Monday, August 8, 2011

The "Normal" Paradox: Is Obama Mentally Unfit to be President?

Okay, before we start, let me make it clear: This is my thought. It belongs to me. I take full responsibility.

But the book I just finished reading, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness” by Nassir Ghaemi, has cleared the path for me to jump to this conclusion.

Dr Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University. The book is hot off the press.

I will have much more to say on “A First-Rate Madness” and Dr Ghaemi in a bit. Let’s just say for now that this is the book of the year, that every word will give you something to think about (even the prepositions), that you need to buy it right now, that you need to read it cover to cover, and that you need to discuss it with everyone who knows how to breathe.

Okay, let’s get started:

Soon after election day 2008, I posted a blog piece on HealthCentral entitled, The Presidency: Temperament is the Real Issue. As you will recall, at the time of the election, the world was in economic free-fall. But the real concern was not the economy so much as which candidate possessed the best temperament to handle the crisis.

Virtually every babbling head at the time weighed in on the topic. Joe Klein, writing of Obama in Time magazine, observed: "His preternatural calm has proved reassuring ... "

By contrast, during the campaign, voters were unnerved at the spectacle of an impulsive and mistake-prone John McCain barely able to contain his rage. As I noted in my blog piece:

Obama was seen as "unflappable," in short, the type of person you would want first on the scene if you happened to be pinned under a car about to explode.

Okay, I take it all back.

A year after Obama took office, Jacob Weisberg, in a piece on Slate subtitled “How Obama's cool, detached temperament is hurting him and his party,” wrote:

His relationship with the world is primarily rational and analytical rather than intuitive or emotional. ... His tendency to focus on substance can make him seem remote and technocratic.

But Weisberg limited his analysis to Obama’s apparent failure to connect emotionally to the masses rather than his emotional incapacity to manage crisis. In short, when the center cannot hold, even Obama’s worst critics would agree that the last thing we want is a crazy person in the control room.

No! says Nassir Ghaemi most unambiguously. The last thing, in effect, we want is normal. According to Dr Ghaemi:

“No drama” Obama might be considered the epitome of mental health. We like our presidents moderate and middle-of-the-road - psychologically even more than politically. But psychological moderation is not what marks our great presidents. Can we applaud passion, embrace anxiety, accept irrationality, appreciate risk-taking, even prefer depression? When we have such presidents - the charismatic emotional ones, like Bill Clinton - we might have to accept some vices as the price of their psychological talents.

Dr Ghaemi is by no means the first in making a case for abnormal tendencies as leadership virtues. Joshua Shenk's 2005 "Lincoln’s Melancholy," for instance, brilliantly documents how Lincoln’s personal failures and his lifelong history of depression paradoxically molded him to take charge in the face of the greatest-ever challenge to the US.

As I noted in my mcmanweb review, Lincoln and His Depressions: “Lincoln’s melancholia allowed him to see events with preternatural second sight.” Dr Ghaemi refers to this as “depressive realism,” a gift shared by Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others.

But Dr Ghaemi tells us a little bit manic is also a good thing, exemplified by FDR and JFK. The base temperaments (hyperthymic) of these two Presidents may have been poles apart from the likes of Lincoln and the rest, but what all these great leaders shared in common were lives characterized by struggle and personal setback. Thus - born different, shaped different. And in crisis situations, different - not normal - is what we want.

Crazy, in effect, is normal to us. You know it, I know it.

Thus, of all things, when crunch time came - while the world around them was going bananas - the crazy ones - Lincoln, Churchill, JFK and the others - turned out to be the sane, level-headed ones.

They stayed calm, they listened, they identified with others. Moreover, they grasped what needed to be done, took charge, articulated their vision, rallied their troops. And they acted. If something went wrong, they owned the disaster, learned from their mistakes, made the necessary course corrections, and rose to the occasion - again and again and again.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. “Normal” individuals, says Dr Ghaemi, are singularly unsuited for crisis. Their brains were built for handling predictable situations in quieter times. When the unexpected occurs, they are typically at a loss. What seems to be happening, according to Dr Ghaemi, is their world view is totally out of sync with actual events. They don’t know what to do. They make fatal mistakes that they compound by rationalizing and justifying. Thus, in the case of Nixon with Watergate:

Faced with the greatest political crisis of his life, he handled it the way [a normal person] would handle it: he lied, and he dug in, and he fought.

In a similar fashion, George W Bush went weird on us. But here is the punch line: According to Dr Ghaemi, both Nixon and Bush were perfectly normal. Call Nixon delusional and paranoid. Call Bush stupid and irrational. But you’re wrong on all counts, according to Ghaemi. Until 1973, Nixon was the most successful person on earth. And all through his life, everyone wanted to be friends with George W.

But when faced with crisis, both Nixon and Bush essentially lost their bearings. Can you see the stigma issue here? Dr Ghaemi certainly can. We’re afraid to attribute success to crazy, but we are all too quick to assign it to failure.

But Nixon had to have been crazy. No, says Dr Ghaemi. What looks like crazy were normal individuals reacting to crisis in a normal way. A crazy person (or at least the right kind of crazy person), in effect, would have reacted in a way that came across as normal.

Confused? Throw away your conventional wisdom, says Dr Ghaemi. Normal isn’t always an asset. And there are clearly times when normal is neither the rational nor the best course.

So, perhaps now you can understand the title to this blog. Where we needed a Lincoln or a Churchill or a JFK, we elected someone with an even temperament. Crazy world we live in.


This is the opening to many more blog pieces based on Dr Ghaemi’s highly illuminating “A First Rate Madness.” I am looking forward to your comments and to a lively discussion. Stay tuned ...

