The Madness of Prez. George?

Justin A. Frank, MD, a Washington, DC, psychoanalyst, came through Santa Fe selling his disturbing pscyhological profile of President George W. Bush. Several hundred attended the book-signing in the lovely and historic Acequia Madre area. Garcia Street Books arranged folding chairs in the parking lot.

Frank pictured the subject of his urgent and heartfelt book, “Bush on the Couch,” as a sadistic megalomaniac unfit to be president. This curbstone diagnosis was derived from biographical books, newspaper articles and TV clips, not personal examination. The doctor’s anecdotal evidence included stories that Bush as a kid blew up frogs with firecrackers, that as a college fraternity president he had pledges branded with red hot coat hangers, that as Texas governor he mocked death row prisoners, and that as president he approved the release of pictures of Saddam’s dead sons.

The Freudian analyst’s explanation of this public figure’s problems was that Bush grew up as the first child of an absent father and a distant disciplinarian mother and that his loss at age 7 of a younger sister to leukemia was made even more psychologically disastrous by parental denial. Asked by a man in a cowboy hat if he could say anything good about the president, the shrink responded that Bush stopped drinking but added that his apparent alcoholism has gone “untreated.”

Through most of this, a guy across Garcia Street–Call him George–was up on the flat roof of an adobe house hammering at a masonry chimney or something. The erratic sledge blows annoyed some in the audience, who from time to time turned their heads and glared at the source. I wondered how the esteemed psychiatrist (he’s on the faculty of George Washington Medical School) would deal with the insensitive hammerer. Ignore him? Analyze him? Send over a negotiator? Yell fighting words? Call in Bill Richardson?

What Frank did was say to the audience, “We seem to have competition,” and let it go at that, adjourning soon after to sell and sign books.

I went ahead and bought the alarming little hardback with its red cover impressed with a big white question mark incorporating Bush’s profile as the dot, published by Rupert Murdock’s politically opportunistic ReganBooks. While it has some instructive retro-Freudian digressions, it obviously is not a responsible example of psychoanalysis. The author’s defense is that he’s only doing with Bush what a long-established unit deep in the CIA at Langley, Va., does with many foreign leaders: psychological profiling at a distance.
The author, nonetheless, is a political polemicist. The book, apparently his first, is the sort of psychological argument that speaks to a large minority of Americans who like to view the world scientifically. But it will undoubtedly steel the resolve of those in Bush’s Fundamentalist Christian political base who do not. The 4,000 scientists who complained about Bush policies in a recent petition had in mind the denial of global warming and the stifling of stem-cell research. But the use of psychology is another area where science and Christianity are on a political collision course.

Frank’s view, however, is a case of preemptive attack from the science side, as demonstrated in his view of Bush’s “born-again” Christian conversion. Bush replaced alcohol with religion, Frank says in several places. “Bush has long protected himself from experiencing his own suffering through drugs like alcohol, or God, or the expulsion of his own feelings of humiliation,” he says. And, in another place, “Bush now numbs himself through exercise, prayer, and sleep—activities that can be just as compulsive as overeating.” While a doctor would not want to deprive the president of sleep, Frank suggests removing the other “anxiety suppressors” would be good in a therapeutic setting.

Implicit in “Bush on the Couch” is the hard-line Freudian view of religious faith as delusion. This happens to be the prevailing view of non-Jungian psychology. It was only 10 years ago that the editors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, handbook of American psychologists, accepted a separate entry called “Religious or Spiritual Problem.” Previously religious crises were subsumed under the delusional ailments.

This is probably not a good time for psychology to face off with religiosity. Wide open “talking therapy” is under attack from within. The lead science page story in the New York Times (Aug. 10) says “a civil war” is underway between those who practice intuitive psychotherapy, where techniques are validated on the authority of strong personalities such as Freud, and those who advocate the scientific approach, based upon controlled studies of what works.

It’s no academic dispute. Insurance companies and others who pay the shrink bills are beginning to demand verification of response to treatment and even the development of standardized treatment manuals, according to the Times. If strict scientific method overtakes psychotherapy, can the discrediting of pop psychology book publishing be far behind?