Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Spate of Denials....

Almost forty years ago, James Coburn starred in a nifty little movie, "The President's Analyst," in which he played, yup, the President's psychiatrist. Coburn's character, Dr. Sidney Schaefer, at first thinks the job an extreme honor, but, after a couple of weeks of being on call, day and night, Sidney starts going bonkers himself and flees, with the "CEA" and the "FBR" in hot pursuit, along with the spy services of every country from the Soviet Union to Lower Bantustan, only to finally be captured by TPC. TPC? Why, The Phone Company, of course, because The Phone Company has a plan to wire everyone's brain at birth with an implanted communication device, thus saving TPC the cost of maintaining the phone system.

The phone company abducts Sidney in order to convince him to use his influence on the president to get the government to endorse and subsidize the plan through a tax. In one sense, the script was prescient in its portrayal of corporations and their desires to use government to their own ends, and at the same time, was woefully short-sighted. Compared to the current environment, in which the government is actively defending and subsidizing corporations against citizens' interests, when Bush's FCC even tries to avoid public hearings and public comment on matters of media consolidation and corporate control of publicly-owned communications resources, the premise of the film seems, well, almost quaint.

The plot framework, that of the President needing the services of a shrink, however, is not quaint and is still germane. Nixon surely could have used one (lord knows he could have used something besides drinking to excess when under pressure), and while Reagan probably could have benefitted from same, he had Nancy and their astrologer to keep him from falling off the cliff of right-wing extremism (his living in the relatively benign dream world of film nostalgia might have been an advantage for us all--we've now had a chance to see what life would have been like if he'd been twenty years younger as president). Clinton might have fared somewhat better with a bit of friendly medical advice before an infatuated 22-year-old intern showed him her ass and let her turn his head. Emulation of JFK's tendency to satyriasis was not a quality to his advantage with the likes of right-wing crazies like Ken Starr and Richard Mellon Scaife intent on destroying him and his party for the most crabbed and self-serving of reasons.

And, then, there's George W. Bush--and his disciples--bringing White House psychopathology to an unprecedented new level of speculation. As recently as August, Justin Frank (of Bush on the Couch) was asking about the "second half of his medical check-up: psychological testing."

Frank was right to ask about Bush's state of mind. At the height of the Foley scandal in Congress, Bush was raising money among the hoipolloi of the Republican Party by saying, "Democrats can't be trusted to run Congress." Now, even in the context of political hyperbole, that's either an expression of denial or a delusion, and at its most benign, still a lie. Bush knows they can run Congress. That's what he's afraid of.

And, almost any observer, partisan or otherwise, can see that, if Democrats do take one or both houses of Congress, it won't be just about one randy Congressman chasing underaged boys. L'affaire Foley (and its attempted cover-up by Republican House managers) is just the latest layer of corruption plunked down on an increasingly rancid and moldy old cake which House Repugs have been assembling all these many years, ever since Newt Gingrich's contract on America. (All the evidence necessary to show general insanity amongst the latest crop of Republicans can be found in Newtie's belief that he can and should be President).

It's likely going to remain a conundrum, long after Bush has left office, as to whether he was ever playing with a full deck. Ever since the advent of network television, the Presidency has been a captive of what is now euphemistically called "perception management." Every administration does it. Reagan could be trusted to hit his marks and read his lines convincingly. No one was quite sure from whence those lines were coming, but they were delivered with assurance. However, by the time Lawrence Walsh had tried to interview Reagan in 1992 about Iran-Contra and related matters, just three and a half years after he left office, there was, conveniently, not enough left of Reagan's mind to contain much of anything specific. The final report on the matter read:

By July 1992, when Reagan agreed to a final, extensive interview with Independent Counsel, it was obvious that the former President truly lacked specific recollection of even the major Iran/contra events which took place in 1984-1987.

How much that was case during Reagan's time in office will likely remain shrouded in the ongoing myth-making in which Reagan acolytes and his adoring fans have engaged over the years.

Frank has generally described Bush as an untreated alcoholic, exhibiting classic "dry drunk" symptoms, along with a tendency to megalomania. Others have pigeonholed him as prone to narcissism and exhibiting sociopathic behavior. Bush's brother describes him, simply, as "a hard case" and someone who "truly enjoys getting people to knuckle under."

That might explain his tendency to employ very hardball political tactics, or, it might also explain his fascination with torture--and his unwillingness to acknowledge it for what it is and its lack of usefulness.

