Tony Dokoupil: Madman in Chief

Roundup: Talking About History

Tony Dokoupil co-writes the "Research Report" column for the Columbia Journalism Review. His writing has also appeared in Newsweek International, Newsweek, Radar, New York Press, and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. He's a Ph.D candidate in communications at Columbia Journalism School.  
By now, the 2012 Republican presidential contenders have all been tattooed by the opposition, branded as boring, damaged, or even insane. The entire GOP is “barking mad,” as The New Republic recently put it, and the party’s White House hopefuls display what The New Yorker calls “crackles of craziness.” This kind of talk flows both ways, of course. But what if the big problem with Washington—the real reason that voters are responding with a mixture of disappointment and panic—isn’t nuttiness so much as a lack of it?

That’s one takeaway from A First-Rate Madness, a new book of psychiatric case studies by Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center. He argues that what sets apart the world’s great leaders isn’t some splendidly healthy mind but an exceptionally broken one, coupled with the good luck to lead when extremity is needed. “Our greatest crisis leaders toil in sadness when society is happy,” writes Ghaemi. “Yet when calamity occurs, if they are in a position to act, they can lift up the rest of us.”

If so, then what we need for these calamitous times is a calamitous mind, a madman in chief, someone whose abnormal brain can solve our abnormal problems. Perhaps the nicotine-free, no-drama Obama won’t do after all (although, by phone, Ghaemi acknowledges “a little more abnormality there than is advertised”). The good doctor isn’t saying that all mental illness is a blessing. Only that the common diseases of the mind—mania, depression, and related quirks—shouldn’t disqualify one from the upper echelons of public life, and for a simple reason: they are remarkably consistent predictors of brilliant success...

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