Book Review: Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President By William Bowles

30 July 2004

Bush on the Couch or Bush in the House?

Review: Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President by Justin A. Frank, M.D.

“We have to face the very real possibility that the President of the United States is loony tunes”
Unnamed GOP political consultant

The English, for whatever reason, have a deep distrust of anything to do with peering into the workings of the mind, let alone the mind of (nominally) the most powerful man on the planet, George W. Bush. And whatever one thinks of the many competing approaches to the nature of the mind – from the Jungian to the Freudian, RD Laing or whomever, gaining some insight into the workings of Bush’s brain may be useful to understanding the workings of overdue capitalism, if for no other reason than that of unpacking the addictive nature of the capitalist system and how the workings of an individual’s mind can be useful in the maintenance of the system, even one as batty as Bush’s.

I suppose I should declare my own position on psychoanalysis before passing ‘judgement’ on Frank’s book, namely that as far as I’m concerned, whilst acknowledging that one can gain real insights about a person by analysing behaviour, speech, history and actions, the creation of some kind of overarching theory on the workings of the mind and the resultant behaviour is light years away from being anything approaching a science.

The idea of the mind contemplating itself presents us with deep contradictions. For me, the Heisenberg Principle rules, that is, observation itself influences the outcome hence any kind of complete understanding of the ‘mind’ is forever beyond us. Moreover, analysing Bush’s brain (or what’s left of it) in the isolation of his family background ignores the larger setting of the system that made it.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that particular kinds of people seek to become president of the United States but by the same token, people are chosen to be president for entirely different reasons. Hence the interplay between the individual who is shaped by his environment and who in turn shapes it, is critical to our understanding of society as well as the individual within it. Good old comrade Karl summed it as follows:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Bush on the Couch, to use Frank’s own description:

“…explores how the president’s unending effort to cope with his anxieties threads its way through his familiar life story, including:

  • The privileged, secretive family into which he was born, and its impact on his view of the world;
  • The lasting influence early fantasies and feelings had on his perception;
  • The role played by aggression, and the sometimes sadistic ways it is expressed in his behaviour;
  • His attempts to seek escape through substances, exercise, and religion;
  • His relationships with authority figures, both individual and institutional;
  • His impaired abilities to mourn, to admit responsibility, and to know himself, all of which are necessary for psychological growth;
  • His unwillingness to be wrong or to consider divergent perspectives, indicators of the clarity and quality of his thought processes;
  • The inconsistencies between his words and his actions-and between his words and the truth.”

Frank goes on to say:

“When…I offer a final assessment on Bush’s mental condition, keep this in mind: The diagnosis may be his, but the prognosis pertains to all of us as long as he is our president.”

One thing is for sure, at least according to Justin Frank M.D. the inside of George W’s head is pretty messed up. The question is, which came first, a messed up policy or a messed up president or do the two go hand in hand? And I suppose, this is where I find it difficult to reconcile Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President with Bush in the House.

The fundamental question concerning Frank’s analysis whether accurate or not: is there is a direct correlation between Bush’s brain [sic] and US policies? For according to Frank, Bush is at best an, ‘intellectually challenged’ alcoholic in denial, with Attention Deficit Disorder, most likely dyslexic and a person with sadistic, paranoid and megalomaniac tendencies. The idea that an individual with these kinds of severe problems can actually produce coherent policies of any kind is pretty hard to swallow. So what came first, Bush the insane or insane US policies? According to the good doctor, it was Bush the insane.

Frank’s psychoanalytic approach appears to be based upon the ideas of Melanie Klein (about whom I know nothing) but:

“according to Klein’s theories, our psychological life begins at birth, characterized by a primitive ability to differentiate between the nurturing environment of the womb and the chaotic, terrifying terrain into which we are born.” (pps.7-8)

Much of the problem with Bush’s brain stems from his relationship with his mother:

“It’s hard not see how Mrs. Bush, through no fault of her own, would be unprepared as an undernurtured young mother to provide vital early nurturing to her own newborn child. Her memoir offers a subtle but unmistakeable portrait of a self-blaming daughter who constantly doubted herself and her lovability, and who evolved into a stern and distant mother.” (p.12)

Frank goes on to say:

“Being so profoundly inward herself, Mrs. Bush would have trouble soothing her infant son; in turn that would have hampered her son’s ability to heal his original psychic split and manage his anxieties.” (pps. 12-13)

As a result:

“…Bush’s public, adult behaviour bears distinct hallmarks of this lack of integration, couple with an inability to perceive the complex nuances of reality… He shows a rigid inability to consider the idea that anything in his own behaviour might qualify as destructive; instead he projects such impulses onto his many perceived persecutors, to maintain his sense of self.” (p. 13)

It’s this ‘divided self’ according to Frank that supplies the:

“…drive to rid the world of dangerous people as not simply the policy judgement of a president-but as the drive of an undernurtured and emotionally hobbled infant, terrified of confronting the dangers within his own psyche.” (pps. 13-14)

All well and good and indeed Bush on the Couch goes on to describe just how messed up Bush’s brain really is, from his early days of blowing up frogs with fireworks through to his branding of fraternity pledges whilst a student at Yale. An altogether unsavoury and damaged individual but the real issue that I have a problem with is; to what degree does the psyche of Bush determine US domestic and foreign policy?

