Presidential or pathological? That is the highly provocative question being asked in Bush on the Couch, a new book in which psychoanalyst and George Washington University professor Justin Frank uses the president's comments and behavior, along with biographical data, to craft a comprehensive psychological profile of Bush 43.
It's not a pretty picture, but it goes a long way in explaining exactly how our country got itself into the mess we are in: an intractable war, the loss of allies and international goodwill, a half-trillion-dollar deficit.
Poking around in the presidential psyche, Frank uncovers a man suffering from megalomania, paranoia, a false sense of omnipotence, an inability to manage his emotions, a lifelong need to defy authority, an unresolved love-hate relationship with his father and the repercussions of a history of untreated alcohol abuse.
Other than that, George Bush is the picture of psychological health.
One of the more compelling sections of the book is Frank's dissection of what he calls Bush's "almost pathological aversion to owning up to his infractions" -- a mind-set common to individuals Freud termed "the Exceptions," those who feel "entitled to live outside the limitations that apply to ordinary people."
Limitations like, for instance, not driving while drunk. Or the limitation of having to report for required Air National Guard duty. Or the limitation of having to adhere to international law.
And it doesn't help one outgrow this sense of entitlement when Daddy and his pals are always there to rescue you when you get in trouble -- whether it's keeping you out of Vietnam by bumping you to the top of the National Guard waiting list or bailing you out of lousy business deals with cushy seats on corporate boards or making sure the votes in Florida (just another limitation) aren't properly counted.
But you don't make it as far as W. has without some psychological defenses of your own -- especially when it comes to insulating yourself against your own fears and insecurities.
Raised in a family steeped in privilege and secrecy, and prone to the intense aversion to introspection and denial of responsibility that are the hallmarks of a so-called dry drunk -- one who has kicked the bottle without dealing with the root causes of the addiction -- Bush has become a master of the psychological jujitsu known as Freudian Projection.
For those of you who bailed on Psych 101, Freudian Projection is, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a defense mechanism in which "the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by falsely attributing to another his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses or thoughts."
In layman's terms, it's the soot-stained pot calling the kettle black.
On the 2004 campaign trail, it's the pathologically inconsistent Bush attempting to portray John Kerry as a two-faced flip-flopper.
It's become the Bush-Cheney campaign mantra. GOP talking points No. 1 through 100. The president's go-to laugh and applause line: "Sen. Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue," chided Bush at a spring fundraiser. "My opponent clearly has strong beliefs, they just don't last very long." Ba-da-boom!
But it's George W. who can't seem to pick a position and stick to it. He's reversed course more times than Capt. Kirk battling Khan in the midst of the Mutara Nebula. Gone back on his word more times than Tony Soprano. Flip-flopped more frequently than a blind gymnast with an inner-ear infection.
The list of Bush's major policy U-turns is as audacious as it is long. Among the whiplash-inducing lowlights:
In September 2001, Bush said capturing bin Laden was "our No. 1 priority." By March 2002, he was claiming, "I don't know where he is. I have no idea and I really don't care. It's not that important."
In October 2001, he was dead set against the need for a Department of Homeland Security. Seven months later, he thought it was a great idea.
In May 2002, he opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission. Four months later, he supported it.
During the 2000 campaign, he said that gay marriage was a states' rights issue: "The states can do what they want to do." During the 2004 campaign, he called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Dizzy yet? No? OK:
Bush supported CO2 caps, then opposed them. He opposed trade tariffs, then he didn't. Then he did again. He was against nation building, then he was OK with it. We'd found WMD, then we hadn't. Saddam was linked to Osama, then he wasn't. Then he was... sorta. Chalabi was in, then he was out. Way out.
In fact, Bush's entire Iraq misadventure has been one big, costly, deadly flip-flop:
We didn't need more troops, then we did. We didn't need more money, then we did. Preemption was a great idea -- on to Iran and North Korea! Then it wasn't -- hello, diplomacy! Baathists were the bad, then Baathists were our buds. We didn't need the U.N., then we did.
And all this from a man who, once upon a time, made "credibility" a key to his appeal. (Well, in his defense, he's never lied about sex.)
Now, God knows, I have no problem with changing your mind -- so long as you admit that you have and can explain why. But Bush steadfastly -- almost comically -- refuses to admit that there's been a change, even when the entire world can plainly see otherwise. He's got his story and he's sticking to it. But that darn Kerry, he keeps shifting his positions!
At the end of his analysis, Frank offers the following prescription: "Having seen the depth and range of President Bush's psychological flaws... our sole treatment option -- for his benefit and for ours -- is to remove President Bush from office." You don't need to be a psychiatrist to heartily second that opinion.