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:
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.
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.
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.