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Aug 18, 2004 1:31 pm

Bush on the Couch

Should you pay any attention to the new book, Bush on the Couch, by Dr. Justin Frank?

Frank, a professor of psychiatry at GWU Medical Center, offers a diagnosis so harsh it makes Eric Alterman's book on Bush look tame. I lost count of the psychoses and other ailments Bush is said to be afflicted with, but they include: thought disorder, megalomania, possible dyslexia, ADHD, and even possibly Tourette's syndrome (Bush is said to twitch).

Psychological diagnoses have a bad reputation. Freud, in a book co-authored with the diplomat William C. Bullitt, put Woodrow Wilson on the couch and concluded that because he had a problem with authority derived from mixed emotions toward his father he was fated to sabotage the passage of the Treaty of Versailles in the Senate:

The great streams of libido which sprang from his infantile desires with regard to his father were, indeed, once again in conflict. Because of his reaction-formation against his passivity to his father it was impossible for him, by compromising with [Sen. Henry Cabot] Lodge, to obtain the ratification of the treaty which his passivity to his father demanded. His psychic needs left but one course of action open to him: he had to obtain ratification by crushing Lodge.

Few historians have paid much attention to Freud's analysis. It has seemed to them that the diagnosis was reductive. Might there not have been other reasons for Wilson's approach? He was exhausted. He had been accustomed to getting his way with Congress owing to overwhelming majorities and found it difficult to adjust to the new political realities when his party lost seats at the midterm elections in 1918. He had let the crowds go to his head in Europe.

Frank's account of Bush suffers from similar reductive analysis. He says that Bush was fated to go to war with Iraq to avenge Saddam's attempt on his father's life and simulatneously to best his father, who had failed to remove Saddam. The problem with the analysis is that it may be right or it may be wrong; there's no way to tell.

But several of Frank's main diagnoses seem sound. Bush, despite appearances, is a complicated fellow. He had a difficult relationship with both his mother and father. Both were emotionally absent during his childhood (his father was both emotionally and physically absent; brother Jeb said that they were raised by his mother in a home that was essentially a matriarchy). Barbara Bush, herself the victim of a distant relationship with her own mother, found it difficult to acknowledge pain. She did not attend her own mother's funeral. The day after her six year old child Robin died she and her husband went golfing. After 41 lost the presidency Barbara, the very next day, said, well, that's that, let's move on. Frank suggests that W. suffered intense feelings of remorse and guilt from his sister's death, whom he had not even been told was ill. Unable to openly reveal his emotions he tried, but failed, to ignore them.

His relationship with his father posed different challenges. Following in his father's footsteps he went to Andover and Yale and then plunged headlong into the Texas oil business. But at each stage he demonstrated lesser gifts than his father. His father at Andover had been a star of the baseball team; W became the commissioner of stickball. His father at Yale had studied hard; W became a fraternity cut-up. His father made millions in the oil business; W lost millions of other peoples' money. W's first and only real success prior to his election as governor was his management of the Texas Rangers, which finally gave him, Frank notes in an insightful passage, the right to claim a baseball success larger than his father's.

Affected deeply by his sister's death, resentful toward his unfeeling mother and both in awe of his father and oppressed by his example, Bush took to alcohol to medicate himself.

This has the ring of truth to it. And Frank's diagnosis is even more layered than I am suggesting. Where he goes wrong is in linking specific Bush policies to his childhood experiences and emotional needs. Frank, a medical doctor, seems woefully naive about politics. He can think of no political reason for Bush's embrace of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Instead, he confidently asserts, Bush evidently fears homosexuals because of a latent desire for his father's penis.

I have asked Frank to write an op ed summarizing his analysis of President Bush. I hope he will say yes. We should be encouraged to consider the formative emotional experiences of a president's childhood even if we cannot link those experiences directly to policies they advance in office.

Unfortunately, psychiatrists have so often offered reductive analyses of presidents that their approach has been largely discredited. This is a mistake. One thinks of Edmund Morris's biography of Ronald Reagan. The fundamental fact of Reagan's childhood was his father's alcoholism. Morris barely mentions it and doesn't even bother telling us that Reagan's withdrawal into a dreamy world of myth is characteristic of the children of alcoholics. (In contrast Bill Clinton in his memoir acknowledges the effect of alcohol on his family and suggests how it led him to create a parallel universe. The difference between Reagan and Clinton would seem to be, in part, that one took refuge in a world of myths while the other created two worlds.)

My advice: Go ahead and read Justin Frank; just don't take him too literally.

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