Don't put public figures on the couch

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

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?

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?

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.

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.

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