The Magazine

Shrinking the President

A mind is a dangerous thing to psychoanalyze.

Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By IRWIN SAVODNIK
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Bush on the Couch

Inside the Mind of the President

by Justin A. Frank

Regan, 272 pp., $24.95

ONE CAN ONLY WONDER what turn the opponents of George W. Bush will take next. From a Bush-hater's handbook to a how-to-assassinate-Bush novel, the venom flows freely and furiously as the election draws near. One recent effort is Justin Frank's Bush on the Couch, a psychoanalytic hatchet job that insists the president is grotesquely unstable, delusional, and power-mad--a cognitively impaired man whose sense of right and wrong is, according to the author, the product of simple-mindedness.

Frank, a professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University, takes up his clinical concerns about the president right in the book's introduction. How, he asks, can such a friendly, playful man cut funds from government programs for the poor? How can such a religious man bomb Iraq? How can he send American soldiers into combat "under false pretenses" and then joke about the deception? How can someone who has promised to protect the environment also allow increased arsenic in the water supply? And why is such a "people person" so unwilling to talk to world leaders such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder? "How," Frank concludes, "can the president sound so confused and yet act so decisively?"

Frank's "clinical findings" might be put another way: How can someone who disagrees with me not be crazy? The author of Bush on the Couch sounds like a Soviet psychiatrist around 1950. In those days, when Stalinism was a cosmology, political dissidents were often sent to psychiatric hospitals as schizophrenics--the substance of their mental illnesses being their divergent political beliefs. Having recently interviewed a series of psychiatrists in Russia and the Baltic states, I came away with the impression that the psychiatrists who diagnosed and treated these people really believed their patients had psychiatric disorders. They never seemed to question the fact that all the criteria of illness were political rather than medical ones. And neither does Frank. The president dissents from Frank's view of the political world, and therefore science tells us that the president is insane.

WITHIN THE BROAD BLANKET of psychoanalytic theory, Frank subscribes to the view of an intimate of Freud's early circle, Melanie Klein, who believed the foundations of character were located in the first year of life, a period in which the infant is without benefit of language. Klein's theory excites many analysts who believe it explains such things as paranoia and depression (even, conveniently, attention deficit disorder, from which, according to Frank, George W. Bush suffers). From the perspective of science, however, there is not the kind of evidential support one would request, say, of a pharmaceutical company that was introducing a new product. Mostly, there are the case reports in the psychoanalytic journals that stand alone, are suggestive, stimulating, but open to considerable criticism when it comes to the truth of the matter.

But if these kinds of carefully written clinical reports based on the psychoanalysis of individual patients are subject to substantial doubt, imagine the level of Frank's alleged clinical account of the president. Frank acknowledges he never met Bush, much less interviewed him on his couch. There is not an ounce of psychoanalytic material in the entire book. There are only third-party reports, commonly from detractors, of the president and his family. Frank justifies his method with the argument that others, such as Jerrold M. Post, have conducted "at-a-distance leader personality assessments." Freud himself tried it, when he collaborated with the journalist William Bullitt on a book about Woodrow Wilson, but it was, to say the least, not a high point of Freud's career.

OTHER VIOLATIONS of rational discourse pepper the pages of Bush on the Couch. Frank is convinced Bush suffers from the disease of alcoholism. The idea of alcoholism as a disease can be a helpful metaphor, but to transform a figure of speech into a substantive medical diagnosis is bizarre. Frank might peruse the index of any standard textbook of pathology. There will be no citation of a disease called alcoholism--or schizophrenia, for that matter. Nor does he seem ever to have considered that none of his conjectures, diagnoses, and clinical impressions has anything to do with medicine.

Mostly, though, Frank is blind to the underlying silliness of his enterprise. As an analyst and a psychiatrist, he has presumably learned to be forbearing, not judgmental, and not prejudicial. But his diagnoses in Bush on the Couch are nothing more than moral and political indictments that he offers as "scientific determinations." The election will prove a better diagnosis of President Bush.

Irwin Savodnik is a psychiatrist who teaches at UCLA.