Do you have to be crazy to be president of the United States? There has been much discussion of Donald Trump's temperament, volatility and narcissism, with some commentators, including the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, suggesting that Trump may have clinical mental health issues. Less has been made of Hillary Clinton's mental state that makes her unable to admit a mistake and allows her to look convincingly at the camera and lie about what the FBI Director said she did. Well most politicians seem to have similar capability.
Should mental or emotional problems bar a person from the presidency? Remember Tom Eagleton, who was forced to quit the 1972 race as the vice presidential running mate to George McGovern because he had been treated for depression? Well as least Eagleton got treatment, which is better than most have done. And as the election turned out it was McGovern who was crazy - crazy to think he had a chance to win.
But when have we had a president who was not crazy? George W. Bush was a recovering alcoholic who thought he was ordained by god (not sure which one) to bring democracy to the world. By many reports he was an obsessive control freak who deluded himself about all things Iraq. Before Bush there was the compulsive womanizer Bill Clinton who could not keep his pants zipped. Surely this indicates some deep-seated emotional void, perhaps resulting from his difficult childhood. And what does it say that Clinton, one of the most emphatic and compassionate presidents when confronting devastated and grieving families, could not empathize with the poor people who would be thrown off welfare in the name of reform or the people who lost their jobs to his free trade initiatives?
Reagan suffered from dementia,, a different kind of cognitive impairment, so maybe that explains how he went from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. It might at least help explain Iran Contra. Then of course we have Nixon and Johnson. I lump them together because they seem like men who both had the experience and desire to do important and good things but like Hamlet suffered from fatal flaws. Nixon's paranoia, obsessive secrecy and drive for revenge led to his downfall with Watergate. Yet here was a man who created the government's environmental programs with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, and backed those initiatives by creating the EPA to make them work. Oh and by the way, he established Title IX, requiring equity in women's college athletics, so when you watch US women's soccer or basketball or most of the Olympic women's sports realize that most of those women would not have had the opportunity to train and compete without crazy old Richard Nixon.
Lyndon Johnson is better known for his Great Society accomplishments, including Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start, among other efforts to improve health and education and reduce poverty. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were the foundation of the federal drive to end racial discrimination and fulfill the promise of American democracy. Yet he was blind to the folly of Vietnam, or perhaps just could not accept the failure of his efforts. And for all his political savvy in getting his social programs enacted he could not find his way out of the morass of Vietnam, splitting the nation and driving people into the streets in protest and, of course, finally driving Johnson from office.
I don't know if it is ironic or fitting that the man usually considered our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was also the most assuredly mentally ill. He suffered throughout his presidency with what was termed at that time "melancholy," what we today term depression. Lincoln did not carry a knife because he feared he would hurt himself intentionally. Lincoln apparently suffered at least two major breakdowns while in office and purportedly was the subject of a suicide watch by his friends. The death of his son in 1862, especially after the previous death in 1850 of another child, must have deepened Lincoln's depression. This at a time when the war was going badly for the North. Yet he persevered and so did the nation. If we had had a "sane" president the result might have been much different. Wouldn't a rational person have told the South to go and good riddance and not sacrificed all those lives in the war?
So is there a lesson for us here? Maybe. But most relevant is to remember Alfred Adler's comment that "The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well". In other words we are all crazy, weird and unique and, as we see over and over, the result is a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly. For better and worse that's called being human.
One Small Voice
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