PRINT December 1989


the Trials of Men

Suddenly, the people outside took the form of frightening animals which he felt were intent on destroying him, attacking him and harming him.
—Dr. Basil Jackson, Jim Bakker’s psychiatrist

1) The hysterical symptom is the memory-symbol of the operation of certain (traumatic) impressions and experiences.

2) The hysterical symptom is a substitute . . . for the reactivation of these traumatic experiences by association.
—Dr. Sigmund Freud, “Hysterical Phantasies”, 1908

FOR FERDINAND MARCOS it probably began early in 1986, when his legendary heroism as an anti-Japanese resistance fighter was revealed in the New York Times to be a sham.

For national security adviser “Bud” McFarlane, the first misstep may have been his losing battle with White House chief of staff Donald Regan over access to President Reagan, which led to Bud’s resignation, well before the Iran-contra scandal broke.

For Harry Helmsley, it may only have taken an inkling that the IRS was doing some heavy digging on his estate.

For Jim Bakker, well, it probably goes a long way back.

Those hysterical men. They just couldn’t stand up to it.

Ferdinand and Harry were both declared “incompetent” or “unfit” and left their wives holding the bag—devouring women set up to be devoured by the press and the courts for their complicity in their husbands’ crimes of capital. Jim Bakker has come close to doing the same, and seems at this writing to be in the midst of an intense contest with his inimitable wife, Tammy Faye, over who can log the most air-time sobbing uncontrollably. And Bud tried to check out with a bottle of Valium on the day of his scheduled testimony before the Tower Commission about misdeeds in the National Security Council. But it was a small bottle, and he survived to face the music manfully a few months later, glumly assuming the blame for secret arms sales to Iran while practically winking and nodding in the direction of Reagan.

In their own spheres of influence, and measured by any reasonable standard, these were men of unreasonable wealth and power. But as their empires crumbled, bit by bit, so did their health. Like any classic hysterical symptoms, theirs are probably overdetermined, carrying elements of what Freud described as “‘flight into illness’ if reality becomes painful or frightening,” and also of “a typical cycle. . . . repression, failure of the repression, and return of the repressed.”

It would be too satisfying to think of the reemergent repressed here as some phantasm leading the guilty dictator or false prophet by the hand as, like Scrooge, he is made to face his crimes and their victims. But it’s impossible not to see these illnesses in relation to the men’s loss of political invincibility, as a perfect reflection of the collapse of their own repressive mechanisms—both social and psychological.

The revelation of Marcos’ masquerade came just weeks before he unsuccessfully rigged the Philippine elections in an effort to stem the tide of overwhelming support for Corazon Aquino, a woman. And just weeks after that debacle he finally had to flee Manila with his now-indicted wife, Imelda, who left behind 3,000 pairs of shoes. As recently as December 1984, Marcos had torn off his shirt in front of journalists to show his fitness and lack of surgical scars. And at about the same time, in a panic about communist rebel successes (and maybe haunted by the ghost of Benigno Aquino, Corazon’s murdered husband, as well), he released a pathetic videotape of himself—shirtless—lifting dumbbells in his palace.

But by 1985, political crises mounting, Newsweek titled its periodic piece on him “Twilight of a Patriarch: Though III, Marcos Remains in Charge.” Not for long.

And Harry Helmsley, described once in People as having New York at his and Leona’s feet (“but then, they own most of it”), was let off the hook (the charges would stand, but Harry wouldn’t) by a federal judge who hastened to add that the mogul’s prominence played no part in the decision. Neither, apparently, did his videos, shot not so long ago by paparazzi and TV-magazine shows, in which Leona and Harry proudly show off the highlights of their estate, and romp in the surf far from New York. Instead, the judge cited memory lapses and reasoning difficulties. “To try the defendant would deprive him of his basic rights,” he declared, with no sense of irony about the basic rights of common New Yorkers.

To say that Marcos (“From Ally to Pariah: Washington Looks the Other Way as Marcoses Are Indicted”) or Helmsley (“Dethroned”) were already old or faced “real illnesses” at the time of their decline is to miss the point. Both have had every privilege, and medical attention most people would, as they say, die for. And before the annoying outside world started pushing in, they seemed to be at the top of their games. So, what spooked these men and made them dependent, vulnerable to attacks from without and fits from within? Elaine Showalter, defining male hysteria of an earlier era, provides a perfect diagnosis of any of these absurd tragedies—Jim Jones, the Shah, and William Casey included: “powerlessness could lead to pathology, . . . a lasting wound could result when a person lost the sense of being in control, of being ‘an autonomous actor in a manipulable world.’”

A very manipulable world it has been for these men, too. They could kill, build, buy, sell, overthrow, and spend at will. They made their own rules and, for a good long time, had the tacit support of the U.S. government. But when the tables turned, they didn’t feel so good anymore. Kind of like that tummy ache before the spelling bee, but worse. The nice part is that for Harry and Ferdinand, and maybe for Jim, too, there’s a woman there to take care of it all, someone who will do the explaining and fend off all those men accusing them of those awful things . . . things they’d been doing for years and no one had said a word. . . .

A jury has found Jim Bakker guilty on each of the 24 counts that he faced—so, in one sense, his assessment of reality when he assumed the fetal position and howled in his lawyer’s office (and again in the back of a police car) was good. On the courthouse steps Tammy Faye sang a gospel song to reporters, and concluded her sound-bite by saying, with the eerie perkiness of a parrot, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Her use of this bit of sports vernacular, often quoted to describe things like political campaigns, added to the general feeling of spectacle surrounding the trial, and to the sense that both Jim and Tammy are, first and foremost, performers.

For Ferdinand Marcos, it all ended on September 28, in Honolulu. He was old and had been sick, but even the New York Times, in a respectful obituary, openly made the equation between his loss of power and his failing health. Calling Marcos a “physical fitness buff who was proud of his physique,” the Times used a curiously apt, if unconscious, phallic analogy to explain that “Mr. Marcos’ prestige and power shrank. His health faltered, the United States moved away from him . . . ” and “his long-powerful wife emerged . . . meeting high-ranking visitors as though she were the chief of state.” (Emphasis added.)

If the language the Times chooses to represent power is predictable, tried and true, what is finally unexpected about these stories is the symbiotic relationships of the husbands and wives, and the ways power (or public attention) is transferred to the women just as the men begin to symptomize and the lawyers to move in. Or, maybe, that’s not so unexpected after all.

David Sternbach is a writer living in New York, and an editor at Pantheon Books.