In honor of President’s day, let’s take a quick look at three Presidents: Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and LBJ. All were larger than life, all were known by their contemporaries for their monumental moods.
You can make a case for bipolar for all three, though with Lincoln this would be a stretch. For all three we are talking about a complex overlay of mood and temperament that resolves into Lincoln being the melancholic one in the bunch and TR and LBJ the exuberants. Let’s get started ...
"I am now the most miserable man living," the 31-year-old Lincoln confessed. "Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better."
Depression was a constant in Lincoln’s life. He never overcame it, he never rose above it. But Joshua Shenk’s must-read 2005 “Lincoln’s Melancholy” makes the compelling point that crushing depression made both the man and the President. According to Shenk, his depression simultaneously turned him into a hard-headed realist and allowed him to think like a visionary. It also imbued him with a higher wisdom and deeper humanity.
Nassir Ghaemi in his 2011 “A First-Rate Madness” adds the quality of empathy to the list. Trial and tribulation does that you. According to Shenk, Lincoln passed through three critical phases during his adulthood: from fear to engagement to transcendence. In other words, having decided that he WOULD live, he then decided HOW to live.
Thus, when faced with the challenge of a lifetime, he proved more than ready. On assuming his second term of office, he spoke the finest words ever uttered in the English tongue:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.
Six weeks later, he belonged to the ages.
Four years ago, I visited the Lincoln Memorial at night. It was a deeply intense spiritual experience for me. a school kid behind me commented, “He looks so sad.”
Do make the visit, if you get the opportunity.
A journalist commented that after meeting TR, you had to "wring the personality out of your clothes."
According to Kay Jamison in her 2003 “Exuberance,” TR came into the world “a full-blown exuberant.” In a 2002 talk, she characterized TR as “hypomanic on a mild day.” He wrote 40 books, and read a book a day, even as President. He also went into an extended grieving/depression that saw him reinvent himself as a cowboy.
In 1903, TR teamed up with fellow exuberant, John Muir, for an extended hiking trip in Yosemite. TR was a committed conservationist long before he met John Muir, but after the Yosemite trip he marshaled his exuberance with new urgency. When TR assumed office in 1901, half of the nation’s timberlands had been cut down, the buffalo and other species faced extinction, and special interests were teaming up to lay waste to huge tracts of pristine wilderness.