Occasionally, Frank touches on the issue of the rest of the Bush administration’s relationship to Bush the man, so for example, when Bush reluctantly appeared before the commission investigating the events surrounding 9/11 it was Bush’s:

“…insistence on appearing with [Dick] Cheney before the 9/11 Commission, a position so baldly cowardly that he proved utterly unable to defend or even attempt to explain it.’ (p. 84)

Frank quotes Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War where Bush told Woodward:

“The interesting thing about being the president…[is that]…I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” (p. 83)

Frank explains Bush’s behaviour in this way:

“Bush blocks others’ attempts to investigate him the way his mother must have blocked him when he was a child.” (p.83)

Poor old Barbara Bush, it’s all her fault because she was distant and cold, which may well be true but again do we have a president who blows up Iraqis because he blew up frogs because his Ma was distant and cold? After all, he’s not the first US president to blow up people and he won’t be the last, unfortunately. The danger with using psychoanalysis to ‘explain’ government policies and actions is that it divorces the man from his times. Do we also need a retroactive analysis of Nixon in order to explain why he bombed Cambodia back into the Stone Age? What did his mother do to him I wonder?

I am however, struck by the similarities between Bush and Blair, both of whom have an obsessive compulsion never to admit to being wrong. Frank describes this as Bush’s feeling of “omnipotence” and of “living outside the law”. Again, according to Frank, this aspect of Bush’s character has its origins in his messed up childhood:

“Adolescent omnipotence evolves into adult grandiosity, but they share a common pathology: Like the adolescent who feels he is never going to die, the grandiose adult denies the possibility of death, indulging instead in fantasies of immortality. Most adolescents behave this way at one time or another… The adult version of grandiosity can link to magical delusions in less perilous ways…[but]…[t]he same cannot be said of George w. Bush who has brandished his “wanted, dead or alive” mentality brazenly since September 11. By all appearances, Bush sees himself as the sheriff who can save the day.”” (p. 86)

Where I think the analysis of Frank is useful is in the broader context of the state of the state that is to say, do mentalities such as Bush’s reflect the state of the nation? Does the state select such individuals on the basis that a country that is in some kind of collective, capitalist psychosis throw up as it were, individuals like Bush? For how does Frank reconcile the gang that is assembled around Bush? For surely Bush was picked by them not the other way around.

This is an aspect of the book that is missing, for in focusing almost exclusively on the state of Bush’s brain, it omits any analysis of the people who surround him. One thing is abundantly clear, Bush was not picked for his intellectual or analytical abilities, so why was he selected? Frank would have us believe that Bush the Barmy was in competition with his old man.

The really important questions to ask are, what kind of society not only picks a man like Bush for president, but also goes along with the illusion that Bush is in charge? But Frank sidesteps these questions by asserting that Bush is no puppet:

“The popular theory that Bush is a puppet of Cheney and crew overlooks the psychological fact of Bush’s need to assert his independence, limited though it may be.” (p. 150)

Though the substance of the ‘psychological fact’ is rather thin. According to Frank:

“He [Bush] has invested too much in his struggle with his father to function as a puppet of his father’s former staff.” (p. 150)

Frank justifies this up by stating:

“Witness the almost obsessive demands of absolute loyalty that he places on his elder inner circle: Bush is extracting from his alleged puppeteers the unconditional devotion and reliability his father could never provide.”

And if his independence is as Frank admits, limited, just how limited is it and how does this square with Frank’s assertion of ‘witnesses’ to Bush’s ‘obsessive demands of absolute loyalty’? Either Bush demands, and gets, absolute loyalty or he doesn’t.

On the one hand then, we have Frank’s detailed analysis of Bush, the son of Barbara and George HW Bush and on the other, we have Bush the president, a deeply flawed and hence vulnerable and commensurately, dangerous individual who nevertheless is still able to command the absolute loyalty of his crew.

What is missing from Frank’s analysis is as my friend Patricia Murphy Robinson put it:

“]B]ourgeois psychiatry developed out of individualism, protection of the ruling elite and its state, [the] need to obfuscate and mystify the destructive relationships of the system…and the fact that “drugs” ease the pain of living and quiet the confusions, conflicts, etc. Plus add to profits. It’s also descriptive and unaware of etiology, i.e. how phenomena develop within the whole. Then we have the influence of all the social constructs and institutions, particularly family, school, religion, media – the whole nine yards.”

The issue then is two-fold: on the one hand it’s obviously extremely dangerous for the US and the entire planet to have a president who is in the words of Dr. Frank:

“…an untreated alcoholic with paranoid and megalomaniac tendencies”

And on the other, to define US policies as the work of one deranged individual, divorced from his times and the power elite who selected him to be president. It’s a pity that Dr. Frank didn’t put the entire power elite of US capitalism ‘on the couch’, for what Dubya as president reveals more than his individual insanity is an insane political and economic system, driven by compulsions that put Dubya’s brain to shame.

And as an inhabitant of the UK, what does it reveal about the workings of Tony Blair’s brain and the collective illusion maintained by the British state, that these ‘loony tunes’ actually have some inkling of what they are doing! And all the while the media go along with the illusion, actually treating the likes of Bush and Blair as if they are responsible individuals, taking their utterances at face value. One is tempted to adduce that the media mavens daren’t contemplate a state run by psychopaths for fear of the entire structure unravelling before their eyes. Fo the important issue here is not so much barmy Bush or batty Blair but the conspiracy of silence that surrounds those who purportedly inform us on events. What kind of mentality is it that can ignore the obvious? Surely anybody contemplating the actions of our leaders and the intelligentsia that props them up can only come to one conclusion, namely that a gigantic con job has been played on the people.

“Keep those motherfuckers away from me,” he screamed at an aide backstage. “If you can’t, I’ll find someone who can.”

Bush, storming off stage on July 8, when he refused to answer reporters’ questions about his relationship with indicted Enron executive Kenneth J. Lay.

So who is the more insane, Bush or those who are utterly complicit in his rantings?

Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President by Justin A. Frank, M.D. Regan Books, 2004.

See Bush Using Drugs to Control Depression, Erratic Behavior By Teresa Hampton
Editor, Capitol Hill Blue, Jul 28, 2004

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