White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 16, 2004; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

Today Dan was joined by Justin Frank, Georgetown psychoanalyst and author of "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President," an unauthorized "applied psychoanalysis" of the president. Here is an excerpt from Chapter One.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


Dan Froomkin: Justin: Thanks for much for joining us today. Your book is clearly generating some buzz. Before we get to the reader questions, give me a quick sense of what sort of reaction you've gotten thus far.

Justin Frank: Thank you for having me online. So far the reaction I've received has been positive from colleagues as well as media people. I had an interview last evening on Air America on the Garofolo/Seder show which was lively and informed. Reviews of the book are just starting to come in.


Arlington, Va.: Do you think your initial bias against the President has caused you to grasp for facts that fit a preconceived conclusion? I think I see this happening in at least excerpt from the linked summary of your book:

"His comfort living outside the law, defying international law in his presidency as boldly as he once defied DUI statutes and military reporting requirements"

I don't think Bush has lived outside international law any more than other world leaders (Clinton fighting in Kosovo without UN approval, Chiraq sending troops to Africa without UN aproval, Truman going to Korea without UN approval). I also don't think, as sad as it is, that he is all that uncommon for getting a DUI. The "military reporting requirements" bit is just absurd in my mind because there is substantial evidence that he did fulfill these requirements.

Do you really have a scientific methodology for coming to your conclusions, or are you just on a fishing expedition to make the President look bad?

Justin Frank: You raise some very important questions. I was concerned about policies promulgated by President Bush before I started my study of him. However, there have been other presidents whose policies I have also disagreed with. What was different about Bush was his patterns of behavior - to use your question, a pattern of living outside the law. Other people have been arrested for DUI, as you note. Not many go on drinking for ten years after that, nor do they run for president. But I agree, he is not unique as a person. He is unique as a president, however.


Boone, N.C.: To Justin Frank

Has your assessment of Bush's behavior received endorsements from your colleagues and/or other psychologists or psychoanalysts?

Justin Frank: I have received endorsements from other psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, most notably from Dr. James Grotstein, MD who is Professor at UCLA Medical Center. He gave high praise for the book and for its scholarship. I also received endorsement from Dr. Irvin Yalom, MD, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University Medical School. He wrote that the book is "compelling and persuasive and downright frightening."


Coral Gables, Fla.: What's your response to this Blog Post by "Respectful of Otters"?


"....Frank told us yesterday that his opinions are based on publicly available materials, adding, "I've never met the president or any members of his family.""

This kind of garbage is forbidden by the ethics code of my own profession. It took about ten minutes with Google to determine that it also violates the ethical code of psychiatrists [link]:

" On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement."

You don't diagnose a patient you haven't examined. You don't discuss your diagnoses without the patient's permission. And if your only defense against the latter rule is that the person you've publicly diagnosed isn't really your patient, that alone ought to let you know that you've strayed far from the requirements of professional ethics. A psychiatric diagnosis is a clinical tool, not a rhetorical device; to treat it otherwise substantially undermines the reputation of psychiatry and psychology. Frank is a former leader of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, but there is simply nothing socially responsible about using psychiatric terminology as a stick with which to beat your political enemies. There's nothing socially responsible about misusing the mantle of the professional expert. I am appalled.

Justin Frank: This is an important question concerning the fact that I never met with George W Bush personally. I am using the technique of applied psychoanalysis which was first introduced by Freud in his analyses of Leonardo, Moses, and Little Hans. That technique, applying psychoanalytic principles to available material, is now used by CIA psychiatrists hired by the US Government who work at the George H.W. Bush Center in Langly VA. I think these techniques should be available to the American public as well. Therefore the APA guidelines you cite do not pertain to my work - Bush on the Couch is not about being "asked for an opinion about an individual" but rather it is an in depth study of writings, videotapes, biographies, news reports, of an individual.


Dan Froomkin: After his speech at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Fla., today, Bush was to have met with 11 families of troops who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. He's done this about a dozen times, all told. But he's not attended a single funeral. He banned photographs of the coffins returning from Iraq. And he has really, by and large, avoided talking about the dead. Some people think that's not very presidential.

