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The Doctor Will See You Now

February 12, 2015

We had an interesting discussion with a psychiatrist recently. OK, we know what you’re thinking:  It’s about time they sought professional help. Well, it wasn’t like that. We asked to meet with this person — who is a friend of a friend — because we wanted to pose some questions about people in politics.

For decades, this individual was in private practice, but he also did work that brought him in contact with the public sector. His specialty was making decisions for the schools and courts about whether a person was a danger to himself or others. He’s retired now and, with the inducement of a fine bottle of wine, he agreed to chat with us.  So here’s our interview:

NT2: “Do you have any doubt that a person would have to be crazy to go into politics today?”

Dr: “It surely is a tough business… The degree to which nothing is private anymore surprises me. I grew up in an era when everybody pretty much knew the President was disabled, but it wasn’t discussed openly and it wasn’t a matter for the press to cover. Now it seems like there’s no area of a public figure’s life that isn’t fair game for the media.”

NT2: “That, plus the ugly nature of politics itself — isn’t it enough to question the sanity of someone who enters the field?”

Dr: “You’re serious with the premise, aren’t you? Well, actually, no. I presume most people who run for office do so because they believe in the concept of public service. I think these are individuals are quite capable — impressively so, at times. So no, this really isn’t a situation in which clinical standards of competency are raised.”

NT2: “But Doc, you gotta admit there have been some examples of bizarre behavior in New York politics and government and that these situations raise issues of mental health, no?  Take Eliot Spitzer. He clearly had issues.  He wanted to get caught, right?

Dr: “I wouldn’t want to opine on individual situations. But I certainly have observed situations in which individuals in politics were in need of mental health services.  But are the kinds of problems they face unusual, and do they experience problems to a greater degree than people in the general population? I’d say: No and no.”

NT2: A cosmic question for you: Can someone project all of the qualities needed to generate broad public support and get themselves elected while secretly being deeply disturbed.  Hitler? Was he really evil to begin with? Or was it a situation in which a person with some level of “goodness” for lack of a better word, later went mad in office?

Dr:  That’s a really hard call on Hitler. There’s been a lot written on it, some of which I’ve read. There may have been abuse by the father. There was evidence of him being withdrawn and unattached to anyone but the mother, and then the trauma of her death.   Perhaps a combination of factors  – an abusive father, inability to deal with the death of the person closest to him. Severe mental illness might have developed over time perhaps as a result of physical and emotional trauma in WW1 or other medical condition. I don’t know.  As for the larger question – do people go mad?  That’s not the phrasing we use, but the answer is yes. They do.

NT2: “So it’s possible that people in office can go mad under the stress of the position.”

Dr: “Of course. Does that surprise you? There are circumstances that can produce a breakdown in all of us … and brain chemistry can become altered over time in a way that produces profound mental illness.  But that’s certainly not exclusive to politics.”

NT2: “Can you see it coming?”

Dr: “There are warning signs. We’ve actually gotten a lot better at this. But the problem is that we don’t apply what we know in a consistent way. Moreover, there’s still the stigma of mental illness. Not wanting to talk about it. Not wanting to get involved and withdrawing from people who might have a problem. Not telling others what you observe… Not to be trite, but when I was married almost 50 years ago, I’ll always remember the pastor saying to us: “When your partner is most in need of love, they are likely to be least lovable.”  I tell that story to encourage people not to pull away from a friend or love one in need.

NT2: “A problem with politicians is that they become insulated. They talk to fewer and fewer people on the outside.  They surround  themselves with people who never challenge them.  Many people believe this is the situation with the current governor. It’s as if a wall has gone up around him. A wall of his own making. Isn’t that a sign of a mental health problem?”

Dr:  Again, I can’t and won’t comment on individual situations, but the general dynamic you describe, I’m familiar with. And I tend to be sympathetic to the individual in that position. The demands of the office are significant, and there’s just so much of oneself to give. There’s this desire, an insistence really, that the person in power be capable of interacting with countless people and processing all that experience in a positive way. But the reality is that everyone’s capacity is limited.”

NT2: “Yeah, but what if it was a situation in which very prominent people have tried repeatedly to reach the Governor and he’s not returning their calls. What if it was a bizarre situation in which the only person he was communicating with was another elected official, a female who resembles his ex-wife?

Dr: I really can’t comment on any specific situation. All I can do is point to warning signs that apply in any situation. If someone has cut themselves off from others, that’s a warning sign. If someone is displaying signs of a fixation in a relationship, that’s a warning sign. But I’d caution you not to rush to judgment in any specific situation because it’s hard to have a complete picture of what’s going on.  I never rush to judgment – not even after multiple sessions in which I get to examine an individual.”

NT2: “We’ve always wondered about politicians who alter their appearance.  The Cuomos had a dental procedure to fix a gap between their front teeth. Spitzer had some laser procedure to lessen the appearance of a five o’clock shadow. Schumer has had a hair transplant.  The Attorney General, for a while, was using mascara.  What does this say about the people? Why can’t they just be themselves?

Dr:  “I’m hesitant to comment in any kind of expansive way, but I’d probably try to distinguish between cosmetic procedures like the ones you describe and other procedures that speak to deeper issues such as gender identity – Bruce Jenner.  At some level, isn’t the elected official akin to an aging starlet who has a facelift? She’s trying stay competitive with the younger starlets.  But you’d be in better position to assess the need to do that. Is there a great deal of pressure on them to retain a youthful appearance? There certainly is throughout our society, but is it more pointed in politics? I don’t know the answer to that.”

NT2: We don’t think that there’s inordinate pressure on elected officials to be youthful. It can be helpful. But so can looking the part of wise elder.  We rather think it might be that politicians are a vain lot.

Dr: “Again, I’m not without sympathy for those in the political arena.  They have to deal with a set of expectations and their mistakes, when they make them, are right out there for everyone to see…”

NT2: “Doc, allow us to say this: You have personal qualities.  Intelligence and fair-mindedness.  Decency.  Moreover, you look the part of a wise and good man. You really have a presence in that regard. You are the kind of person who should be governor or senator. People would trust you and you wouldn’t let them down. How do you feel about that?

Dr:  I appreciate the sentiment, but…do you remember Walter Cronkite?  For a long time, he was considered the most trusted man in America.  His response was always: “I don’t have a policy on how to run the country.”   I guess my answer to you would be: Neither do I.

NT2: “We have to tell you this. It’s pretty cool: Cronkite actually said after he was retired that he would have accepted the vice presidential nomination and run with Eugene McCarthy if it had been offered to him. He said something to the effect of: “I would have jumped at the chance. I would have done anything to help end that damn war.”

Dr. “I didn’t know that. I’m very surprised…but no, politics isn’t for me, thank you.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    February 12, 2015 7:28 PM

    It’s not mental illness. It’s just arrogance and self-centeredness. See the latest copy of The Evangelist, by the Catholic Church. It contains sharp criticism of Andrew Cuomo’s eulogy of his father. They basically say he politicized his own father’s funeral. Who does that? A self-absorbed person.

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