Don't miss it

Dr Ghaemi will be featured tonight - Mon, Aug 8 - on The Colbert Report. 


Carolyn said...

baI have rose to the occasion many times. I actually crave the opportunity to one day save the world. In times when others are panicking over little things I'm the one who say stays calm. I get to be a hero on a small scale (lol).I have always thought that it takes a person who has that extra gear to excel beyond others in politics, sports etc. It's that rush from the catastrophe that just seems to clear out the mind and show the world what were made of. Political leaders have that opportunity if they have mental illness, to really make a difference and it may sound crazy to some, but to me it's a beautiful thing!

Addy Bell said...

I can't really get behind this idea. For one thing, Dr Ghaemi hasn't met FDR, or Lincoln, or JFK. I don't feel he's in a position to diagnose them.

And what about our other great leaders? What about Washington? Jefferson? Truman?

Presidential temperament is only a part of the equation. There's also Congress. The media. Public opinion.

I suspect Obama's problem is not that he's "too normal". Perhaps it was that he's been too sheltered; he clearly doesn't understand the kind of irrationality that would rather destroy the world's economy than raise the debt ceiling.

You say that Lincoln, Churchill, etc, could keep their head in a crisis, and attribute this to mental illness. Obama certainly hasn't lost his head. He's also shown himself to be capable of inspiring large numbers of people with his vision of a better world. The way I see it, his weakness is that he's been too willing to compromise on this vision (something that Clinton, who you also list as an example, was also prone to do).

John McManamy said...

Hey, Addy. Great talking points. I certainly agree that Obama completely underestimated the rationality of those who would destroy the world economy in pursuit of their selfish agendas. This has been a fatal Democratic weakness for nearly as long as I can remember.

Clinton had the potential to be a great President, but he paid dearly by sticking to his guns on tax reform, which revived the economy over the long term, but in the short term resulted in Republican majorities in Congress in 1994 and through the rest of his terms in office. After that, he was neutered and powerless.

Eisenhower and LBJ built a bipartisan consensus during the Eisenhower years, with the result of the common good being served. Nixon also learned from that to a certain extent before he started pandering to the great silent majority.

I agree there is a huge danger in diagnosing historical figures and public figures. Ghaemi has adopted a conservative approach in sticking to the public record and in taking family history into account, but he is liberal in regard to spectrum issues. There is a difference between say "manic tendencies" and a diagnosis of bipolar. FDR, for instance, had manic tendencies (a hyperthymic temperament) but in no way could be considered bipolar.

Anyway, I'm planning on more blogs on the topic and I'm looking forward to your input. We need to be challenging one another, so feel free to keep firing away.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Carolyn. I'm glad this piece validates your personal experiences. This, I think, is the crux of the issue. We can agree or disagree on whether this or that President was effective or ineffective or crazy or normal, but in the final analysis we need to look at how this fits into our personal experiences.

To me, normal is neither all good nor is crazy all bad. In fact, I do not want to be normal. I don't want to be ill and incapacitated, either. I want to function as my true self, and part of that is that I am crazier than the norm.

And this is not only good - it can be desirable. And we have a prominent psychiatrist actually validating this.

Lizabeth said...

This is interesting and I've got to get the book. I am not sure though, that Obama is completely normal. Remember that today's political figures are "handled" so much that to really see them is rare.

I am remembering that moment on Election Night in his acceptance speech when he memtioned McCain's name and some of the audiance started to boo. Obama then said that most of us could not begin to understand what McCain had sacrificed for our country. And, in that moment Obama held the whole audience silent.

I wish he would tell his handlers to shove it and do more of that.

Tony Previte said...

Well John has met me and my wife, and I think he would agree with a sentiment I've heard quite a few times over the years. "But you're the sanest person I know!" As for Politics... that takes a person far crazier than I to pull off! At least I think so anyway. My opinion of O'Bama is that he can't seem to quit pitting people against each other. At some point in time you need to take the "politics" hat off and get to work. He doesn't seem to know how to manage that.

herb said...

Dear John,

Here's a recent letter I sent to the President:

"August 5, 2011

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

You had my vote previously and hopefully in the future too but you’ve greatly disappointed me.

I respect your intellect and academic achievements as well as your basketball abilities but as a retired business executive I see your significant shortcomings as an executive and truly take charge leader. In the words of FDR, “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” and under your watch you’ve allowed fear to run rampant. Short of a large meteor hitting this planet, life will go on.

I wish I were a fly on the wall to hear all that goes on in a number of meetings but in my opinion you had an outstanding opportunity to show strong leadership and instead you allowed the proliferation of fear to permeate the nation and hence the significant after- shocks of all that fear that we’re now experiencing.

I can understand wanting to negotiate but there comes a point when an executive or true leader in his own mind says, “enough is enough!” You should have declared an executive emergency, raised the debt ceiling and allowed our dysfunctional congress to carry on as usual.

I think you would have sent a loud and clear message to all. I think you would have gained significant respect from the citizens by squashing the unnecessary fear mongering and showing true qualities of leadership. Instead I think you’ve taken several steps back in trying to achieve your goals.

For some fear is totally debilitating while for others it motivates action. Leadership is overcoming one’s fear while taking positive actions and motivating others to do the same.

Here’s hoping you do not allow similar opportunities to be missed while quelling the unnecessary fear radiating through our country.


Herbert Stein"


John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. I think this is a fatal weakness of all Presidents. They have handlers rather than counselors. Obama really does need to tell his handlers to shove it.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Tony. But to get to work, he needs to have the balls to bloody some tea bagger noses.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Herb. Ah, to have FDR. Too late for that. The Republican nut jobs smell blood.