Shrinking Clinton's political future

October 28, 1994|By Richard E. Vatz & Lee S. Weinberg

PRESIDENT Clinton is mentally ill; he suffers from "obsessive compulsive personality disorder." Moreover, his "mind is out of control," he's "cognitively disabled," and he is "mentally impaired." So says Edith Efron, conservative contributing editor for Reason magazine, heretofore a respectable opinion journal, in a lengthy cover story in the magazine's November issue. The nasty political right now wants to portray "Slick Willie" as "Sick Willie."

This is just the latest salvo in an inglorious history of the psychiatric discrediting of political opponents in America. But until Ms. Efron's attack, it had been perpetrated primarily by the political left against the right.

Richard Nixon was -- and is posthumously -- routinely psychoanalyzed and diagnosed by journalists and psychiatrists. He was always good for a fanciful diagnosis of some mental malady.

Perhaps the most despicable example of politically motivated psychiatric witch hunts occurred in 1964, when Fact magazine polled literally all the psychiatrists in America, asking the question: "Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as president of the United States?" Of the 2,417 psychiatrists who responded, nearly half opined that Barry Goldwater was mentally unfit to be president. Fact printed some the detailed responses of psychiatrists, many of whom claimed, even though they had never even met Mr. Goldwater, that he was psychotic. (Ms. Efron allows that "Clinton is clearly not psychotic . . . But his problem is nonetheless severe.")

Conservatives were rightfully outraged and appalled in 1964. It was political preference masquerading as medical diagnosis. Regardless of their contempt for President Clinton, conservatives should be no less outraged now.

To be fair, there are psychiatrists who have publicly disdained such long-distance analysis of politicians, but they are few in number now, as they were when the Fact survey was published. There are journalists, too, who publicly object to such appraisals as patently worthless and politically motivated. They, too, seem to come forward in small numbers.

Indeed, Ms. Efron is not alone this year in her journalistic foray into the recesses of Bill Clinton's mind. While none of the other recent pseudo-medical opinions on the president's mind come close to the extensiveness or scurrilousness of Ms. Efron's cowardly psychiatric sucker-punch, they, too, come to psychological conclusions consistent with their political agenda.

The November/December issue of the left-leaning Mother Jones sports a lengthy quote from psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton who sees Bill Clinton's indecisiveness (a trait Ms. Efron identifies as symptomatic of Mr. Clinton's mental illness) as evidence of a personality marked by "flexibility," a quality seen by him as appropriate for our times. Dr. Lifton goes on to praise Bill Clinton's sensitivity and his capacity to change, learn and renew himself, though Dr. Lifton regrets that the president often appears to lack the courage of his convictions.

Bob Woodward's book "The Agenda," which provided an inside look at the Clinton White House when it was published earlier this year, revealed that Mr. Clinton gets very angry when he is given no strategy to put a spin on bad news. Of course, the psychspin on that fact reflects political motives as well: To Reason, Mr. Clinton's apparent indecision and lack of focus is pathological. To Mother Jones it shows "he's like the rest of us -- confused by rapid change and uncertainty."

The New Yorker looks down its psychiatric nose at Bill Clinton and former President Carter in a half tongue-in-cheek assessment of their "co-dependency," which feeds on each other's "needs and weaknesses." This type of analysis, especially when made palatable by a certain analytical breeziness, is not as objectionable or pernicious as that of the psychiatric labelers, but is nonetheless pure politics dressed up as psychological analysis.

It is in fact perfectly legitimate to question the president's style and motives in the handling of political issues, in addition to, of course, the content of his decisions. Good journalists have pointed out with plausible, cogent analysis Mr. Clinton's undermining propensity to avoid confrontation, avoid decision-making, and split all differences with opponents in an effort to be all things to all people. This is far different from the deceptive efforts to discredit political opponents with devastating or demeaning psychiatric labels in lieu of honest criticism of presidential policies or decision-making styles.

Using psychiatric labels to discredit a president is the last rhetorical refuge of a political scoundrel, and Ms. Efron's eager "gotcha" tone in her piece confirms her motives. Such mean-spirited "diagnosis" fools few fair-minded people, and holds the strong potential for winning (deserved) sympathy for the object of the attack.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson State University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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