Tony Soprano, George Bush, and the Melfi Nation
Justin Frank, M.D.
Word on the street says Tony Soprano and his gang are back - “finally,” announces TV Guide. So is Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, who thinks Tony talks openly to her about who he is. In fact, Tony keeps an entire part of his life off limits. His boyish charm and emotional vulnerability help him preserve his mafia secrets. There is no honest discourse. And Dr. Melfi, an ordinarily sophisticated person, doesn’t get it. Or does she get it and then disavow her perceptions?
While waiting for the Sopranos we have had the Bush Administration to entertain us. It is led by an affable, earnest and boyish looking man whose struggles with language and whose mania for exercise help us forgive and even ignore his darker behavior – just as we do with Tony Soprano. And a few protesters aside, we have become a nation of Dr. Melfis – ignoring or evading what we see.
George W. Bush operates like a mafia don. He is completely loyal to his inner circle. A president has broader obligations, however. He has obligations to the nation and its well being as well as to his constituents, financial backers, and close friends. But George W. Bush is different. He behaves as if his sole responsibility is to his Administration - his gang.
Like the mafia, Bush and his cronies are not so much above the law as they are outside it. The law – whether it concerns insider trading or bombing Iraq - just doesn’t apply to them. It is meaningless. To them, Enron is not Harken; WorldCom is not Halliburton. And Iraq is just a rival gang. There is no room for rules or normal political discourse. The Bush bunch remains safely ensconced in its version of Tony’s “Bada Bing” underworld – an unrealistic Crawford, Texas, “overworld” of legally acceptable but deceptive accounting practices, of unlimited energy supplies, of might makes right.
Normally, pressure from constituents – the voters, Congress, the press – helps keep a president honest, responsive, and aware of his obligations and duties. But when the President’s only constituents are outside the law – are his own private gang – those responsibilities become simple. He appears guiltless because he is being responsible - to his private world.
When living outside the law it is easy to see ordinary citizens as fools, as people who can have the wool pulled over their eyes. This Administration pays lip service to compassion and change without having to act. It can abhor violence in Israel and do nothing to help; it can take umbrage against CEO criminals but punish them with a mere slap on the wrist. The investigation of Enron is only just starting.
This skewed worldview eventually makes real compassion impossible. Slogans supplant substance as the need to assert control compromises efforts to understand. Soon the Administration – like the mafia – becomes unable to see that people have genuine concerns. Thinking gets simplified. Anyone who disagrees or even raises questions becomes a potential enemy who has to be put in his place or eliminated.
At some emotional level, Dr. Melfi realizes she is an outsider, a potential enemy of Tony. Perhaps this accounts for her wariness around him, for her turning a blind eye after each brief attempt to probe his inner world. We do the same thing, poking around for a moment into this scandal or that before we again stand by and watch. Questioning the ethical business practices of Bush and his cronies gets shrugged off and forgotten. The mafia becomes as unreal to us as we are to them.
Like the leader of an outlaw gang, Bush sees the world as being either with him or against him. He applies his simple view to all social, environmental, and international problems. Complex thinking is unnecessary. It is not important for members of the Administration to think about the roots of international terrorism or about motives behind anti-American sentiment. Just advertise to the world what a great country we are, notwithstanding our behavior.
When advertising wears thin, the mafia/administration insures its safety through increased domestic surveillance. As long as these extra security measures protect us against terrorism, we don’t have to think about how much they erode the cornerstones of our democracy. We willingly compromise our own heritage, turning our backs on who we are and where we come from. So, too, does Dr. Melfi turn her back on her professional roots.
Ultimately those outside the law stop seeing the world as being real. Problems are not only simplified, they become dismissible. And it’s not just the legal system - they ignore the genuine laws of life. Stealing from employees, who are no longer regarded as real people – becomes easy. Bombing an Afghan wedding party is barely an inconvenience, not a tragedy. And draining the earth of energy supplies such as oil is not seen as draining at all – no real damage is being done and no replacement is necessary.
Living within the law means facing facts, and doing the real work necessary to try to solve problems. Living outside the law leads to evasion, to compromised perception. Tony can tune out Dr. Melfi with ease, as she tries to look at the delinquent part of his personality, the part that won’t face facts about what he does to other people.
When a problem confronts Bush - finally breaks into Crawford-land - he can only offer nostrums. His solutions are not even practical: a Homeland Security that excludes the FBI and CIA; a domestic swat team supposed to stop corporate fraud. Behind the economic pomp at WACO lies the child who says, “Wishing makes it so.”
The child in us thinks that things will magically get better and that problems will go away. They don’t. We are like Dr. Melfi who denies the facts. Her rape forces her to know what she doesn’t want to know, that Tony is a killer. She wants him to seek revenge against her attacker, when before she had been content not to think. Now she wants him to do her murdering for her.
The facts about Bush and his gang now begin to hit us in the face: many were unethical CEOs who have put our nation in debt again with a selfish tax cut using false accounting practices. Bush’s bellicose behavior threatens peace and security – as even Kissinger and Scowcroft warn. His disregard for the environment, from global warming to logging regulations, is starting to frighten people.
You don’t become a psychiatrist until you realize you’ve lent a psychopath five dollars. We have lent the Bush Administration far more than five dollars. Dr. Melfi cannot treat Tony until she sees who he is, which means she can never treat him unless he’s in jail. It is up to Congress and the rest of us to face facts and to confront the reality of who Bush and his Crawford gang are – before it is too late.
Justin Frank, M.D. is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center and a practicing psychoanalyst. He is past president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility (Greater Washington Chapter), a national organization of 20,000 physicians, nurses, health care professionals, and concerned citizens devoted to nuclear disarmament, violence prevention and environmental health. He can be contacted at: email@example.com