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« Remember good old President Mondale? | Main | Law and...Law and...what's the name of that TV show again? »


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Lincoln was great, and Bush is so small that comparing him to the Railsplitter, even to his disadvantage, is too bitter even for gallows humor.

"[A]ngry, volatile, mean-spirited, unhappy man" is too grand for the Dubster. He never seems unhappy with himself, but occasionally nasty when others embarrass him or leap to obey him too slowly. He seems less angry and volatile, and less like whatever other diagnoses people tend to want to assign to him in the faith that every cruelty or wickedness can be squeezed out by the tender, loving talking cure, than like a mean, nasty, spoiled middle-aged man.


Well, Rass, just as some people can be sad without being depressed and others can be cheerful without being manic, others can be mean, nasty, spiteful, and spoiled without any pathology behind it too. I'm just speculating about Bush. I don't know enough about him to say, but I've never seen any evidence that being mean, nasty, and spoiled makes him happy, the way it seems to make Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld. And you can't deny he has a real self-destructive bent.

But it was watching him in the candid moments that are included in Fahrenheit 9/11 that made me wonder about him. He is the first president I've seen since Carter who didn't seem to enjoy being President, and those videos are from his glory days.

Whatever the cause or the case, though, it's certainly no excuse for what he's done as President.

Kit Stolz

Fascinating post. Regarding Lincoln and his ability to function despite what was called melancholy in his era, and is called depression in ours, a Buddhist saying comes to mind: "The notion of Emptiness engenders compassion." (Milarepa)

Bush's contrasting insistence on "optimism" when everything about his bearing suggests anger and unhappiness is a big contrast to Lincoln's gravity and seriousness. But it's not just a matter of two different personalities; it's also a matter of two different eras.

In the 19th century, a somber and even melancholy demeanor was not preferable, but socially acceptable. You can see it in the portraits; how many people were smiling?

In contrast it's my sense, especially in California, that a kind of cheery sunniness is demanded by our times. Prozac and its relatives are popular not just because they help people suffering from the symptoms of depression, but also because they make it possible for sufferers to get out of the house, to talk on the phone, to make connections, etc.


A mordant sensibility might say that Prozac and other happy pills are valued not because they keep very depressed people from self-destruction, but because they keep other people functioning consumers.

As for the Dubster, you're right, Lance: he reminds me a little less than do Cheney and Rumsfeld of that bit in Camelot about wicked people being incapable of happiness.

Earl Bockenfeld

It's troublesome to compare/contrast the greatest president and the worst president at the same time. Lincoln's melancholy seems totally different than George's personality quirks like hostility, meanness, lying even when not self-serving, delusions, narcissism and casual indifference to ideas and matters of state. I look at Lincoln's eyes and see a man crying on the inside, I look at Bush's eyes and see no one at home there.

Paul the Spud

Very interesting. I've always thought that one reason Bush and his ilk seem so hell-bent on destroying the happiness of others is that they can't stand knowing someone out there is happier than they are. Bush really does seem to be an angry, unhappy person, which is pretty shocking to me. It's not as if he's had to deal with much hardship in his life.


You are right, he must not be comfortable in his own skin no matter how much the say he is. No one who is comfortable in his own skin is that defensive. He always acts like everyone else isn't getting it when in reality he isn't getting it. I am wondering though if some of his hostility doesn't come from the fact that he was not allowed to live in his own skin. Maybe he was expected to be comforable in his father's skin.

Anne Laurie

There are a couple of different threads here and they may be working at cross-purposes. The question of "depression" -- whether it's an illness, or one symptom of a whole range of illnesses, or just one particular way of looking at the universe -- has filled whole books and will probably fill whole libraries before we've come up with good answers. The question of how any given society perceives, and treats, the kind of behavior we're currently calling "clinical depression" is another whole library's worth of ideas. And the issue of whether any particular individual, historical or current, might be diagnosed with this year's definition of "depression" is a third thread entirely.

My streetcorner version of Occam's razor, working outwards from the most minor corner of this discussion: I don't have the credentials to diagnose "clinical depression", but I do have a certain amount of personal experience with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD / ADHD). ADD is the current label for one of a range of neurological "miswirings" which seem to be at least partially genetic; like depression, bipolar disorder, Tourettes, autism/Asperger's Syndrome, dyslexia, and a proclivity for substance abuse, ADD runs in the family. Furthermore, families with a history of any one of these disorders have a very high incidence of the others as well. This co-incidence (in the scientific sense of that word) is so common that some researchers believe they're all different "expressions" along a range of one set of damaged genetic material. How each individual reacts to their less-than-optimum brain chemistry is further influenced by how their own clan (as well as their society) deals with the Family Failing. And, of course, people with these "issues" tend to marry each other & breed a new generation of individuals with double the chances of inheriting both a less-than-optimal brain and a less-than-perfect history of dealing with its effects.

