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Don't put public figures on the couch

Americans should focus on the candidates' performance – not their psyche.

By Ralph Keyes / January 28, 2008

Yellow Springs, Ohio

It's become commonplace to conclude that those who disagree with us politically are out of their minds. How else could we explain the fact that – in our eyes – their positions are so catastrophically wrong?

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überconservative Michael Savage has argued for years that liberalism is a form of mental illness. Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks says President Bush should be committed. Others have called Mr. Bush a madman. "I seriously believe we have to start asking questions about his mental health," said two-time presidential contender Dennis Kucinich recently. When Mr. Kucinich himself said he'd seen a flying saucer, Fox News commentator John Gibson wrote, "Now we know who's really crazy."

As for the sanity of GOP candidates: Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi intimated that Mike Huckabee was "full-bore nuts." In a Vanity Fair article, Michael Wolff concluded that Rudy Giuliani was "quite literally, nuts," and "actually mad."

Calling public figures crazy is not an entirely new phenomenon. During Franklin Roosevelt's first years in office, whisper campaigns portrayed him making paper dolls, laughing hysterically at press conferences, tended by psychiatrists disguised as servants, and confined to a straitjacket for extended periods of time. What's new is the application of modern tools to this public sport. Arguing that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all showed evidence of brain pathology while in office, neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen has even suggested that anyone seeking the presidency should have their brain scanned.

It is possible to disagree with political figures without questioning their sanity, of course. I'm no fan of Kucinich, but I don't think he's crazy. Bush's policies may be dangerously misguided and ill-informed, but it doesn't follow that he's out of his mind. Obviously, many think otherwise. Based on this conclusion they question his emotional fitness to hold high office. Even if they are right, however, do we really want to make candidates pass a psychological test in order to run?