What’s your opinion of John Kerry and his military record? Do you believe his account of his actions or do you believe those of the “Swift boat veterans” featured in the television commercials. Do you think that the debate over the number of wounds he incurred in Vietnam raises questions about his character or his fitness for serving as president?
Pollsters, such as Gallup’s Frank Newport, featured on the cover of this week’s issue, argue that your opinions are important and that elected officials as well as campaigning politicians should consider the opinions of the people when determining policies.
Not that my opinion counts for anything, but I’m not so sure I agree. Maybe on matters of clear cut issues the polls should be weighed. But consider how easily polls can be skewed in one direction or the other. And consider how quickly one item — such as President Bush’s military record — falls from the public spotlight while another issue — Kerry’s wartime record — comes into the spotlight.
Just a few months ago you might have thought, and Democrats must have hoped, that Bush’s past — beginning with the peculiar circumstances of his National Guard duty — might have become a springboard for a discussion about his character and judgment. But instead the Republicans masterfully turned the Swift boat into the most ballyhooed military vessel since John Kennedy’s PT-109, but with all the opposite connotations.
It’s too bad the media didn’t glom onto the Bush story, because it might have been a fascinating exercise, at least according to a new book from HarperCollins called “Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President,” by Justin A. Frank MD, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center. Frank’s work will be admired by most Democrats, and his book tour includes an October 10 fundraiser for Democratic Congressman Rush Holt at the Princeton Radisson.
Frank treats Bush as if he were a patient in for some psychiatric sessions. While the president didn’t literally come in for psychoanalysis, Frank says that the plethora of knowledge and insight gained from media interviews with the president and his family gave Frank more than the usual amount of biographical information.
Frank finds George W. Bush to be a man with profound psychological problems, which can be traced to a childhood Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a largely absent father, a distant mother, and the death of a younger sister when George was just seven. Frank reports that the parents hid the girl’s leukemia from George until after her death at the age of three in New York, where she had been taken for treatment. Two days later the parents had a small memorial service for her and then returned to George and Jeb, then an infant, in Texas. On the intervening day George and Barbara squeezed in a round of golf.
Young Bush’s problems, according to psychiatrist Frank, manifested themselves first through alcohol abuse (including the now mostly forgotten DWI arrests), which was never treated but was replaced by born again Christianity. That was followed by a black and white view of political issues. As an ADHD, Bush doesn’t have the patience to grasp nuances in foreign policy, for example. On Iraq, you are either with him or against him.
Bush’s infamous dismissal of Saddam Hussein as “the guy who tried to kill my dad” is often cited as a frightening example of foreign policy gone amok. But Frank makes a better case for the notion that W. went into Iraq to show up his old man, not defend him. W. could never equal his father at Andover or Yale (where the father was a baseball star and the son only a cheerleader), in the military (where dad was a fighter pilot), in business (where the son had notable failures), or in politics (Dad served in Congress, was ambassador to China, headed the CIA, and was a two-term vice president enroute to the White House while W lost one congressional bid before finally winning election as Texas governor). So when W. had the chance to dethrone Hussein, he jumped at the chance to do something his father had rejected as too risky.
Democrats might think they would have a better chance in November if all this “psycho-babble,” as the Bushes like to call such talk, became the talk of the nation. But Frank suggests that Bush has been able to work his tortured psyche to his own advantage. “He seems to have understood from the start, instinctively, that if simplicity works for him, it can work for many others,” an approach that worked well after 9/11, Frank writes. “To identify with the Bush mind-set is to favor relieving one’s anxiety over partaking in complex thought. We all want relief.”
And those in the know, including the media, become enablers. “The family with an alcoholic father not only needs their father to protect them, but needs their father not to collapse or fall apart.” And the voting public that would embrace John Kennedy and reject Richard Nixon largely on the quality of their make-up during those first televised debates should not be expected to show much more discernment in 2004.