Mad Enough to Lead

The insanity of politicians and the politics of insanity


A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, Penguin Press, 352 pages, $27.95

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson, Riverhead Books, 272 pages, $25.95

Close followers of politics, and perhaps of the current election cycle in particular, must occasionally entertain the notion that a commitment to life in the political realm requires some degree of madness. The title of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness offers a fleeting hope that author Nassir Ghaemi, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, will explore that theme. Sadly, he passes up the opportunity. 

Instead Ghaemi cooks up a thesis that is deceptively simple and semi-convincing: Not only did some leaders suffer from mental illness, but mental illness helped them perform well during crises. Balancing this optimistic take on the political uses of insanity is a new book by British journalist Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which takes more seriously the dark side of mental illness among powerful men.

A sane president is fine when times are easy, Ghaemi posits, but when the South is seceding or Hitler is on the prowl, you need a Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, not a Gen. George McClellan; a Winston Churchill, not a Neville Chamberlain. 

Sherman was a disaster at business and pre-war life, Ghaemi writes, while nearly everything came easy to McClellan. But the manic daring of Sherman and his total-war tactics against the South, as opposed to McClellan's stale Napoleonic maneuvers, were what the North needed to win. By 1938 Churchill was allegedly past his prime and Chamberlain was well established as a respected politician, but it was the moody, manic Churchill who saved the world by recognizing and confronting Hitler's monstrosity. 

The key to these successes is supposedly a stew of qualities that often overlap with the symptoms of mental illness: empathy, creativity, and the stark realism associated with depression. Hitler, unsurprisingly, had a bit too much craziness to be useful and then turned dangerously unhinged. Intriguingly, Ghaemi hints that the 1930s Hitler, though cruel and twisted, might not have become the world destroyer of the '40s without massive doses of methamphetamine administered over several years by his doctor, which most likely greatly aggravated his rage, paranoia, and impulsiveness. 

Delving into the minds of so-called great men is nothing new. Woodrow Wilson was once the subject of an absurd book-length analysis by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalyzing Richard Nixon as his presidency disintegrated was a popular journalistic pastime of the early 1970s. But Ghaemi scoffs at this kind of "fruitless speculation about the early childhood traumas of historical figures." Freudian psychoanalysis has been put in its proper place, and "the new psychiatry begins where modern medicine began, with the search for objective ways to diagnose illness." 

Ghaemi insists that his diagnostic techniques are completely different from Freud's and therefore more reliable for analyzing the mental states of distant figures. Even posthumously you can discover symptoms, genetics (via family histories of mental illness), course of illness (childhood suicide attempts, manic or depressive episodes, etc.), and evidence that the person sought treatment for his illness. 

Ghaemi is fitfully convincing about his subjects; certainly it's plausible that Sherman, Churchill, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all slightly to extremely abnormal in temperament. Churchill, Gandhi, and King had depressive episodes. Lincoln was known to be morose much of the time. Sherman, probably bipolar, wrote letters to his wife in which he related his difficulty in recovering from what sounds like a nervous breakdown. 

Ghaemi begins to stretch his premise thin, however, when he gets to two of America's most loved presidents, FDR and JFK. Both of them were described as ebullient, clever, extroverted, and frequently manic in a restrained way—what psychiatrists call a "hyperthymic personality." But Ghaemi's fawning portrait of FDR exposes the author's bias toward historical narrative centered around great men. 

Undeniably impressive in efforts at overcoming his polio-induced paralysis, Ghaemi's FDR also sounds like a delightful dinner companion who leveraged hyperthymia into grand programs such as the New Deal. Ghaemi praises Roosevelt for taking a "non-ideological approach" to Social Security and, while acknowledging that the president's view of government power "remains controversial," reports that FDR "wasn't worried.…He knew only that people were hurting; he knew what it was like to hurt; and his personality would not allow him to sit still. He tried whatever worked, and…achieved astounding success." 

Almost all of World War II is given the same breezy treatment. Ghaemi takes it on faith that readers share his awe of FDR's record.

