BuzzFlash: You are a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. What is the precedent and what are the limitations of applying a psychoanalytic model to a figure that you don’t know, a public figure?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: There’s a long tradition of what’s called applied psychoanalysis. There’s an actual discipline of it. And what that is is the intense study of a historical figure or even of a fictional character in a novel, but an intense study of everything you can find when you can’t have that person in your consulting room, and then applying psychoanalytic principles to an understanding of their life history. One looks for patterns of behavior. One looks for congruencies in their life story that you can begin to see from different sources. And with the case of Bush, or in studying any historical figure, one looks at their own writings and their own behavior that’s available to the public at large. The other thing that makes it very useful to be able to study someone like Bush is the tremendous number of press conferences and public appearances that he’s made. There’s a lot of chance to observe him in public arenas.
The limitations, however, of doing it without knowing the person personally is that I don’t get to use a firsthand relationship with the patient, which is really essential to a good psychoanalysis. Also, I don’t get to use my own counter-transference directly, meaning my feelings towards the patient that get evoked throughout the time of the sessions. I was concerned that I had built in antipathy towards President Bush that I worried would make it much harder for me to do a balanced psychoanalytic approach to him. So I was worried about being a prisoner of my counter-transference, if you will.
That proved to be a very interesting experience intellectually and psychologically for me. As I got to know him better, and as I saw different pictures of him -- including a movie of his 2000 campaign made by Alexandra Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter -- he became much more alive to me as an affable, charming person who really was good at making people feel happy, good, and well-cared-for. I learned a lot by watching him and getting to know him.
In terms of psychoanalysis, the classical approach of looking at transference and counter-transference was denied me. But the other side of it was that I had a tremendous amount of material to pay attention to. And there’s a long tradition of doing this in my field. Freud did it. In more recent years, the CIA has done psychoanalytic studies or psychological profiling of every foreign leader, with an attempt to help them understand how to negotiate with them and how to predict their responses.
BuzzFlash: Before we get into Bush and what is currently going on, I want to ask a general question about the range of emotions that Americans have toward the whole issue of psychoanalysis -- what might be considered psychological impediments, mental health, and so forth. On the one hand, there’s a stereotype we have -- the Woody Allen-type figure who can never get enough of self-analysis and psychoanalysis, and is constantly monitoring himself. On the other hand, you have someone like Bush, who doesn't want any psychoanalysis, isn’t interested in self-exploration, not a wit, because he is "normal." He’s as solid as is the granite on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. As we know, a large segment of the American society has disdain for the concept of psychological problems and they consider that a weakness. They don’t see the need for self-exploration. People are what they are. They don’t look inward. They just look forward. What is your view of that range? Is it safe to say that’s the range of American views?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: I think it’s very safe to say it. For me to really respond properly to your question would require another book, because it’s such a good question and so important, and so many ways to think about it. So maybe a couple of thoughts about it.
One is that in this country there is a long-standing hatred of dependency. Because of that, the appeal of self-reliance, which was a term coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1840s, is very great. Presidents Reagan and Bush, and other people, have found that that has struck a chord with many Americans -- the idea of self-reliance. The concept of being like Woody Allen and relying on an analyst is a misinterpretation, in my view, of what analysis is and what it does, because analysis facilitates self-reliance. However, people feel that it causes and invites dependency. What it invites is for people to look at the dependency aspects that exist in all of us, because we were all once dependent on our parents for survival, really. I think that those things persist in the child parts of each of us, usually repressed.
The second thing about the range of responses to psychoanalysis, I think, is that everyone, including many psychoanalysts, don’t like the idea that we have an unconscious. Freud’s discovery and assertion that there is mental life that is going on inside of each of us that we’re not aware of is a little bit disconcerting, to say the least. I think that we have evidence of an unconscious, like we dream when we’re asleep. We know that we’re able to think when we’re asleep, in fact. We know that things go on mentally inside of us. But if we stop and really pay attention to those things and don’t dismiss them, I think it can cause a lot of anxiety and discomfort. People don’t want to look inside.
