Can the President Think?

The chaos and paralysis of the Clinton presidency reflect the chaos and paralysis of Bill Clinton's mind--and he is not going to change.

On June 7, 1993, after Bill Clinton had been in office five months, a very peculiar "media conference" was held at George Washington University and filmed for C-SPAN viewers. It was peculiar because of its theme and because it was thoroughly exasperating.

The theme was "The Politics of Illness in High Office." Among its participants were such journalistic eminences as Richard Harwood of The Washington Post, Marianne Means of King Features Syndicate, and Charles Bierbauer of CNN. These are smart and experienced people who under ordinary circumstances would not be dull either singly or collectively. But on this occasion, they all seemed to be wearing baskets on their heads.

Here's roughly how it went:

Q: Does the public have a right to know whether a president has physical illnesses, such as medical emergencies or chronic degenerative diseases?

A: Sure. The public does. The days of covering up the diseases of presidents such as FDR and JFK are over.

Q: How about mental illness, psychological or emotional disorders?

Q: Does the public have a right to know if a president suffers from a mental disorder?

A: Yes, but only if it affects his work as president.

Q: Will future presidential candidates and presidents be required to reveal their medical and psychiatric records if any?

A: Probably, possibly, yes, no, mumble.

And? And nothing. Just that, exasperating. A brand new president was staggering around in Washington, falling repeatedly on his face. Nobody but that staggering, lurching president was on everybody's mind. And it was that president whose medical records were sealed. Did the panelists want to know what was in them? They didn't say. Were they thinking, perhaps, that Clinton might be suffering from a psychological or emotional disorder? They didn't say. Was it possible that psychological difficulties might be related to his political difficulties? They didn't say.

To stress what was not discussed at this conference in early June 1993 implies that there was information about the psychology of the new president that should have been or could have been discussed. Was there?

Of course there was. Since the primaries, the press coverage of Clinton had been bristling with reports on his psychological attributes, although the word psychology was never used. For more than a year, reporters had been in a competition to discover interesting details about Clinton's mental processes and his emotional and behavioral patterns--which is to say, about his psychology.

By the time Clinton had been in office for five months--when the conference was held--the psychological details gathered by journalists had already coagulated into little clusters, or patterns, which demanded explanation. By the time Clinton had been in office for a year, when the conference was already a faded memory, he had been besieged by so many political and personal problems--some contemporary, some relevant to his past--that his psychology was a staple of conversation in the political and media worlds. And by the time Clinton had been in office for two years, he had become a human puzzle that journalists and academic students of the presidency were trying to solve.

Today, psychiatric terms, diagnostic categories, are sprinkled about like salt and pepper, seasoning the political prose written about Clinton. Headlines have appeared containing psychiatric jokes and puns. At least two psychiatrists and a clinical psychologist have expressed their opinions about Clinton in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Yet other psychiatrists have opined about Clinton in the pages of Time. Clinton's psyc hology is discussed in political science journals devoted to studies of the presidency. And in the first crop of commercial books about the Clintons one finds the same phenomenon: Save for Clinton's mother, in her autobiography Leading with My Heart, all the authors are concerned with Clinton's psychology.

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  • LifeStrategies||

    Why are his medical records sealed? Sealed records, whether educational or medical, don't allow the facts to be checked, and can lead to mis-representation.

    Yet don't the public deserve politicians whose personal facts can be verified? Given the immense power they wield, don't politicians need to demonstrate that they're trustworthy?

    Or is mendacity now officially encouraged?

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