We all know you have to be crazy to run for President. Earlier this year, a Duke University study offered proof in the form of an analysis of the biographies of the first 37 US Presidents up to Richard Nixon. According to the study, half had a mental illness, one in four lived with depression, and three had bipolar disorder.
Mind you, John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson did not exactly run on a platform of "Let’s get manic." Instead, their respective publics knew them variously as visionary, exuberant, larger than life, and often a bit scary.
The Other Father of His Country
Had things turned out slightly better for second President John Adams, he could well have been the father of his country and had his face on Mount Rushmore. 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 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.
By contrast, in Philadelphia, Jefferson scarcely raised his voice or lifted a finger, other than to plagiarize some sentences from John Locke and put them into a document. Think of that cut-throat co-worker who grabs all the credit for your efforts. That’s what happened to Adams. Without Adams, there would have been no Declaration of Independence, yet who do we remember?
Jefferson, who was perhaps the dirtiest politician in history, did everything possible to sabotage both Adams’ bid for Presidency and his actual Presidency. No surprise, Adams became highly embittered, though in the last years of his life he achieved a memorable reconciliation. Adams’ greatest achievement as President was that, ironically for someone with bipolar, when the rest of the US was hysterically urging a war with France, he kept a level head and found a peaceful solution.
A Study in Contrasts
In a talk Kay Jamison gave in 2002, she described Teddy Roosevelt as "hypomanic on a mild day." This observation did not make it into her 2004 book, "Exuberance," in which the twenty-sixth President of the US emerged as her exuberant 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 study in opposites, a sickly and bookish New York boy who reinvented himself as an athletic powerhouse, a rising political star who became unhinged following the simultaneous death of his wife and mother, a grieving husband and son who reincarnated himself as a cowboy, a self-styled "Rough Rider" who led a reckless charge up a hill and leveraged that stunt into a residency on Pennsylvania Ave.
As President, TR is best remembered for taking on the special interests and rescuing vast tracts of pristine wilderness from deforestation and other ravages. TR’s bold world view also led to the US being regarded for the first time as a major player on the world stage.
An American Tragedy
Time’s 1967 Man of the Year featured a grotesque caricature of Lyndon Johnson as Lear. His Presidency was coming apart at the seams and he was beset on every side from opposition within his party and without. "How the mighty have fallen" best sums up his unforeseen collapse.
LBJ became the thirty-sixth President of the US following the assassination of JFK. A year and a bit later, he assumed office in his own right, with the largest mandate in history up to that time. In his early days, he ushered in sweeping and unprecedented civil rights reforms, as well as an ambitious agenda to eliminate poverty. He was on his way to becoming the greatest President since Franklin Roosevelt.
But he over-reached by sending more than a half-million troops to Vietnam. As the war dragged on and US casualties mounted, the normally ebullient Johnson sunk into depression, at a loss to fathom why Ho Chi Minh didn’t just quit. Meanwhile, public attitudes polarized into the worst division of opinion since the US Civil War. A generation of youth who had followed JFK’s call to serve their country became disillusioned. Their parents, who had taken up arms when asked to do so, over time would also suffer a crisis of faith.
LBJ had bitten off way more than he could chew. His vision and moral compass and over-sized personality, which had served him so well in the early days of his Presidency, this time became his undoing. Three months after the Lear cover, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. There was little left for him to preside over other than the death of the liberal and idealistic values he so cherished. The stage was set for four decades of unmitigated conservatism and cynicism.
Sometimes bipolar can be a disaster for everyone.