It's fascinating to mine the motivations of historical figures, but "great leaders," and particularly "great presidents," do not fit neatly into categories, no matter how highly they poll. Ghaemi's assessment of FDR as a "successful crisis leader" is not exactly an objective summary of the Squire of Hyde Park's presidency; he intervened dramatically in the U.S. economy during a long period of depression and imprisoned 100,000 American citizens and legal residents without charge, among other questionable decisions. Sherman's legacy is similarly ambiguous; he brutalized the South, even if it did help win the war. 

If Ghaemi had acknowledged that he was just tying together important figures who may have been mentally ill, or picking his favorite historical characters to create a kind of collage of batty greatness, that would be one thing. But to deem them all successful simply because they are well-remembered and may have been mentally ill indicates an overplayed hand. Mental illness "may have in fact shaped the second half of the twentieth century more than any other single force," Ghaemi grandly claims, but he never really supports that thesis.

Ghaemi's secondary agenda is to describe the failings of those people he judges "too sane." He argues that politicians who are so-called homoclites are, like most of humanity, vaguely conformist, moderately ambitious, and too rigid and uncreative in crisis situations. His chief examples for this are Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and Richard Nixon. 

The view of Nixon as dangerously sane will come as a surprise to an entire generation of Nixonologists. Ghaemi insists that Tricky Dick's notoriously erratic behavior was simply a reaction to the stress of his unprecedented situation. Perhaps, but ejecting Nixon from the ranks of the mad seems like a transparent attempt to prop up the theory that a little mental illness can be a good thing. 

Other noncrazies discussed by Ghaemi include the "relatively successful" Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower. Since the former "never faced a Cuban missile crisis" during his Cold War dealings and the latter mostly "avoided conflict" on civil rights, their mettle was never truly tested and their sanity didn't hinder their decision-making. 

Ghaemi ends his book with a plea for tolerance of mental illness, particularly among our leaders. "We make a mistake…when we choose leaders like us," he argues. "Can we applaud passion, embrace anxiety, accept irritability, appreciate risk-taking, even prefer depression? When we have such presidents—the charismatic, emotional ones, like Bill Clinton— we might have to accept some vices as the price of their psychological talents."

Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry offers a darker, twisted version of Ghaemi's thesis. Instead of asking whether just the right amount of creativity or empathy-enhancing mental illness can make a leader "great," Ronson wonders if a lack of empathy coupled with a sense of heightened self-importance is what delivers success in business and politics. 

Psychopathy is not quite the same as mental illness, Ronson and the experts in his book note, because it does not involve delusions. It is a different way of thinking altogether, almost like being an extraterrestrial. Ronson's notion that psychopathy—which the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) calls "antisocial personality disorder"—leads to success is backed by some mental health specialists, including Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door (sociopath and psychopath are interchangeable terms). She tells Ronson these people love power and winning, and "the higher you go up the ladder, the greater number of sociopaths you'll find there."

Ronson's book is not so much a journey through the heart as a meander around the edges of various important mental health questions. Frequently distracted as he practices his endearing brand of navel-gazing, Ronson wonders if his own anxiety and neurosis are signs that he too is mentally ill. But he generally manages to steer back to his chosen mission: administering "the test." 

That would be Canadian psychologist Bob Hare's widely used, 20-question inventory of psychopathic traits such as "glibness, lack of empathy, and grandiose sense of self-worth." Ronson applies the Hare test to random people he encounters, including a cranky bellhop, and sits down to more formally interview half a dozen more potential psychopaths from the world of politics and business. 

Al Dunlap, the ruthless CEO of the Sunbeam Corporation, who thinks of himself as a predator and decorates his home with images and sculptures of big cats and birds of prey, seems a good candidate, but he manages to escape clear categorization as a psychopath because he cried when his dog died and seems to have stayed faithful to his wife. By contrast, Emmanuel "Toto" Constant, the former Haitian death squad leader whom Ronson interviews in prison, fits the profile to a T. Ronson flirts with Hare's theory that capitalism demands a psychopathic disregard for others but thankfully doesn't take it farther than a few pages.

Although he airs some Scientologists' condemnations of psychiatry, Ronson doesn't doubt the existence of mental illness; his own ungovernable neurosis and anxieties are proof enough. He does undermine the notion that mental illness is a black-and-white issue, however, with a disturbing chronicle of misbegotten diagnoses and cures. There are tales of dubious criminal profilers (and other people who sometimes use and misuse the Hare test), people who fake mental illness and easily get committed to institutions, and the alarmingly haphazard way the DSM gets constructed. 

Ronson, like Ghaemi, wants to understand mental illness and how it fits into society. But the psychiatrist thinks he has cracked some master code of history and politics, while the humble journalist reminds us how little we know about the line between sanity and insanity. 

Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor at reason.

NEXT: "The Great Fallacy of Vertical Integration"

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  1. Mental illness "may have in fact shaped the second half of the twentieth century more than any other single force,"

    I agree with that, but not in the way he concludes.

  2. lol, you jsut have to love those bought and paid for politicians.

    1. American non-sequiter society; we don't make sense, but we do like pizza.

  3. Nothing is more tiresome than the hagiography of people who fucked up the world.

    1. How about the process of electing the next one?

      1. I said "nothing", Hugh! How dare you question me!

        1. Such force, such solipsistic megalomania, have you ever considered running for office?

          1. I considered it, but then remembered the pictures you have of me with Lindsay Lohan and thought better of it.

            1. Nice try, but one look at the pictures and nobody is going to believe that is Lindsay Lohan and not Andy Dick.

              1. That's exactly the problem. And Hugh, I hate to say this, but I wouldn't fuck you or Andy with Bea Arthur's dick.

  4. alt txt - if this is yalta, then several targets are present ol chap.

  5. I'm reading Massie's Dreadnought, about the naval portion of the First World War, and it's interesting how many errors Churchill made. Not just at Gallipoli, but also in a couple of major navy snafus, including the British defeat at the Battle of Coronel.

    Did he get better by WWII, did circumstances make him better, or was he a stubborn idiot that got lucky in his later mistakes? I'm not really sure.

      1. That's about where I am, too. All of the above.

    1. So wait, you're saying Gallipoli was a mistake? I thought Mel Gibson was really good in it.

      1. From the film perspective, Gallipoli was a success, as all of those dead people made for good drama. So Churchill made an excellent producer. He also gave us a number of films from his work in the 40s, in partnership with some German dude.

        1. So you're saying Peter Weir is a Nazi?!?

          1. No, don't be ridiculous. He's one of the Kaiser's damned Huns.

            1. Umm, the Gallipoli campaign was against the Turks, not the Germans.

              There were some Germans there. I don't know how many but it wasn't that many.

              1. You know that I know that you know that I know that.

                The Germans trained the Turks and had some generals there, I believe.

                1. Yes, I believe that is correct.

                  And I apologize for going and getting all serious like in this forum. I lost my head for a moment.


                  1. I'm in WWI mode, reading Dreadnought and watching a documentary on the war. It's just sickening how casually lives were thrown away. For the Anzac troops, it's especially sad, seeing how their interests maybe weren't served much by dying in Turkey.

                    1. True, that.

                      Australian, as well as New Zealand and Canadian casualties continued high on the Western Front as well.

                      That changed, for the Australians at least, when the Australian government took their troops away from the British and put General John Monash in command.

                    2. Never ever ever lend your army to someone else.

                    3. Tell that to the unlucky soldier assigned to a Nato peace keeping unit led by a Frenchman.

        2. Well, now that you've brought up Gallipoli I hope you all have plans to appropriately observe Anzac Day tomorrow.

          I believe a morning of solemn marching, hymn singing and prayers followed by a drunken binge in the arvo is how the natives observe it. 🙂

          Anzac Day observances are one of my most vivid memories of growing up in Australia in the 1950s. It was a day of national self-flagellation where nobody could quit make up his mind if he loved or hated the British Empire.

          And, by gum, we should have won too. And would have if it hadn't been for that Ataturk disobeying orders and rallying the troops to attack instead of retreating as the Ottoman generals had ordered.

          1. Why not land all of those troops somewhere else? It's not like they didn't control the entire Mediterranean.

            1. Yess, but they didn't control the Dardanelles which was crucial to getting supplies to and from the Russian ports on the Black Sea.

              Ultimately, the campaign up from Egypt through Palestine and from the Persian Gulf through Iraq broke the decadent Ottomans' will, however much of a force Attaturk was.

              Of course, in the process the British made a shitload of promises they couldn't keep including pledging the same bit of real estate to both the Jews and the Arabs.