But to me, the world is as vast inside as it is outside. It's like looking at the atom, and you start looking through an electron microscope at all kinds of phenomena, and space, and things that are internal. I think that psychoanalysis is a tool for doing that psychologically.
BuzzFlash: There is so much in your book. It’s so rich, and one can read it and agree with it or not, since you are applying analysis from afar. But it certainly raises many possible insights into Bush’s psyche. For instance, you make a lot of the premature death of his sister, Robin, and the way that was handled by his parents, and subsequent issues that arose with that in his later life as a key impact on his psychology.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Yes.
BuzzFlash: But let’s start at a point of departure, which is today, December 27th. Being someone who started BuzzFlash in May of 2000, and having watched Bush over the years and devoted so much coverage to him, it seems that since the 2006 election, we’ve crossed into something which is a deeply psychological journey going on with Bush in his motivation with the PR language of "the surge," and his rejection of the Baker-Hamilton Report. He's once more deliberating on a new course in Iraq, and this idea of victory, when he can’t define it. No one knows what it is, except it’s not being perceived as losing. What we're kind of watching now is no longer a political or military conflict unfold, although that’s happening. But in the White House, we’re watching someone’s psychological profile in action. Is there any grounds to follow that theory?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: I think there’s a lot of grounds to follow your theory. First of all, I think that -- and I wanted to link with, since you made the link in your response to my book, to his sister’s death at an early age, and then jumped right into the present day, December 27th, I think that there’s a way to make a link between those two things straightaway -- namely, that he was left alone to manage a catastrophe. His parents abandoned him psychologically and emotionally, both because of their own grief and their own way of dealing with their grief, but also because of how they were as parents in general. Barbara was very preoccupied not just with the loss of her daughter, but with the fact that there was a newborn at home -- Jeb, who was only a few months old. So he was left alone to solve a terrible catastrophe of loss, evoking anxiety and all kinds of things.
You can fast-forward that to the present day, and he is now feeling very much in the same situation. Even Scarborough talks about how isolated Bush is, and how it's like a bunker mentality. I think he has had a bunker mentality all of his life, and that he has covered it over and compensated for it with a tremendous amount of affability and charm. That may be partly because he had trouble reading, so he couldn’t like retreat and become isolated the way some people perhaps do, by hiding in books, or drugs, or whatever. He hid from various things, you know, with alcohol and things. But, mainly, he used his affability and his charm to be able to brush away anybody who might get to the core pain and terror that existed inside of him.
I think that that’s what’s happening now. I think somebody -- the voters, the public, the Baker Commission, various people --have tried to turn the light on. And he is very terrified of any kind of truth that will intrude into his need to cling to preconceptions, because they make him feel safe, and they allow him to stay in his bunker. He looked disgruntled this morning. I was watching his statement about President Ford, who died last night. I was really struck by how ill-at-ease he seemed, and like he didn’t want to be doing it. There are historical reasons for his being ill-at-ease, of course, and that was that Gerald Ford and his own father, H.W., didn’t like each other very much, and there was a lot of conflict between Ford and Bush Senior during the Reagan days, early on. But that -- and Bush Junior, certainly, is famous for holding grudges.
But I think, more than that, it’s like being told that he has to do something he doesn’t want to do. He developed an attitude from very early on of converting being neglected into a virtue. His having been neglected as a child was turned into a virtue, which is that he’s not going to ever be told what to do by anyone, and he’s going to be stubbornly defiant, no matter what, because anybody who pays attention to him is obviously not doing it out of love, but out of authority and trying to control him.
This is one of the things that has happened during his Presidency -- the way he’s conducted himself as President, for instance, with Katrina, with not preparing the troops, with various examples of failure of empathy and of failure of concern, and a failure to act and take care of people. It has to do with a replay of his own childhood that he is imposing on the rest of us, and we are all paying for that. I think the power of his psychology is such that he really has flipped his own failure or pushed his own failures or his own conflicts onto the rest of us. He’s gotten all of us to sort of live as potential Katrina victims. That’s how he is, because he was a Katrina victim in his own psyche when he was a child.
