptically described the intervention of therapy into ever-wider areas of social behavior.

''Posing the question, 'Are we enabling him to continue his sex addiction?' presumes that there is in fact such a thing as sex addiction,'' said Ms. Kaminer. ''More importantly, it presumes we are all collectively engaged in a personal relationship with the President. We are not. It's a political relationship.

''To even ask that question is a measure of how much the therapeutic culture has distorted the political culture,'' she added. ''It's a terrible distraction from the questions we ought to be asking about what's really happening to the country.''

Unfortunately, she said, ''People are much more knowledgeable about popular therapy and pop psychology than they are about politics,'' and are thus are more fluent in the jargon of pop psychology than in the vocabulary of civics.

''We all love to gossip and we love to personalize relationships. We love soap operas. It's hardly a coincidence that of all the Clinton scandals, which are arguably more serious business, the one that has really resonated has been the one about sex.''

Copyrigh t© 1998-2007 Tana Dineen,