Could America Elect a Mentally Ill President?

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tags: election 2016



Alex Thompson is an editorial assistant at the New York Times.

Political taboos, campaign dealbreakers and electoralglassceilings are crumbling. Members of Congress are openly gay and bisexual, there’s a black man in the White House, and a woman may be next. Voters have accepted all sorts of behavioral warts and missteps in their political candidates, too. DUIs? A mistake of their youth. Draft dodgers? There’s a long list. Womanizers? A much longer list. Illegal drugs? In just a few short elections, we’ve gone from a president who “didn’t inhale” to one who openly admits using cocaine in his youth.

Yet one large taboo remains stubbornly fixed—mental illness. Sure, it’s part of the conversation, in that pundits these days can, and do, speculate casually about whether Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, Joe Biden has slid into depression, Hillary Clinton is clinically paranoid or Jeb Bush will be undone by a Freudian sibling tangle. But here’s the really sick thing: For a politician to admit to seeing a psychiatrist would likely be far more politically damaging than any of the possible symptoms of actual mental illness.

For a president or a candidate, it’s the “kiss of death,” says Burton Lee, George H.W. Bush’s presidential physician. It would “create a crisis of confidence” in the country, says David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “I’d like to believe I’m wrong,” he adds, but a commander in chief who disclosed a mental illness would face an almost insurmountable political problem: “Every time he said a cross word or expressed frustration, people would say, ‘He’s having one of those days.’” Instead, Axelrod wryly notes, “We just watch their hair turn gray.”

More than 40 years have passed since Thomas Eagleton, the 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate, withdrew from the race after revealing that he had been hospitalized for depression. Since that political firestorm, the issue has remained firmly off-limits: No Democratic or Republican nominee running for president or vice president has disclosed mental illness or treatment for it ever since—to do so would be politically incurable. And as recently as the last election cycle, congressional and state-level campaigns were digging up past psychiatric treatment to bludgeon their opponents.

“Any vulnerability can be exploited by people and will be,” explains Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and presidential candidate, whose late mother had bipolar disorder. “That’s just the nature of a very rough-and-tumble-type business.” ...








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