Psyched Out

Why Bush’s mental health isn’t the point

By Tracey Mitchell

September/October 2007

A review of:

Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President

By Justin A. Frank

Harper, 2004

The Madness of George W. Bush: A Reflection of Our Collective Psychosis

By Paul Levy

Authorhouse, 2006

The Madness of King George

By Michael K. Smith & Matt Wuerker

Common Courage, 2003

“You’re crazy!” “That’s insane!” “This is a psychotically good muffin!” Indirect (and often unintentional) references to mental health and mental states have become a staple of contemporary colloquial English. These terms have also become part of the political discourse, used in both earnestly serious tones and in mocking ones, to describe political actors, most notably U.S. president George W. Bush.

Three books that take the “Crazy Bush” theme and run with it are Frank’s Bush on the Couch, Levy’s The Madness of George W. Bush, and Smith and Wuerker’s The Madness of King George. All three books take aim at Bush’s politics through discrediting his mental state. Despite some strong research on the political issues they address, none of the books convinced me that words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “mad” are politically relevant descriptors.

Justin A. Frank’s Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President is essentially a psychoanalysis and profile of the man in the White House, written by a professor of psychiatry at George Washington Medical Centre. Each chapter of the book explores and diagnoses a different aspect of Bush’s allegedly abnormal psychological state. Stuck with labels ranging from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to alcoholism, learning disabilities and sadism, Bush is presented as a very sick man, whose deficiencies and afflictions originated in a lack of affection from his mother. The book is quite well-researched and cites many examples from Bush’s life to backup Frank’s diagnoses.

Frank seems to presume that if he can prove that Bush has several mental illnesses, then he will have also proven him unfit to govern. Unfortunately, he does not adequately make this case. Bush’s personal problems make him no more unfit to govern than Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances made him. Indeed, most progressives and Democrats argued at the time of Clinton’s impeachment hearings that his personal life and indiscretions had no bearing on his presidency. The same may be said for Bush’s psychological history, or Dick Cheney’s heart condition.

Frank clearly disagrees with many of Bush’s actions from a political standpoint, but I would contend that he could make a stronger and more pertinent argument by criticizing Bush’s politics, rather than trying to discredit him by evoking the stigma of mental illness. No medical status should preclude someone from being elected—-rather, they should be judged by their actions and their political abilities. Several of the examples of Bush’s actions that Frank uses do in my mind prove that Bush should not be president of the U.S., and in some cases, also suggest that he is mentally ill, but I think Frank confuses correlation and causation. Bush is a bad president not because he has a learning disability, but because he lied to the American people, and the world, about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, thereby violating U.S. and international law.

Heavily inspired by the Jungian psychology and the science of quantum physics, Paul Levy’s The Madness of George W. Bush: A Reflection of Our Collective Psychosis reads like a less entertaining, though slightly more politically engaged book-version of the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which offers a pseudo-scientific analysis of the deep interconnections between all people and uses one person’s story as a way of exploring all of human psychology and quantum physics. Like Frank, Levy argues that Bush is insane, but contends that the rest of us are too. Levy’s diagnosis for Bush and society is something he calls malignant egophrenia. This disease, which, according to Levy, lurks undetected beneath the surface in all of us, threatens to destroy humanity, and we must confront and destroy it in order to survive.

Though I sometimes struggled to take Levy seriously (such as when he asserts that George Bush is being dreamed up by our collective unconscious as an incarnation of the dark powers in the world), some of his arguments are not without reason. More than either of the other two authors, Levy acknowledges the need for consciousness and action on the part of many if the direction in global society and politics is going to shift. He is also more generous to Bush in locating the source of his personal problems in a deeper societal problem, rather than in his own personal failings or in his mother’s inattentiveness. He rightfully acknowledges that Bush is neither the source of world problems, nor is he the only problematic leader in the world or in U.S. history, arguing: “Once Bush is no longer in office, the deeper, more fundamental corruptness of our system needs to be dealt with.” The odd nugget in this book, however, is nonetheless surrounded by repetitive and imprecise new-age rhetoric, making it a tough and less-than-fruitful read.

Finally, The Madness of King George by Michael K. Smith & Matt Wuerker is a cynical and comedic overview of the injustices and travesties of Bush’s first term in office. If the cartoon cover was not enough indication, the foreword by Terry Jones of Monty Python is a good clue as to the tone of this book. It combines humour with solid arguments and meticulous research, detailing Bush’s advisory team, his history, and his policies, both domestic and foreign, through editorial cartoons and dry comedic articles.

Though all three books share the same political motivations, The Madness of King George likely has more potential for educating and activating the average reader than do the other two books, simply because it will hold most people’s attention for longer and reach those that are not necessarily sold on “why-Bush-is-Bad.” Like the other two books, The Madness of King George uses the idea of Bush’s mental illness to score cheap political points, but at least the name-calling is restricted almost exclusively to the title, and is done in the context of a book of humour in which readers are not expecting much depth.

From Baghdad to Baton Rouge, Des Moines to Damascus, Bush certainly deserves to be criticized for the actions of his administration. But I have long thought that complaints about Bush’s lack of intelligence missed the mark, because his bold and decisive actions, and the skill of his advisors, are all the more dangerous if he is discounted or underestimated as an incompetent fool. I am inclined to think the same of speculation about his sanity and mental health. The three books reviewed here challenged me to think about the relevance of Dubya’s mental health to rational political debate, and, while I may have been convinced that the U.S. President suffers from some delusions, I remain skeptical of whether this is the source of our problem, or whether it ought to be a central target of our criticism.

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