No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness. —Aristotle
Newt Gingrich’s sinking, soaring, and now sinking presidential candidacy has revived talk of a wild card in politics: the oft-murmured but only rarely broached question of leaders’ mental health. During the 2000 and 2008 Republican primaries, some adversaries of the famously hot-tempered John McCain circulated rumors that he was dangerously unstable, perhaps afflicted with PTSD from his ordeal as a POW. Now similar questions have hovered around the brazen, defiant, mercurial, and immodest Gingrich: Is this man too crazy to be president? Gingrich even has a family history; he teared up at an Iowa campaign event recalling his mother’s depression and bipolar disorder.
Dr. Nassim Ghaemi has some very interesting things to say about Newt Gingrich’s mental health and leadership qualities (see below). But he might turn the question on its head: Is this man crazy enough to be president in a troubled time?
Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Tufts Medical Center’s Mood Disorders Program, made a stir last summer with his provocative book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. It challenged the assumption that healthy minds make good leaders, positing instead an inverse law of sanity: “The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.” Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. — all suffered from depression and/or mania. By contrast, mentally balanced leaders such as Neville Chamberlain, Tony Blair, and (no kidding) Richard Nixon might fare well in times of peace and prosperity, but their normalcy is a liability in tough times, when realism and divergent thinking are critical.
The 2012 presidential election approaches at a time that cries out for bold, innovative crisis leadership, yet it appears the race will come down to the conspicuously even-keeled President Barack Obama and a dull, gray, Republican, perhaps the consummate manager Mitt Romney or the stolid ideologue Rick Santorum. It’s all fair game for Ghaemi, who also holds degrees in history, philosophy, and public health. We spoke extensively in November, and he interrupted his New Year’s Eve to comment further on the presidential contenders.
Nassir Ghaemi: Basically I’ve been treating and doing research on bipolar disorder and depression for almost two decades, and I knew from my own clinical experience and from my experience with other experts in the field that many of our patients were highly successful people: business people, politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers. But because of confidentiality issues and stigma, we often don’t know about these people. We think of mental illnesses like manic depression and depression as only harmful because we don’t hear about those who have them who are doing well.
I decided to bring out this link between depression and mania and success through public figures from the past because their information would be publicly available.
Lindley: In your introduction, you compare your work as a psychiatrist with that of a historian. How is it possible to make a diagnosis of a historical person when you don’t have a direct examination?
Ghaemi: Direct examination is overrated. The most important aspect of psychiatric diagnosis is the history, and it’s almost completely dependent on the history of the patient, [but] the history of the patient is poorly obtained if it’s solely from the patient. Many people do not realize what psychiatric symptoms they have. As clinical psychiatrists, what we must do is talk to family members, friends and other people to get outside information….
With historical figures, I would add that we have all these other sources of information and we can directly interact with the patient because we have their autobiographies, their memoirs and their letters.… I had primary sources and didn’t engage in psychoanalytic speculation.
Lindley: How can people with a mental illness be better leaders than people without mental illness?
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