BuzzFlash: He said, at one point that he wouldn’t really change anything in Iraq. In fact, he seems to be going quite the opposite direction at this point -- I mean, digging in his heels and making exacerbating the situation.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Yes.
BuzzFlash: But he was quoted as saying, even if everyone is against him except Laura and his dog, he would continue. It struck me that almost everything he does seems to be distilled to this statement -- which is: I can’t be wrong.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Right. He is being consistent. He is essentially saying that he can’t be wrong and he is not ever going to be proven wrong. What seems like dithering or failure to react to the Baker Commission, is much more of a direct reaction, which is a way of ignoring it completely. He is very honest when he says I’m not going to change. He said that to Tim Russert in 2004. He also said that a couple of months ago, that if everybody in the world disagreed with him, he would sort of stay with Laura and his dog, and that that would be that. He is not going to change.
In his Wednesday press conference, he started talking about bipartisan behavior, but hee tried to reshape what seemed to me to be a voter mandate about getting out of Iraq, or changing course, into a message supporting his own needs, and he’s always done that.
It comes down to his psychic survival. It’s the fear of being wrong. It’s the fear of shame and humiliation at needing other people. It’s a fear of dependency, like we were talking about earlier about the antipathy towards psychoanalysis. He is determined to never be wrong, and to never make a mistake, because shame is a terrible thing for him.
BuzzFlash: I want to return to this statement, which sort of knocked my socks off, that even if it’s just him, Barney, and Laura, he would continue on this course. I guess there are two questions here. One, this is democracy. He is basically saying. he has a right to continue to do whatever he wants, despite that. And two, assuming if everyone else believes, his course is wrong and he believes it’s right, on what authority does he believe that he somehow has insights that no one else in the world has? On what basis would one say that? If everyone thinks you’re wrong and you think you’re right, you have to have some kind of fundamental basis to think that you are the only one that somehow has the knowledge that nobody else has.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: I think your second question is more to the point of his psyche, which is very disturbing. That is, there is a grandiose and somewhat paranoid aspect to him. The word I use in the book was megalomanic, which is that he has a corner on what is right and what is wrong. And he feels that so strongly that nobody is going to be able to shake him. It is a form of a delusion, where a person feels that nothing that can affect them, and nothing can change their point of view. When you’re stuck to a delusion, that’s that.
I remember when I was first doing my training in Boston in psychiatry, there was a patient who was very delusional and disturbed. This man had a series of shock treatments, and at the end of his course of treatment, somebody asked him, when he was about to be discharged, what did the shock treatment do for you? He said, “What it did for me is it taught me to keep my mouth shut.” I really think that’s what we have as a President. We have a delusional man who is being taught over and over to keep his mouth shut.
BuzzFlash: He did say to Bob Woodward, who had asked him about seeking the advice of his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, that he appeals to a higher authority.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Yes.
BuzzFlash: To a higher father, meaning God. Is part of his delusional state that he believes that, indeed, God is talking to him, and he is speaking for God, acting for God?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: It’s hard to know. But I do think, from all the evidence, that is the case -- that he does feel bolstered by his attachment to God. He is both able to use God to defeat his father, because he really can’t stand his father, and at the same time, use God to bolster his world view. He has this amazing sense of connection. Whether he hears voices or talks to God, I have no idea. But very few things about this person would surprise me in this way.
I wanted to go back to your statement earlier, though, about democracy. What do we do, and how do we think about the fact that we have a President who is functioning in what is supposed to be a democracy. That opens a whole can of worms which is beyond my ken as a psychoanalyst. But I would have to say that on December 12, 2000, he was appointed to serve as President, not elected. So, in that sense, democracy was never clearly an issue in this country, ever since that fateful day, December 12th, when the Supreme Court handed down their decision.
