Dr. Justin A. Frank, psychoanalyst and author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, watched this week’s State of the Union address from a somewhat unusual perspective. In his 2004 book, Frank examined Bush’s psyche through the lens of Freudian analysis (Melanie Klein’s brand of it, to be exact) and found it highly suspect.
Responsibility for the ailing Bush presidency rests on us all, Frank writes. “In the final analysis, our task is to watch the president, to remain alert to symptoms of trouble, and to do what we can to bring those symptoms to the attention of our elected officials,” Frank wrote, in a post-election epilogue to the paperback edition. “We need to encourage the news media…and anyone else who can confront the president, to challenge his delusions.”
Frank spoke with Voice contributor Alexis Sottile after Bush’s speech on Tuesday.
So, first impressions of the speech? My first impression was, from the
very beginning, he does the same thing he’s always done. He says one thing and does the opposite. He’s talking about working together, but as long as you choose the thing he wants. He sets up a system of two choices, either do this or do this. He uses the same divisive behavior, that the world is in black and white. He simplifies the world, which is part of his appeal, since we all want to believe the world is simpler from time to time.
The quote from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on that was, “I expect
the president to do exactly the opposite of what he says.” He’s very good at distracting you from what he’s really doing and what he really wants, like a con artist. He said he’s going to cut 140 programs, in the middle of this sort of lovey-dovey speech.
You have some caveats in your book about how well psychologists can examine someone who has never actually come to them for therapy, like a public figure. It’s called applied psychoanalysis; it’s the application of psychoanalytic principles to study a historical figure or a public figure whom you’re never going to have in your office. . . . It’s fraught with dangers because you don’t actually have the person in your office. For example, someone will ask me, “Is he [President Bush] still drinking?” Well, I can’t tell if he’s been drinking, but I can say that he has the dynamics of an alcoholic.
So, what was new from Bush, in this most recent speech? He brought up two new things: isolationism and pessimism. [He’s implying that] anyone who wants to bring the troops home now is a pessimist.
He converts their questioning into their being pessimists. He’s the most instinctive divider of people I’ve ever seen in public life. When he talks about pessimism, he’s saying, “You’re wrong.” When he uses the word “pessimism,” he is
trying to keep pessimism out of his brain, by putting it on other people.
And what about bringing the troops home from Iraq? He made an amazing statement saying he is not going to withdraw troops until the generals tell him to. He is saying he is not the commander in chief. “I’ve decided to send you to war and you can tell me when it’s over.” I was struck by that being an abdication of power.
And toward the end of his speech, he more or less in one sentence compared his belief in continuing the war in Iraq to Lincoln’s dedication to preserving the Union, to Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights, and to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II. It was amazing. It was very grandiose. We’ve never been attacked by Iraq. . . . Comparing himself and this mission to Martin Luther King was pathetic.
I imagine that anyone who’s president of the United States might feel a
bit grandiose. With him, it’s not about grandiosity. It’s about having a
disturbed relationship to reality. The last president who had this disturbed a relationship to reality was Richard Nixon. He was more paranoid; it was clearer. Here, it’s a bit glossed over.
Can you explain more about this “disturbed relationship to reality?” I think he doesn’t know he’s a liar. That vagueness is very typical of people who don’t tell the truth. It’s called confabulation, and it’s very typical of alcoholics. It reminds me of a child who’s been bad, who will placate their parents by saying, “Don’t worry. Everything is fine.” It’s like the child saying that everything will be OK, but they don’t have anything to back it up.
As I watched the speech, I tried to be aware of what you call “countertransference” toward Bush, of what feelings were being aroused in me. Despite myself, I found myself feeling something like pity– I think he invites pity in a way that will catch you off-guard. I’ve written about this before. It’s called the rope-a-dope technique, and it was called that in relation to Muhammad Ali. He would lie back on the ropes as if he’s being hit, but he’s really ducking the punches and then he’ll come back with an attack.
So, not to be a pessimist, but where is the hope? For him? For us? For the rest of the government? Our hope is–for the more naive of us–for him to
see the light about who he is and then change or mellow; for the less naive among us hope is meaningless and will only cause pain. Thus the only thing left is to act in whatever way can be effective to block his destructive behavior, by urging the press to stand up, by writing to Congress, by educating our friends. Convert our understanding into action rather than putting our heads in the sand and passively hold our collective breath for the next three years.