You write in your book that "Bush's behavior strongly suggests an unconscious resentment toward our own servicemen, whose bravery puts his own (nonexistent) wartime service record to shame." But that's a pretty brutal thing to say about the Commander in Chief, isn't it?

Justin Frank: President Bush has not attended a single funeral - other than that of President Reagan. In my book I explore some possible reasons for that, whether or not it is "presidential". I am less interested in judging his behavior on political grounds than I am in thinking about its meaning both to him and to the rest of us. He has spent a lifetime of avoiding grief, starting with the death of his sister when he was 7 years old. His parents didn't help him with what must have been confusing and frightening feelings. He also has a history of evading responsibility and perhaps his not attending funerals has to do with not wanting to see the damage his policies have wrought.

It would take too long for me to answer your question about his unconscious resentment toward our own servicemen - probably the rest of this online session. Too many playwrights describe old men sending the young to die, making Bush not at all unique. But there is something about envy of the young, envy of their strength, envy of their courage. He also envied his father who was a military hero himself. It is a complex issue but one worth exploring.


Tinseltown: Forget that cue card reading figurehead George W. Bush: let me ask about someone American really care about. How would you analyze Tony Soprano?

Justin Frank: There is already a book written analyzing Tony Soprano, written by Glen Gabbard, MD.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Freud made psychological observations of famous people without personally observing them. How accurate is this field of psychological observation from a distance, what are its limitations, and what are its advantages?

Justin Frank: Thank you for this question. The limitations of not making direct clinical observations of patients are great: we are not able to avail ourselves of the powerful tools of transference and countertransference - the patient's feelings about us and ours in relation to them. We do not get to see what is replayed from their childhood conflicts that get expressed in the consulting room.
On the other hand, I never get to observe my patients outside the consulting room. With Bush I get to see all his speeches, press conferences, photo ops, read his speeches, read biographical material as well. I find that much of applied psychoanalysis is "accurate" in that it helps us see patterns of behavior and gives us tools to think about those patterns. It is not conclusive - and therefore functions in the realm of interpretation. Interestingly enough, Bush seems to continue to write my book after it has been printed - just two weeks ago he denied knowing the now-discredited Chalabi despite having invited him to sit with Laura at the State of the Union address this year. I called this denial mechanism the KWD, or the "Kenny Who Defense" which he used so widely when asked if he knew Ken Lay of Enron. That was the same Ken Lay who was a chief contributor to Bush's 2000 election bid.


Arlington, VA: You replied to me that George Bush is "unique as a president" because of his "pattern of living outside the law." The problem is, you are starting out with a set of assumptions that are colored by your political views. Many people would not agree that Bush is displaying this pattern of behavior. Some might argue that Bill Clinton had even greater troubles with the law, leading him to commit the felony of perjury. I don't recall your book on his psychological background.

Justin Frank: I am answering this because you are concerned about my bias.
I did not analyze Clinton, and he certainly had/has his share of character flaws. He did not take money earmarked for Afghanistan and use it to prepare for a war in Iraq. This is not just outside the law but outside the Constitution. There are numerous examples of similar behavior seen in Bush. But I am not here to compare but to look in depth into What we see in this president.


Washington, D.C.: Let me see if I've got this straight: one can't quit drinking, except with the help of 12-steppers or a professionals such as yourself? Sounds like more blather from the Recovery Industry.

Justin Frank: I don't think anybody makes money from 12-step recovery. It is not much of an industry. But what is important is that the "ism" part of alcoholism was not treated ever and he has no capacity to take responsibility for his behavior which he dismisses as "youthful indescretions". Until forty?

One needs a president who can look inside himself and think about matters of grave importance to the nation and to the world. Black and white thinking results most often from untreated alcoholism.


Santa Clara, Calif.: Dr. Frank,

A few weeks ago we learned that Pres. Bush has Saddam's handgun in a case in a room off the oval office. Apparently he proudly shows it off to visitors. Given all the negative events that have transpired since Hussein's capture what do you make of this disconnect?

Justin Frank: I think that the Bush who proudly shows off Saddam's handgun to visitors is the same Bush who proudly pranced aboard the aircraft carrier last year declaring that the war in Iraq was over. His behavior is similar to that of an eight-year-old boy playing superman and believing that he won a war all by himself, that he captured Saddam by himself. The behavior is "disconnected" not only from current events, but from a fundamental understanding of self.