His greatest failing, though, seems to be, both as a politician and as a human being, his inability or unwillingness to acknowledge anything as fact which does not conform to his notions. In politics, that could be construed as being hardheaded, and that seems to be part of the territory of being a right-wing American politician these days. However, when dealing with the public and the press, at any suggestion that things aren't going as he imagines, he either clams up or promptly denies the obvious. Frank, again:

I had always felt that his inability to respond to crisis, as seen in his response to 9/11 and Katrina and Israel's bombing of Lebanon, was because he suffered from something called affective flooding, where overwhelming anxiety paralyzes any ability to think or even function. Such a response is similar to denial but writ large. Those who observe the president at such moments - thanks to smuggled film clips and his historic April 2004 press conference when he was asked if he had made any mistakes as president - see that he starts rapid blinking movements before his eyes glaze over and become almost fixed in a blank, mindless stare. This massive disconnection from inner self and outer world is called "splitting."

But his most recent press conference (August 21, 2006) showed that when he is in control he is not flooded in this way. Rather, his splitting takes the form of hatred of reality. I use the term hatred purposefully. When he was pushed by a few increasingly frustrated reporters, he behaves like the untreated alcoholic he is - summarily dismissing material reality.

When offered a chance to re-think the Iraq war he becomes obstreperous, using sarcasm to both mask and express his internal rage at being challenged. When back in control he patronizes members of what he calls the "Democrat" party, saying that they are "good people" and that he doesn't question their patriotism. In control he is a poor man's Cicero, saying what he's not going to say anyway. Reading between the lines, he calls his critics quitters.

All of this behavior is in the service of defending himself against reality - something he actively hates. At times, his attempts to ward off reality make him appear stupid. He is not. Rather, internal and external realities are too threatening for him to face. When asked whether he had been surprised or frustrated by all the bad news from Baghdad he didn't even understand the question. This is because the very act of facing such questions threatens to destroy his tenaciously held preconceptions. This he cannot risk; he employs various coping mechanisms to attack such questions in any way he can. Instead of acknowledging personal frustration he said that the war must be frustrating for the national psyche. But his hatred of reality required a more violent approach - the day after his conference he sent more of those poor marines back into a world of horror.

Frank's conclusion is that Bush is "psychotic."

We'll probably never know, for sure. Twenty years from now, Bush may be wandering around his driveway in Crawford, shooting at cars wearing nothing but his pajama tops and cowboy boots, and at that time, people will think, "yup, Bush has finally gone nuts." As for now, perception management is, well, managing perceptions. Bush is in a serious state of denial about a whole host of things--Iraq, the current domestic political situation, Afghanistan, maybe even whether Barney still gives a shit about him or not, but as long as that resistance to reality is spun as "steadfastness," or "resolve," or commitment," there'll be no way of knowing what's really in his mind, such as it is, unless he starts to melt down in a very obvious and public way. (Answering reporters' questions in tongues would be a clue, but, then, who could really tell the difference? Peeance, freeance, anyone?). We know from the Nixon tapes that Nixon had a bad habit of calling foreign leaders after he'd had too much to drink--but we didn't find it out until almost thirty years after he left office. (Had we known in 1969, would it have made a difference? Will we find out, thirty years from now that Bush had to be restrained to keep him from nuking Ted Kennedy's house on Martha's Vineyard? Or Paris? In the current climate, would it have made a difference?)

What has complicated any assessment of Bush's mental health is that he's been convincing enough to get reelected--even if he stole 2004, too, it would still mean almost half of the country is just as nuts as he is. Looking back on the last nearly six years, I'd have to say that, yes, that is possible, but it doesn't make defining the problem any easier.

If Justin Frank, M.D., is correct, though, what would be done about it? The current Congress won't restrain him, and having him appear at press conferences in a straitjacket would probably encourage the terrorists. His doctors are probably already filling him with all manner of pharmaceuticals (why else would the United States Government be afraid of someone stealing Bush's feces?), but Thorazine would be obvious--Bush is only metaphorically drooling right now.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see. There's a big list of ifs to be hurdled. If the Democrats take the House and/or Senate. And, if they do, will they be daring enough to use the power of subpoena? If they are, will they begin to dismantle, in the process of investigating his administration, the support structure which has protected Bush from reality all these many years?

Quite apart from the pure entertainment value of Karl Rove appearing under oath, will there be Oval Office mental health consequences to a Democratic Congress investigating George W. Bush's maladministration?

I suppose the only way to find out if Bush is really nuts is to vote Democratic on Nov. 7th and find out. It's, at the very least, one way of bringing a little sanity back to politics... by comparison.


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