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.
TR argued that it was undemocratic to exploit the nation’s resources for present profit. "The greatest good for the greatest number," he wrote, "applies to the number within the womb of time."
But TR also played fast and loose with the prerogatives of his high office, leading Woodrow Wilson to characterize TR as “the most dangerous man of the age.” Mark Twain described him as “clearly insane.” During his reign, the US became an imperial power. One upside was the Panama Canal and the brokering of a peace accord between warring Japan and Russia. The downside was the merciless crushing of a rebellion in the Philippines that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Filipinos.
Had he chosen to run another term, no doubt TR would have found a good reason to get the US involved in yet another foreign misadventure. But right now, I am looking out my window at a beautiful oak. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, I know what a tree looks like.
In her 1976 “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream," Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of LBJ’s last days in office:
In the past, Johnson had displayed a fine sense of discrimination about his political opponents, recognizing his enemies today might be his allies tomorrow. Now he became unrestrained and reckless, creating a fantasy world of heroes and villains. Members of the White House staff who had listened to the violent name-calling were frightened by what seemed to them signs of paranoia.
Yet, just a couple of years earlier, in 1966, he was the most successful man in the world, on the cusp of leaving a legacy as one of the greatest Presidents in history. Instead, by 1968, he found himself unable to preside over a deeply divided nation, embroiled in an unwinnable war, his legacy in ruins. He left office the next year a broken man, never to return to public life. He died four years later.
Dr Goodwin paints a picture of a highly-energetic and driven man who enjoyed an unbroken string of political successes over a three-decade span. But she also mentions that behind the mask of success was a man with many insecurities, sometimes barely able to hold it together.
Upon assuming the Presidency in 1963 following the assassination of JFK, LBJ seized the moment, leading the nation through its mourning, then embarking on his “Great Society” domestic agenda that would change the face of America - from civil rights to education to the environment.
In 1965, LBJ decided to massively increase troop levels in Vietnam. The decision was a rational one, made in consultation with his advisers. But by 1966, it was clear his position was untenable. Unfortunately, faced with no easy way out of the mess he found himself in, LBJ turned increasingly irrational. He retreated into his shell, taking advice from only a small cadre of trusted and sycophantic advisers, and justifying his disastrous decision-making. Dr Goodwin uses the terms "obsessional" and "delusional" to describe his thinking.
Four decades later, we are still dealing with the aftermath. But also step outside. The very air you are breathing is a gift of the 36th President, thanks to the Clean Air Act. There was also a Clean Water Act. Thanks to civil rights legislation, we have slowly and painfully broken through a lot of our ugly thinking. A zillion things we take for granted today - including the protection of our basic dignity as human beings - we have LBJ to thank.
As for what he failed to finish - that is up to us.
See also on HealthCentral, Merely Me's Seven Presidents Who Battled Depression