Mood Disorders and the Presidency - Meditations on Crazy vs Normal

John McManamy Health Guide October 21, 2012
  • With the presidential campaign entering its final phases, now is a good time to look back at some of the people with mood disorders who took up residence in the White House, not to mention a major mental health issue that came up in the 1972 campaign, plus a surprise consideration for the current one. I have written on the topic before, most notably here and here. But now is a good time for another look:

     

    John Adams

     

    David McCullogh in “John Adams” does not broach the topic of bipolar or mental illness, but in the book a clear picture emerges of a brilliant and temperamental revolutionary who knew how to seize the day, mobilize his countrymen, and change history. Nowhere was this more evident than the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, when Adams effectively floor-managed the break with Britain.

     

    To Washington went all the glory and to Jefferson went all the credit. His brief moment in the sun - one term as the second President of the US - was undercut by Jefferson, perhaps the dirtiest politician in history. No surprise, Adams became highly embittered.

     

    He doesn’t have a face on Rushmore or on a dollar bill, nor is there an Adams Monument or Memorial. His legacy is the nation he helped found. There would be no US without him. 

     

    Abraham Lincoln

     

    Joshua Shenk in “Lincoln’s Melancholy” recounts a man who never overcame his lifelong depression, but was nevertheless able to rise above it, and transform himself - and his countrymen - in the process. Of all things, his depressive realism imbued him with a kind of second sight. It wasn’t just that he was personally opposed to slavery. He saw that the country was headed into disaster if slavery were allowed to spread. This linked a moral cause to a call for action. Lincoln’s life suddenly had a purpose. He had a reason to live.

     

    Ironically, a life of battling depression and disappointment prepared him for the challenge of high office during the gravest crisis in the nation’s history. In the process, he achieved transcendence, became an American saint, an inspiration to all, a man for the ages.

     

    Teddy Roosevelt    

     

    Kay Jamison in “Exuberance” uses the twenty-sixth President of the US as her poster boy. A journalist said that after you went home from a meeting with the President you had to "wring the personality out of your clothes." 

     

    TR was a rising political star who became unhinged following the simultaneous death of his wife and mother, and in his grief reincarnated himself as a cowboy. His reckless charge up a hill as a Rough Rider led to an improbable residency on Pennsylvania Ave. There, he busted trusts, stood up to the special interests, saved Mother Nature, built a canal, and started the American Empire.

     

    Had he the opportunity, he would have involved the US in a disastrous war (he already had US troops asserting his imperial ambitions in the Philippines). Mark Twain, who met him twice, characterized him as “clearly insane.” Fortunately, TR declined to run for another term, thus preserving his legacy.

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    Lyndon Johnson

     

    Doris Kearns Goodwin in  “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream" writes of a man who became unhinged during his last year of office, refusing to acknowledge reality, and leading America on a disastrous course.

     

    Of all things, two years earlier, in 1966, LBJ was on the cusp of leaving a legacy as one of the greatest Presidents in history. Dr Goodwin paints a picture of a man with an over-sized personality 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.

     

    In 1968, he found himself unable to preside over a deeply divided nation, embroiled in an unwinnable war, his legacy in ruins. This time, he could not hold it together. He left office the next year a broken man, never to return to public life. He died four years later.

     

    The 1972 Election Campaign

     

    One of my personal heroes, George McGovern, died today. In the campaign against Richard Nixon, McGovern chose as his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, then was forced to dump him when news surfaced of his ECT years earlier.

     

    It has been speculated that McGovern might have kept Eagleton as his running mate had only his depression been disclosed. Of all things, Joshua Shenk points out in “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” when Lincoln ran for President, his depression not only was public knowledge but was regarded as a character asset, as something he rose above, much like his modest roots. 

     

    Ironically, McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, a man with a highly successful first term, but in no mental shape for a second term. Woodward and Bernstein in “The Final Days” fully document an strange and erratic and ultimately very lonely man with his paranoia unleashed, finally forced to resign in disgrace. 

     

    Is Obama Too Normal?

     

    Nassir Ghaemi in “A First-Rate Madness” makes a strong case for the right kind of crazy as a job requirement for leaders in a time of crisis. According to Ghaemi, “normal” leaders are for normal times. When crisis looms, the situation calls for people who thrive in dangerous circumstances, who think outside the box, display passion, make decisions, and rally the troops. Of all things, these people stay sane while everyone else falls apart. Lincoln and Churchill are two of his poster boys.

     

    Nixon, of all things, was Ghaemi’s “normal” poster boy. It’s a paradox. According to Ghaemi, he faced stress and crisis as a normal person would: By adopting a defensive crouch and denying everything. 

     

    In his book, Ghaemi makes a passing reference to “No Drama Obama.” You would think that an economic crisis would call for a leader of unflappable temperament, right? Indeed, after the 2008 election, I made this very point in a post here on HealthCentral. According to Joe Joe Klein, writing of Obama in Time magazine: "His preternatural calm has proved reassuring ... "

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    Four years later, many (including his most ardent supporters) find that very quality unnerving.

     

    Normal is not all it’s cracked up to be. Crazy can be good, but not all the time. History has a lot of lessons to teach. Our job is to learn.