Washington, D.C.: What do you hope to accomplish with this book? Is it your conclusion that the President's psychiatric limitations should disqualify him from holding the office -- or at the very least, that voters should conclude from your analysis that alternative candidates should be selected?

Justin Frank: I hope to enrich the discussion about our choices for president in 2004. Until this book there has been a sense that employers at MacDonalds know more about the psychological profiles of their employees than we do about the people we select to hold the most important job in our nation.

I hope that the book will help us think about patterns of behavior that we see, that it will help us watch our leaders more closely. And that it will help us think.


Columbus, Ohio: Is Chapter I about Bush or Reagan? After a week of nauseating tributes to the president who claimed ketchup is a vegetable for poor children in the school lunch program, and who unilaterally kicked people off disability until they could prove eligibility (during which time some people died), I am intrugued - and terrified- by the parallels.

Justin Frank: I appreciate your comment comparing Bush's behavior toward children with Reagan's. Both were relatively absent fathers, detached from their own children. What Reagan started in the 1980s (really in the 1970s in California) Bush is continuing, though the chapter was explicitly about George W. Bush.


Philadelphia, PA: This is more of a comment than a question, but I read a review of your book yesterday that mentioned the death of Bush's sister and the possible effects of the suppression of his feelings about that. Frankly, it's one of the few times I've felt some real compassion for him. I also lost a sister, when I was 8 and she was 7, more than 40 years ago, and it was also true in my family that no one seemed to notice that I might feel responsible for death. With some help I managed to figure it out too many years later. (Fortunately, I wasn't holding an important public office during the time I was struggling with it unconsciously.) I have since learned that the most important thing a parent can do is to help a child be responsible for his or her feelings. I don't forsee any help like that for Bush, since he's already been "saved," but hopefully your book will raise others' awareness of how much damage one repressed person can accomplish.

Justin Frank: Your comment is so moving that I want to include it in my response: "I have since learned that the most important thing a parent can do is to help a child be responsible for his or her feelings. I don't forsee any help like that for Bush, since he's already been "saved," but hopefully your book will raise others' awareness of how much damage one repressed person can accomplish."
I, too, was moved when reading about what Bush must have gone through. He did have nightmares for several months afterward, but from what I can tell there was no discussion of his feelings - no place to talk about guilt, normal aggression and relief, and terrible loss itself. Parents must pay attention to their children, and I have the feeling that Bush received little, if any, such attention. I also think that helps me understand why it is easy for him to pay little attention to the real and palpable losses of the American people - from 911 to Afghanistan to Iraq. He thinks only of revenge for 911 or else of continuing to live life as one normally might do.


Houston, Texas: I'm not a Bush fan, but your approach does seem like shooting fish in a barrel. By applying various psychological symptoms and neuroses from such an external standpoint, couldn't you make virtually anyone look a little crazy?

Justin Frank: Yes I could make anyone look crazy. And I'm a target for that as well. We all are.

I hope that if you read the book you will see that I am not just pulling out all the psychiatric stops to "get" Bush.
His behavior calls for examination.


Pomona, Calif.: I would be interested in seeing your methods of analysis applied to John Kerry's pattern of changing his position on issues based on the political expediency of the moment. Surely there must be some deep wound from his childhood that prevents him from developing a principled position and sticking with it in the face of criticism. And what are the implications for how he would govern, given this pattern of indecision?

Justin Frank: I would love to apply my method of analysis to John Kerry. I think this kind of exploration is warranted with all people who hold such immense responsibility.

Again, I am not looking for causes as much as for patterns and meaning of those patterns.


Chicago, Ill.: I've read articles about Bush that describe him as a "dry drunk." Do you think he's still an alcoholic, or that the stress of not drinking contributes to his problems?
Do you think there's a point when the straw will finally break the camel's back and Bush will start decompensating?

Dan Froomkin: Lots of readers are asking about this "dry drunk" hypothesis.

Justin Frank: I was concerned in the April 13 Press Conference that Bush had begun to decompensate. He was unable to anwswer the question about whether or not he thought he'd made mistakes in the prosecution of the Iraq war. In some ways he gave his most honest answer - a halting and defensive one, but genuine. He couldn't think and needed written questions in advance.

