Don't put public figures on the couch
Americans should focus on the candidates' performance – not their psyche.
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In 1964, nearly 1,200 psychiatrists out of more than 12,000 polled by mail pronounced Barry Goldwater mentally unfit for high office. "If Goldwater wins the presidency," wrote one, "you and I will be among the first into concentration camps." This judgment was passed on a man who later became one of the nation's most fervent defenders of civil liberties and an advocate for including gays in the military.Skip to next paragraph
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In the current climate of psychological paranoia, many of history's greatest leaders might have been disqualified from running for office, if not locked up. Melancholy Abraham Lincoln would undoubtedly be diagnosed as clinically depressed by contemporary commentators, as he has been by historians. Winston Churchill, who spent his entire adult life struggling with what he called a "black dog" of crippling depression, would be, too. We should be grateful that such leaders held office in a time when the conventions of psychoanalysis were not routinely applied to public figures.
Once we stop judging candidates' psyches, we can focus better on their performance. I would much rather have a high-performing leader with neurotic traits than one on a more even keel who can't do his or her job effectively. Coolidge, Hoover, and Ford were among the most emotionally stable of 20th-century presidents, but not ones we consider particularly effective. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, who admits to having emotional "issues," governed quite capably.
This isn't to say that the mental health of presidents shouldn't concern us. Toward the end of their time in office, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon exhibited signs of instability that put in question their ability to carry out their duties. That's why the 25th Amendment – which provides a mechanism to remove an incapacitated president – is so important.
As for candidates, rather than presume to peer into their psyches, can't we evaluate them on (1) their positions, and (2) their record in public life? Mr. Giuliani's erratic, vengeful performance as mayor of New York may make him unsuited for higher office, for example, but doesn't make him nuts. Flinging about terms such as "nuts," and "crazy" when evaluating candidates degrades political discourse.
There are more than enough ways to legitimately challenge candidates whose views we don't care for without questioning their sanity in the process. Once unleashed, that dog could come back to bite our entire political process. Or has it already?
Ralph Keyes's book "Retrotalk" will be published this year.