A Psychobiography
Vamik D. Volkan,
Norman Itzkowitz,
and Andrew W. Dod
The Presidential crisis, along with the many Clinton sex jokes, seems to be disappearing. People are losing interest in the prurient aspects of the affair, but everyone is asking the same question: "How can such a clever guy do something so stupid?" It's a question that has been asked before about an earlier resident of the White House, who was ultimately evicted.

Several years ago, Senator Pell, responding to a comment I made after his address to the Council on Foreign Relations in Providence, said, "I have always felt that we needed more psychiatrists in government." He foresaw a role for psychiatrists in understanding the motivations and behaviors of world leaders, and in helping them to free themselves from acting upon unconscious conflicts in the world arena. His remarks were greeted by those assembled with a good deal of irritated muttering.

Now comes a psychoanalyst and his colleague at the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia --- along with a marketing consultant --- with a retrospective analysis of our most enigmatic President.

Is it within the bounds of ethical and professional propriety for a psychiatrist to apply his craft to historical figures? In 1964, a group of psychiatrists, alarmed at the prospect that presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would lead us into a nuclear war, issued a statement declaring him mentally unstable and unfit to take office. In the furor that followed, a principle was added to the American Psychiatric Association's Principles of Ethics stating that a psychiatrist shall not offer a professional opinion or diagnosis about a person whom he has not personally examined.

Yet others (who have not called themselves psychiatrists) have applied the same kind of analysis to historical and fictional characters. Thomas Mann, writing in the thrall of the revolutionary theories of Sigmund Freud, compiled a massive historical novel, Joseph and His Brothers, based on psychoanalytic thought. And the writer(s) of the original story, who had never heard of Freud, didn't do so badly themselves in terms of character analysis.

When I was a child, I clearly understood the difference between biography and fiction, as well as the difference between a historical novel and a history book. I was raised to believe that biography was straight fact and a historical novel was filled with imaginative fabrications which made a story more vivid and interesting. Now the distinctions are quite blurred. Gore Vidal in The New Yorker, reviewing Seymour Hersh's new book on John Kennedy, writes of "the great disinformation apparatus put in place forty years ago, a monster that even now continues to metastasize within academe and the media to such a degree that myth threatens to overthrow history. Spin is all. Spin of past as well as present."

Nixon himself had something to say about it: "I happen to think that most of the so-called new 'science' of psychobiography is pure baloney." And I guess if it didn't bother Kitty Kelley that she didn't interview the members of the Royal Family, it shouldn't bother Vamik Volkan and his co-authors that they didn't meet Richard and the other Nixons. If you're tired of trashing or deifying Princess Di, there's always Dick Nixon to kick around.

The authors ask the right questions about Nixon:

The authors offer us three faces of Nixon, all part of a narcissistic and paranoid personality:

The best insights into the character of tragic heroes come from Shakespeare. And Nixon was a tragic hero. Nixon: A Psychobiography reminds us of Nixon's many accomplishments on the foreign and domestic fronts, achievements that have been buried under the avalanche of tragic flaws that brought him down. And the accomplishments were many: facilitating "détente" with the Soviet Union, opening the door to communication with mainland China, promoting the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, ending the Vietnam war, and making major strides in desegregation.

In addition, the psychobiography is filled with interesting little facts about Nixon:

There are many good laughs, as well, for those who are not Freudian Fundamentalists:

There is a danger, however, in dismissing worthy insights into Nixon's personality and behavior in Nixon: A Psychobiography as mere psychoanalytic bullshit. Many of them have a clarity and validity that enhance our understanding of this puzzling man.

The book is a serious one, thoughtful, well-documented, interesting. and fun to read. Like psychoanalysis itself, it is full of promise and asks the right questions; but it comes up short on answers. The journey is fascinating, but the outcome is often unrewarding, and the truth, like the real Nixon, remains obscure.

--- Michael A. Ingall, M. D.

[Ingall is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine.
He claims to have voted for Kennedy, McGovern, Humphrey --- but neither Hoover nor Coolidge.]

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