I have no idea whether or not Bush is drinking - I would doubt it as he must be under scrutiny by so many people. But the issue again is about the "ism" part of alcoholism - the need he has to order his internal chaos. This need at times borders on the desperate - rigid schedules, repeated prayer meetings, excessive time away from Washington, and even fears of testifying alone in front of the 911 Commission.


Long Beach: Greetings from California,

May I suggest to those who question your ability or right to observe the president that they remember the fate of Vladimir Bekhterev, who diagonosed Stalin as a paranoid, and was quickly poisoned by his "fearless leader"? BTW, Bekhterev would be a good dedication in your book.

Justin Frank: Thank you for your warning. Several of my firends said that they would consult during the writing but did not want to be acknowledged by name in print.

I hope that is an acceptable response to your comment.
I do get anxious more about followers than about Bush himself. Stalin he is not.


Monticello, New York: Dr. Frank,
I understand you learned that Bush exploded firecrackers inside of frogs as a youngster. How did you learn that, what does it indicate to you about the pathology of the youngster, and how do you think that pathology has manifested itself in the behavior of the adult? Thank you.

Justin Frank: There were several articles about Bush's childhood in which his friends were interviewed describing his having blown up frogs. This was after rainy periods in the otherwise dry Midland world. He also used beebee guns to shoot them, one friend reported. A group of them did.

As a fraternity man at Yale he branded pledges on the buttocks with a hot coat-hanger. This was written up in the NYTimes in 1967 and he was interviewed then about it.

His smirk as an adult, his mimicry of patients on death row while he was Governor are all part of a similar pattern.

Everyone has sadistic bits in his personality. The job of a mature person is to recognize those elements and control them or channel them in some way other than inflicting harm on others.


Undisclosed Location, Suburban Maryland: My more psychodynamically-informed co-workers and I have from time to time engaged in debate as to exactly where our president fits into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental disorders (DSM-IV). So I herald the arrival of your book (and this chat) with great interest.

My personal take on Mr. Bush has been one of Antisocial Personality Disorder (DSM code 301.7) as he meets the threshold of three criteria for that diagnosis: deceitfulness (item 2), impulsivity or failure to plan ahead (3), and consistent irresponsibility (6) -- although evidence for lack of remorse (7) is certainly in abundance as well.

However, I will concede that his association with the neocons who hijacked our foreign policy (flushing 40 years of multilateralism down the drain in favor of a "high country sheriff" game) suggests Shared Psychotic Disorder (297.3).

Then there is a nagging sense, too, of something on the Autistic Disorder spectrum (299.90). He appears to meet five criteria: (1b) failure to develop peer relationships (see diplomatic failures); (2a) delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language; (2c) stereotyped and repetitive use of language (responds "9/11 changed everything" to any questioning of his policies); (3a) encompassing preoccupation with one or more interest that is abnormal in intensity or focus (see Iraq obsession); and (3b) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines (see same).

And finally, there is the unclassifiable, but intense, sense of arrested development. The insistence on seeing the world in black and white is characteristic of a child who simply hasn't yet begun to perceive the complexities of the adult world.

You've obviously done a lot of thinking on this as well. So we'd be grateful if you could help us sort all this out (and maybe settle some bets?). Thanks!;

Justin Frank: In my book I did not make a DSM diagnosis of President Bush.
My book is about character and behavior patterns to take note of, not about diagnosis. It is aimed at helping people to think about his competence to govern and his method of governing rather than to put him in a category.

As much has I have been willing to examine his character in depth, I do not feel that trying out a diagnosis will serve any useful purpose.


Hunsterville, NC: Justin, any word from the White House on your book? Official or otherwise?

Justin Frank: No official word form the White House, other than twice being told they "don't do book reviews."

I have no idea. I am talking about Bush in a different way, but I think the White House is more concerned with people who have specific goods on them - people like O'Neill and Clarke.


Dan Froomkin: Justin, thanks for joining us today. You sparked a great conversation here, and I suspect in many other places as well. Readers, thanks for all your terrific questions -- sorry we couldn't get to all of them.

Justin Frank: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this format - something completely new to me. I hope it hasn't been too argumentative but is rather in the service of deepening discussion and thought.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive