Putting George W. Bush on the psychologist's couch

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The remarkable combination of character, ambition and political skill seen in the men who reach the presidency clearly deserves serious psychological analysis. While ideology and historical circumstance are primary to evaluation, the psychological aspects of, say, Lincoln's depression or Reagan's willful optimism or Franklin Roosevelt's polio should not be overlooked. The hazard of psychoanalyzing presidents, however, is that it can lapse into crude reductionism, overemphasizing sub-rational or irrational causes and thereby trivializing more obvious traits and political ideas. Too often, psychological approaches become one-dimensional devices for critics to use as another partisan tool.

George W. Bush is an irresistible subject for such psychological profiling, given his family's political and private history and his embrace as an adult of religious faith, sobriety and responsibility. It is almost impossible not to speculate about how Bush's relationship with his father affected his decisions. His penchant for bestowing nicknames, his certitude, his seeming equanimity under the pressures of the post-9/11 world and his self-conscious Texas swagger - traits that make him notably different from his father and brother Jeb - all support plausible theories. Bush will be a cottage industry for psychologists for years to come.

Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, offers one of the first comprehensive psychological profiles of Bush in "George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream." To his credit, McAdams tries not to pre-judge Bush, and he avoids making moral or political judgments about the president's major decisions. McAdams will further disappoint Bush-haters in his measured rejection of several pop-psych themes, such as that Bush was in thrall to an Oedipal rivalry (though he does think a desire to avenge his father in Iraq was a factor). But in the end, McAdams's framework sinks into a mire of professional jargon that tells us more about contemporary theory than about the former president.

McAdams's thesis is that "a perfect psychological storm of traits" determined Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "Of course," McAdams allows, "the decision was also informed by many factors that were not themselves psychological. Political, economic, and world-historical factors all played important roles." But these traditional political factors would not have been enough, he thinks, to start the war in the absence of Bush's powerful psychological makeup. Unfortunately, McAdams makes a weak case for playing down traditional political factors in favor of psychology, and most readers will be left with the impression that he attributes every political decision to psychological factors. To calibrate accurately the role of psychology vs. "traditional political factors" in the large decisions of presidents and prime ministers might require the combined insights of Tocqueville and Freud. But in this case, a simple thought experiment may suffice: If you think that John McCain, had he been in the White House then, would also have decided to invade Iraq, you will not find McAdams's analysis persuasive.

The key traits McAdams divines in Bush include some obvious ones, such as his extreme extroversion; the effects of the death of his younger sister in childhood; his transfiguration of Midland, Tex., into a new Eden; and, above all, his narrative of redemption involving his sudden sobriety and conversion to fervent Christian faith. McAdams argues that Bush sought to impose his own redemptive narrative on the entire world through his "freedom agenda" and the war on terrorism.

The book suffers from banality ("Shakespeare was surely right when he said that all the world's a stage and each of us a player") and repetitiveness, especially of the theme that Bush suffers from "low openness to experience." I lost count of the instances of this phrase, but it is the touchstone of McAdams's ultimate denigration of Bush. The phrase is a synonym for Bush's stubbornness, and McAdams understands it in its formal clinical dimensions, which allows him to escape confronting the potential ideological sources of Bush's hardheadedness or judging whether Bush's stubbornness was right or wrong.

But is this trait peculiar to Bush? Has there ever been a successful non-stubborn president? To be sure, stubbornness served some presidents poorly (Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter), but it served others well (Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan). Psychological analysis cannot tell us whether stubbornness is an asset or a liability in a president. For that we need to turn to old-fashioned historical and character analysis.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter Revolution, 1980-1989."


A Psychological Portrait

By Dan P. McAdams

Oxford Univ. 274 pp. $29.95

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