Teddy Roosevelt: Bipolar or Not?

Patient Expert

In numerous pieces here and elsewhere, I have included Teddy Roosevelt (TR) as one of a number of US Presidents who may have had bipolar disorder.

I have been viewing Ken Burns’ PBS six-part series, The Roosevelts, which has provided new insights. But first, some background …

What got me started initially was a talk I heard Kay Jamison give at a one-day conference at Johns Hopkins in 2002. Dr Jamison’s talk was on exuberance, the title of her forthcoming book (which came out in 2004). TR was her exuberant poster boy. As I reported in a mcmanweb article from the era:

According to a Harvard classmate, "he zoomed, he boomed, he bolted wildly." A journalist said that after you went home from a meeting with the President you had to "wring the personality out of your clothes."

Tellingly, Dr Jamison mentioned that he was “hypomanic on a mild day,” an observation that did not make it into her book. A 2006 Duke University analysis went all the way by including TR - who the researchers classified as bipolar - on its long list of US Presidents with a mental disorder or who had experienced depression or who had a drinking problem.

I duly noted this in a HealthCentral article I did soon after. Since then, around President’s day, I have revisited the topic numerous times. In a nutshell, we can make a case that TR’s relentless manic energy and grandiosity powered him to the top and created an enduring legacy.

We can also argue that he was an accident-waiting-to-happen, a larger-than-life figure who exhibited extreme recklessness in both his personal and public life. In many aspects, he resembles that other US President, LBJ, also infused with manic energy and grandiosity and a penchant for recklessness.

The difference is that LBJ met his Vietnam, a failure that destroyed his Presidency, tarnished his legacy, and broke his spirit. It is easy to imagine TR’s own Vietnam just around the corner, had he served an additional term.

TR was lucky. And so was LBJ, up to a point.

This leads us to the money issue, one I address in my book-in-progress on bipolar, namely:  Bipolar is not just about symptoms. The real test is lack of functionality, evidenced by gaps in one’s resume or a string of failed relationships, visits to the emergency room, and so on.

In short, I am writing this and you are reading this precisely because at least once, most likely many times, our lives became a train wreck. Our manic energy and other attributes serve us well to a point. Then we jump the rails.

We can speculate: What if TR’s charge up San Juan Hill been a disaster? What if one of his foreign policy adventures had turned into a catastrophic misadventure?

But TR’s luck held out. The train stayed on the tracks. As I mention in my draft book:

It is tempting to go through [TR’s and LBJ’s] lives to find a period where they may have experienced depression, then retrospectively diagnose both of them with bipolar. But as tempting as it would be to claim two ex-presidents as members of our club, the truth is they were far too busy leading successful lives over an unbroken succession of decades for them to ever consider finding common cause with us.

Moving on to the PBS series …

Despite heaping doses of exuberance, the bipolar-word never comes up. Nevertheless, the historians and commentators that Ken Burns talks to repeatedly refer to TR as constantly outrunning his depression. We know that as a young man, he experienced an extended state of grief following the death of both his wife and mother on the same day. This led to him, a city boy, famously taking up residence in North Dakota and living the life of a cowboy.

But it seems that his depression was constantly stalking him. In other words, as well as being naturally exuberant he was also melancholic in nature. This leads us to TR’s delicate physical constitution …

Growing up with asthma in an age prior to inhalers took a huge toll on his body. All his life, he had trouble breathing. Yet - a feat everyone applauds - he fought back. Through sheer force of will, he became robust and larger-than-life.

The parallel is obvious: The same force of will that allowed him to triumph over his physical shortcomings proved decisive in his battle with depression.

No doubt, we can learn from this, but we also have to wonder: It seems all too simple, too pat. Yes, fighting back is commendable, but depression - by its very nature - saps us of our will to put up a fight.

The more likely explanation - a mere guess on my part - is that TR could count on his reliable manic surges to bail him out. No doubt force of will entered into it, but not as the sole player. The last thing we need is TR being held up as an example for how we should be snapping out of it.

That’s a pretty big stick for others to beat us over the head with.

Further reading ...

Lincoln, TR, and LBJ

Hypomania and Exuberance