George W. Bush has plenty of documented alcoholics on both sides of his family tree; rumors about institionalized relatives go back as far as his grandfather Prescott's campaigns. He has at least one brother who's an admitted dyslexic, and his mother has claimed that reading difficulties run in her family. (The issue of which parent gets "blamed" for a stigmatized illness is another library's worth of discussion.) The first President Bush was notorious for his frenetic behavior, as well as for his mangled syntax, verbal tics, and malapropisms. George H.W. Bush was, in fact, accused of being dyslexic and/or hyperactive. GHWB, and his wife, raised their children in an atmosphere of intense physical competition and a level of stoicism amounting to emotional repression (i.e., the famous anecdote about dealing with their young daughter’s death by taking the other kids out for a day of golf). George the Younger, however, is markedly less athletic than his father – he was relegated to cheerleading at Andover despite the family legacy. He did inherit his father’s inability to get through a simple English sentence without mishap, but he never demonstrated much political ambition before he turned 40. He seemed to have a gift for one-on-one persuasion at some time (when he couldn’t play on the baseball team, he talked other students into starting a stickball team), although recently even his supporters are complaining that he’s distant, cranky, and not interested in either new facts or other people’s opinions. He’s notoriously committed to a set schedule, intense daily exercise sessions, an early bedtime and his own special pillow.

Now, the "deficit" in ADD is really a question of focus; people with ADD have trouble concentrating on one thing in the first place, but we have just as much (or more) trouble changing tracks once we've finally started, a condition the textbooks call "hyperfocus". It's as though most people's volume controls ran from 1 through 10, but ours have only two settings -- 0 and 11. And it’s really, really tiring… imagine spending your life at one of those parties where everyone’s talking too loudly at the same time and there are dancers and fireworks and spinning disco balls at all the edges of your field of focus and you can’t stop thinking about the way your new shoes make your feet feel and no matter where you stand you keep getting whiffs of the clam dip mixed with about six different colognes. Some researchers even think that hyperactivity is just a way some people with ADD cut down on the bombardment of stimuli most people filter out automatically. But if you grow up in a family where "everyone" acts like this... because they've got variations of the same quirk, because spinning frenetically through life is rewarded... you may never realize that not everyone sees the world the way you do. You will tend to vibrate between an airy disinclination to settle down at any given project and a stubborn refusal to stop doing whatever you're doing (whether or not it's getting the results you want).

And you will quite possibly discover that mood-altering chemicals (legal ones like alcohol, or illegal ones like cocaine and methedrine) cut down on the “noise” and generally make you feel a whole lot better about the world and your place in it. In addition, the consumption of mood-altering chemicals gives you an excuse for being physically inept, less than fluent, and prone to violent swings from manic misbehavior to inert sullenness. People with ADD also tend to have problems with balance, with proprioception, and with the ability to tell right from left… again, failures that can be blamed on alcohol if you don't know / won't admit that you have a kink in your brain chemistry.

Of course, most people with ADD have to learn to cope with their problems, and to negotiate with other people’s perceptions, somewhere along the path from grade school through puberty and into adulthood. But if you’re George W. Bush, you don’t have to deal with whatever you don’t want to admit. You can slide through school on a combination of “legacy” and spin, get a free pass into flight school (and out of combat), walk away from your National Guard commitments for no discernable reason, and float through a series of high-paying jobs that don’t actually require you to show up in an office or demonstrate any actual skills. Of course, you still won’t be able to beat your dad at golf or your mom at tennis, but hey – it’s all the fault of the booze, right?

Then, one day, you turn forty, it’s getting harder and harder to endure those long nights of partying, and the family is explaining that Somebody has to carry on the Political Legacy and Jeb (apart from his non-Aryan wife, his substance-abusing offspring, and his ties to the Miami mob) just didn’t have the luck to be born first. Facing down your first long-term mandatory-attendance political campaign without even Jim Beam in your corner… why, it’s enough to make a man turn to a Higher Father.

And then you win the blasted campaign – thanks to the skills of your supporters or the weaknesses of your opponents – and people actually expect you to show up for the darn job… every single day. They even expect you to DO stuff, to make plans and choose between alternatives and settle all kinds of squabbling, and without so much as a little alcohol to take the edge off either. Seems like there’s always another campaign that you have to go out and sweat to win – it’s worse than summer at Kennebunkport with the entire Bush clan in attendance. And your enemies still make fun of the way you talk, the way you hold your head, your tendency to walk into doorways, your habit of falling down, choking on pretzels, crashing your bike. Heck, there’s just no FUN in this contest any more for poor George W. Bush. No wonder he’s getting crankier, meaner, incapable of pretending even the most nominal interest in other people and their stupid boring problems. Being President is Hard Work, even for those people who actually wanted the job in the first place. It’s worn out or killed stronger men than GWB, as I’m sure Mr. Cheney reminds him at least once a week, and that was even before the invention of 24-hour newsfeeds.

Porlock Junior

Great posting as to GWB; great comment from Anne Laurie.

But has no one noticed the appalling logic of the experiment that proves that depressives are more perceptive?

Here's the big news according to Shenk: In the experiment with the clever machine, depressives took a less optimistic view of the situation, perceiving that they had no control over the outcomes. (Hint: Wow, what a revelation!) "Normals" thought they had some control if they got good results. The less optimistic view was right. Therefore, depressives understand their own capabilities better!

Now let's try it the other way around, where the Right Answer is the more optimistic, positive one (e.g., the subject really does have some control over the outcome). Eeyore will perceive this more accurately than Rabbit, right? No. Wrong.

The basic problem in this experiment as reported is that it was done by psychologists. A scientist doing such an experiment would use controls, do reciprocal experiments, and all that.

BTW, maybe the original paper did get it right; I haven't seen the original paper. But Shenk is talking nonsense here.

Assuming that Shenk is reporting accurately, the experiment could be taken to show why people with depression should not be given positions of power and responsibility. Sure, delusions of control can lead to all kinds of bad outcomes, but feelings of helplessness tend not to be conducive to taking action on those occasions when action is needed. Or, one coudl dismiss the entire line of argument as irrelevant to human individuals.

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