On Nixon’s Sanity…or Otherwise

August 18, 2011

I’ve  been hearing a lot about Nassir Ghaemi’s new book A First Rate Madness. Ghaemi, an academic psychiatrist with a string of prestigious teaching posts to his name.  He’s also the director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Tufts University Medical Center.  Using the lives of such notable leaders as Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, Ghaemi argues that one “should accept, even celebrate” the possibility that our decision-makers have dealt with mental illnesses —  all of which he says foster in those who have them the qualities of “realism, resilience, empathy and creativity.”

It’s an intriguing and counter-intuitive theory – which should rise or fall on the strength of Ghaemi’s grasp of the personalities he’s chosen as his subjects. I cannot claim any special knowledge of Lincoln, Churchill or Gandhi. As one of the late President’s biographer’s, however, and the only one to have spent considerable time with his psychotherapist – I’ll be intrigued to see the case he makes for Richard Nixon. According to Newsweek, Ghaemi concludes, that Nixon’s failing was that he was “too sane” for the times he lived in, his handling of the Watergate crisis too much like that of an ordinary person.

As quoted by Newsweek, Ghaemi’s Nixon “handled it [the Watergate crisis] the way an average person would handle it: he lied, and he dug in, and he fought.”

Lying was certainly a hallmark of Nixon’s life. Once out of public life he would declare on national television that in his view “dissembling” and “hypocrisy” were necessary to win and hold office. Henry Kissinger thought the man he long served incapable of discerning the real truth from his own distorted version of events. “I doubt,” said White House counsel John Ehrlichman, “if he knows himself when he’s not telling the truth.”

Nixon’s paranoid pugnacity was never more apparent than at the height of the 1952 presidential campaign – when the exposure of a secret fund established by wealthy supporters nearly cost him his spot as Ike’s running mate. Sixty million Americans tuned in to watch Nixon claim defiantly on television that not a cent from the funds’ money coffers had gone towards his personal expenses, that the only gift the family had received was that of the small black-and-white dog Checkers, whom his young daughters loved so much. He pledged not to quit the race.

America lapped up the treacle, but Nixon himself judged his TV performance a failure and afterwards burst into tears. From that point in the campaign Nixon on, often surrendered to tears. So often, that one of his most hardened campaign aides, Murray Chotiner said later that he had been “more worried about Dick’s state of mind than about the party.”

On the night of the Checkers speech Nixon tried frantically, as he would at times of crisis in coming years, to contact the therapist he had first consulted in 1951. Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, an internist who had made a specialty of psychosomatic illness and “psychoanalytically oriented treatment of emotional problems.” Nixon, Hutschnecker learned, suffered from depression, insomnia, and, possibly, periods of impotence. “Nixon wasn’t psychotic, “Hutschnecker concluded, “But he did have a good portion of neurotic tendencies.”

Journalists early on perceived Nixon’s instability. Eric Sevareid, writing in 1960, referred to Nixon’s “black spells of depression.” “At times,” wrote Walter Cronkite, “he actually seems unbalanced.” During the Watergate crisis, concern as to his state of mind reached a crescendo. “He was acting so strangely,” thought John Herbers of the New York Times, “that it just brought on speculation.” Newsweek’s Henry Hubbard recalled that at one point most of the White House press corps suspected the president had “gone off his rocker.” Archibald Cox, then Watergate Special Prosecutor, reportedly expressed the same concern. Some of those closest to him thought, in the words of Attorney General Elliott Richardson, the President was “losing control, emotionally and mentally.”

Coupled to the depression and insomnia, and seemingly inseparable from it, was Nixon’s tendency to self-medicate – in Nixon’s case with both alcohol and the drug Dilantin – which is prescribed for epilepsy but supposedly gives anti-depressant benefits. Years later, while reviewing the White House tapes prior to their release, staff at the National Archives heard time and again the clink of glasses, followed by Nixon’s slurred, incoherent voice.

Senior advisers were aware of the problem. “He was given to exploding, “ said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Sullivan, “particularly in the course of the evening if he had had a few drinks.” “Nixon drank exceptionally at night,” noted Kissinger’s aide Roger Morris, “There were many times when a cable would come in late and Henry would say, ‘There’s no sense waking him up; he’d be incoherent.”

Kissinger himself gave contradictory accounts, writing at one point that the President’s drinking “occurred only rarely, always at night, and almost never in the context of major decisions.” Others’ recollections differed. At his Florida retreat, according to a Secret Service source, Nixon once lost his temper during a conversation about Cambodia. “They were half in the tank, sitting around the pool,” the source said, “and Nixon got on the phone and said: ‘Bomb the shit out of them!” Nixon’s instability had already been a factor even early in the presidency, during the flap over the downing of a U.S. spy plane over North Korea. “Here’s the president,” recalled Kissinger’s then aide Lawrence Eagleburger, “ranting and raving, drunk in the middle of a crisis.”

Dr. Hutschnecker revealed much, but not all, about his treatment of Nixon in our interviews. As for Nixon’s colleagues’ memories –  as mere recollections must –  they fall short of the detailed evidence required to make an accurate psychiatric diagnosis. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Ghaemi emphasized the role of depression in shaping some of the world’s greatest leaders – what then will he have made of Nixon?


1 Comment

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One response to “On Nixon’s Sanity…or Otherwise

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