Monday, 4 May 2009

The President's Brain

I find it striking how different Obama is from Bush, simply in the way his mind works. Both men appear to be pretty unflappable, but for different reasons. Obama may be the sanest president we’ve ever had, with no visible neuroses, confident without arrogance, and no inclination to panic when trouble strikes. Bush was unflappable simply because he didn’t understand, or care, about the catastrophes he has caused across the nation and the world. He claimed that God told him to go into Iraq, but I chalk that up to political bullcrap (which is bad enough) rather than psychotic hallucination (which would be worse).

According to one study, almost half our presidents have had mental and cerebral problems; bipolar and depressive conditions were most common. Franklin Pierce witnessed the sudden, violent death of his son just before taking office, and was a broken man by the time he reached Washington, crumbling under the weight of PTSD. Lincoln suffered from severe bouts of depression. Wilson may have had an undiagnosed stroke years before he ran for the presidency; he was felled by a stroke while in office, and his wife, alarmingly, played a pivotal role in the waning days of his administration. Mrs. Wilson screened all documents which reached Wilson, and rejected the notion of the vice president taking power. FDR literally worked his brain to death; he was mentally flagging in his final months. Nixon’s mental problems included “alarming” alcohol abuse. Reagan had early-stage Alzheimer’s.

What’s really scary is looking at the list of people who ran for president but lost. In 1872 the Democrats ran a candidate who was so mentally unstable that shortly after the election he was discovered hallucinating, was committed to a sanitarium, and died before the electors even voted. I don’t even know who got his electoral votes. William Jennings Bryan was nominated three times by the Democrats; he turned out to be a messianic maniac who tried to destroy the career of a schoolteacher who dared to tell high school students about evolution, and then croaked immediately after the trial.

Curtis LeMay was a rightwing general who became Wallace’s running mate in 1968; for a third-party ticket they did amazingly well in the electoral college. LeMay repeatedly advocated unilaterally starting WWIII with a U.S. first strike. At one point he openly hinted that he was thinking about unilaterally starting a nuclear war with his own military units, without a presidential order: when someone pointed out that that was not U.S. policy, he said he was going to help Washington by making their decision for them. He was Kubrick’s model for the insane General Jack Ripper who incinerated the world in “Doctor Strangelove”. Imagine General Ripper being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office!

In 1988 we saw the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson, who said that God told him about The Rapture and fighting a war in the Middle East; unlike Bush, Robertson apparently believes this insane messianic bullcrap he spouts. Four years later, in the summer of 1992, the frontrunner in the presidential race was Ross Perot, who for a brief time was leading both the sitting president and Clinton, although he was completely out of his mind.

Speaking of diminished mental capacity: do you quake at the words President Agnew? President Quayle? President Palin? For that matter, Palin’s running mate McCain suffered extraordinary mental trauma and had multiple suicide attempts.

We expect presidential candidates to submit to physical exams. How about psychological testing?

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