            2. The landings themselves were actually quite successful and would have been more so if not for delays that let the Turks prepare defenses as well as shitty preparations which destroyed any resemblance to the element of surprise.

              The Allies had the upper hand for a while to the point where the Turks were falling back at one point.

              1. That war was all about missed opportunities. Looking back, maybe it would've been better for subsequent generations if the Germans had won right away (as opposed to losing down the road), a la the Franco-Prussian War. Maybe no Soviet Union, very likely no Nazis.

                1. Well, the outcome would certainly have been different without America's entry. How diferent is a matter for specualtion. There's also the question of whether it might have come earlier.

                  I won't go as far as to give into conspiracy theories that hold that there was a conspiracy between Wilson and the Allies in 1915-16. That is that while promising peace at home he was promising the British and the French that as soon as he had won the election troops would move.

                  But I do think it possible that the Allies did hold out for longer than they would have if they hadn't been fairly sure the US would come in eventually.

                  1. As to no Nazis, it is widely accepted that the economic impact of the war reparations played into the hands of the Nazis. Of course, they played into the hands of the Communists too. It's just that the Nazis played even rougher.

                    But there's the question of whether Hitler would have backed down from remilitarizing the Rhineland if the Alies had intervened the way the French wanted to. I think it's Shirer who speculates that if the French had even acted alone Hitler would have backed down but the French weren't willing to go it alone and the British and Americans wouldn't join them.

                    That would have put a crimp in Hitler's plans and might even have given his political opponents time to regroup and overthrow him.

        3. The Australian miniseries 1915 has some good Gallipoli scenes too.

          Much of it, though, is "home front" stuff highlighting class distinctions in supposedly classles Australia and attitudes towards women and aboriginals. All against the background of a country going to war for the first time as an independent and united country.

          IMO, the best Aussie WWI flick is The Lighthorsemen(1985) but that's about the cavalry charge at Beersheba supposedly the last successful cavalry charge in history rather than Gallipoli.

          1. Of course I think the best of the "lions led by donkeys" versions of the war is Blackadder Goes Forth.

            1. Most accurate depiction of the war, without a doubt.

              1. Blackadder was genius. Hard to believe that Rowan Atkinson hasn't done anything nearly as good since.

    2. I read the Last Lion series Churchill biography by Manchester (all 1 million page of it) and never figured out whether Churchill was a man built history or competence.

      Were his early warnings of Hitler the result of a keen mind or the remnants of the bellicose conquering spirit of the Victorian age. I suspect a little of both. I think that he definitely saw the danger and futility of trying to placate Hitler, though.

      It's amazing that making one or two really important right decisions can earn you an indulgence from history.

      1. Amazing work. Too bad he and his ghostwriter at the end never finished the third volume. Reading it, you're struck by what an unbelievably accomplished intellect Churchill was. Like many Big Idea guys though, only about 1 in 10 of them were worthwhile, and I think Churchill's successes in WW2 are due to the British military establishment knowing when to cabin some of his crazier ideas (like his continued insistence on invading the Balkans)

  6. So wait, Ghaemi claims that Hitler was mentally ill but George W. Bush was "too sane"? I thought it was common knowledge that Bush was the second-coming of Hitler.

  7. Not only did some leaders suffer from mental illness retardation, but mental illness retardation helped them perform well during crises.

    There's a theory that I think warrants further study.

  8. Campaign slogans:

    "Vote Jones - He's crazy...for you!"

    "An insane man for insane times!"

    "4 of the 5 voices in my head say vote for me!"

    1. Awesome.

  9. I thought it had been determined in a recent thread that psychiatry was quackery? Who's to say Hitler was mentally ill. Maybe he is the only sane person who ever lived. His brain was wired "correctly" and every one elses is abby normal. I'm sure Nietze would have something to say on the matter. Maybe "All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth."

    1. I am being facetious in case there is any question.

  10. Shorter Ghaemi: Mental illness makes for great leadership in the leaders whose leadership I find personally satisfying. If there is a leader widely considered mentally ill whose leadership I don't find personally satisfying, then he is insufficiently mentally ill for consideration. It's hard to decide if this is classic question begging or an iteration of the Xzibit meme.


  12. Insane in the brain
    Insane in the membrane
    Insane in the brain
    Insane in the membrane

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