History Lesson

The Mark of McCain

Debating the presidential candidates’ character and sanity.

John McCain’s five years as a prisoner of war positioned him to run for president as the candidate of “character.” His Vietnam ordeal, it was said, made him candid, brave, inner-directed. Now McCain is running from the character issue: His Vietnam ordeal, detractors allege, left him irascible, unstable, unfit for the presidency. McCain has now released 1,500 pages of medical records to provide what the New York Times has called “the broadest look ever given the public at the psychological profile of a presidential candidate.” Presidential “character” has returned as a public and media obsession.

To be sure, the character of presidents has always mattered. Whether charging that Thomas Jefferson took a slave as his mistress or that Grover Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child, opponents have long assailed the morals of presidential aspirants. But in the 19th century such mudslinging never amounted to a full-scale attempt to assess a candidate’s psychological profile. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln all probably suffered from “melancholy”–or depression–but their mental health didn’t enter the public debate. Most people didn’t even know about their conditions.

Only with the rise of Freudian theory–specifically, the idea that not only the “ill” but also well-functioning people are captive to unconscious motives–did anyone think to psychoanalyze a president. According to Stanley Allen Renshon (author of the invaluable book The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates), the first such effort appeared in a 1912 New York Times Magazine article titled “Roosevelt as Analyzed by the New Psychology.” The article tried to explain inconsistent comments that former President Theodore Roosevelt had made about supporting his successor, William Taft, by postulating that TR harbored an unresolved, repressed wish to run for president again himself. Though hardly controversial by today’s standards (not least because we know that TR did choose to run in 1912), the story provoked an outcry, including a denunciation from Freud himself.

Just as the spread of psychoanalysis made putting candidates on the couch acceptable, the advent of nuclear weapons made “stability” the watchword not only in geopolitics but also in psychopolitics. In the 1956 presidential race, Democrats seized on what columnist Max Lerner called “The Triple Issue”: President Eisenhower’s frail physical health (he’d had a heart attack in September 1955), nukes (the Soviet Union built a hydrogen bomb in November 1955), and, in Lerner’s phrase, “the character of Richard Nixon” (liberals viewed Nixon, then vice president, as bellicose and ruthless). In an election-eve speech, Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ standard-bearer, said that “As a citizen more than a candidate … I recoil at the prospect of Mr. Nixon as custodian of this nation’s future, as guardian of the hydrogen bomb … as Commander-in-Chief of the United States armed forces.” Close aides disapproved, feeling Stevenson had gone too far.

Yet Democrats reprised the issue in 1964. To Barry Goldwater’s slogan “In your heart you know he’s right,” Democrats countered: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Lyndon Johnson’s camp portrayed the Republican senator as a trigger-happy Strangelove likely to blow up the world. The now-defunct magazine FACT, published by the eccentric Ralph Ginzburg, polled 12,356 members of the American Psychiatric Association and used the 2,419 responses to conclude that the psychiatrists considered Goldwater paranoid. While plenty of psychiatrists did question Goldwater’s temperament and judgment, the study’s methodology was so egregiously flawed that Goldwater won a libel suit against the magazine. –though, significantly, it also allowed that more “reliable” psychological assessments of a candidate might reasonably inform voters’ decisions.

Ironically, it was the victors of those races, Johnson and Nixon, who would further elevate the question of psychological fitness for the presidency. With Nixon, the issue surfaced when muckraker Drew Pearson told a National Press Club audience, just after the 1968 election, that as vice president, Nixon had consulted Arnold Hutschnecker, a New York physician specializing in psychosomatic illnesses. To his death, Nixon maintained he had consulted Hutschnecker only as a physician and not for psychotherapy, though skeptics wondered why he would travel to New York for a checkup. (One unproven claim was impotence.) When in 1973 Gerald Ford appeared before a Senate panel to be confirmed as vice president, he had to explain his own visits to Hutschnecker. “One Question Marks Ford Hearing,” read the New York Times headline over the story about Ford’s testimony. Ford’s explanation: He had visited the doctor on Nixon’s urging, but only socially.

The Hutschnecker episode introduced a new aspect of the character issue: the stigma of seeing a shrink. In the New York Times, Hutschnecker argued that seeking help to secure one’s “emotional stability” denoted “not weakness but courage” and should not be stigmatized. Most commentators agreed. Hovering behind this debate, of course, was the lingering memory of the 1972 campaign, when Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, days after being chosen as George McGovern’s running mate, resigned from the Democratic ticket after revealing that he had undergone hospitalization and electroshock therapy for depression. That story quickly (and somewhat inaccurately) came to be portrayed as an illustration of the public’s.

By 1976, the character question was morphing from the matter of mental stability into the larger issue of what kind of a president a candidate would make. Watching Johnson and Nixon visit their private demons on the nation made the public correctly curious about candidates’ hidden selves. Academicians, most notably political scientist James David Barber in his influential Presidential Character, explored how to predict a president’s performance based on a systematic study of his character. Meanwhile, the decline of the major political parties was creating a new “candidate-centered” politics, which emphasized the individual and further spotlighted his psychic makeup.

In these years, however, what people meant by “character” became increasingly confused. In 1976, Jimmy Carter stressed his character, by which he meant his (alleged) honesty. In 1988, the press expanded the issue to include questions of marital infidelity, judgment, and narcissism, as Gary Hart learned the hard way. By the Clinton years, the character question was reduced to a checklist of intrusive inquiries about past infidelity, military service, and drug use–and, if evasive or dishonest answers were given, also about honesty and integrity.

What we mean–and should mean–by “character” needs to be disentangled. First, there’s no question that seeking psychological help needs to be destigmatized. Al and Tipper Gore have helped by saying they’ve each had “counseling” but, as Frank Rich has noted, Tipper’s use of such euphemisms and the avoidance a “professional title [that] might include the prefix ‘psych-’ … sent the signal, consciously or not, that she wasn’t entirely free of shame herself.” When, after the Lewinsky affair, President Clinton chose not to see a real clinician but a bunch of ministers, he sent the same message.

Yet removing the stigma of therapy doesn’t mean rejecting consideration of character. Obviously, a president’s ambition, judgment, temperament, integrity, and ways of relating with other people (among other psychological qualities) bear greatly on how he will govern–at least as greatly as whatever election-year stands he stakes out on “the issues” of policy. (The Johnson and Nixon presidencies are only the most salient examples of this truth. Many others exist, too. One historian has argued cogently that Calvin Coolidge’s psychological problems helped.)

The real question, then, is how to assess character. Clearly, the press has done a lousy job with its focus on behavior such as infidelity or drug use that most people don’t care about. Alternatively, some psychotherapists have argued that professionals alone should do the evaluating. (In the ‘70s, Arnold Hutschnecker, reveling in his 15 minutes of fame, proposed establishing an official board of psychiatrists to screen all presidential candidates.) Not surprisingly, the push for a shrinkocracy has gained little support.

Yet just because we’ve failed to think clearly about what character involves doesn’t mean we should cease to think about it. The press can also do a poor job analyzing policy issues–what was the last really illuminating story you read about the Social Security trust fund?–but no one argues it should abandon the enterprise. The press is right to focus on character. Now it needs to think more rigorously about how to do so.