But I think the only way to deal with somebody who is this embattled and this delusional is to invoke the 25th Amendment. It’s so ironic that it was only used once, and that was when Gerald Ford became President and Nixon was forced out because he resigned.
BuzzFlash: But then we have Cheney.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: The way the Republicans did it in ’73 was, they got rid of Agnew first, and they made sure that the person who would be the Vice President would be somebody who would be acceptable to both sides of the aisle. Maybe they should threaten to impeach Cheney first or something, and make Bush appoint somebody else. I’d rather have Cheney than Bush.
BuzzFlash: Why is that? Many people would disagree with you.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: A lot of people would disagree with me. I really think that Bush is not competent to be President. He is unconsciously destructive. He is out of touch with his cruelty. He is unable to think clearly when presented with new information. He cannot do it. He cannot read. He cannot pay attention to the Baker-Hamilton Report. He never looked at that report. He looked at the opening title, about a new way forward or something, and that’s what he’s been using as his slogan now. He is not able to process information.
I think Cheney, as much as he is malevolent and destructive and greedy and self-interested as an oil executive and wants absolute power, he’s out front about it. I think that he would have to negotiate in a way that’s different because he can’t not think, whereas Bush doesn’t think.
BuzzFlash: It would certainly bring Cheney out of the shadows and make him accountable. Is that what you’re saying?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Certainly a key thing in your book and a key thing that occasionally pops up in the press, when they do get into a little psychological speculation, is his relationship with his father. Conventional wisdom, even in the mainstream media, you know, which tends to just follow whatever Bush says -- if he says -- you know, or I should say what Rove says or whatever their PR people say. You know, if they called it a surge -- if the media calls it a surge, even if what we’re talking is about is expanding our military presence in Iraq. It’s no surge. It’s just expanding, sending more G.I.s over there.
But many people in the conventional mainstream press did comment on the fact that the Baker-Hamilton Report was Daddy Bush’s way of intervening. James Baker is sort of the Bush family consigliere, or whatever, who it was thought could force Junior into a course of action that was more conventional, more acceptable, and some would say an honorable way of withdrawing. The report's a bit more complicated than that, because it still saved the oil concession for the American companies. But, in essence, it was an effort to kind of rein him in a little bit. And Junior’s rejecting that was rejecting his father intervening, rejecting his father trying to tell him what to do. Did you want to comment about any of that?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: I think it’s reductionistic to say that it’s rejecting his father and turning the Baker report into an intervention by his father. And by reductionistic, I mean, it oversimplifies things. I think what he does is he turns everybody who disagrees with him into his father. It doesn’t matter whether it’s actually the concrete representation of his father, like Baker, or the voters who vote against staying in Iraq. We have become his father. We are the people he is now defying. He will turn everybody, any authority, anybody who disagrees with him, into a father figure who he’d have to defy.
BuzzFlash: And why? What’s his basic psychological beef with his father?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: It would be nice to be able to reduce it to one thing. But there is one thing that is very clear, which is that his father was, as Bush was growing up, a superhero. He was an all-American baseball star. George W. Bush was "a jockstrap carrier," or a cheerleader. His father was a war hero, and George W. Bush was a coward who avoided everything that involved responsibility. His father was a family man devoted to his family, and George W. Bush was a hard-drinking kid who was afraid of being responsible.
His father was all the things that Bush was not. He was a big, powerful man in Bush’s eyes -- that’s the first thing. When Bush arrived at Andover, for instance, the prep school that he went to, his father’s pictures were all over the wall as having been a hero there twenty-five years earlier. The pictures are still up. So it was very hard to live up to him. The best way to deal with that is to either carve your own path, or to constantly undermine your father. One of the things that he did was, though, he became very loyal to his father, and in 1988, helped manage his campaign for President against Dukakis.
BuzzFlash: George W. rode shotgun with Lee Atwater during that campaign.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: He really did a lot of things that were to help his father. But at a deep level, there was a tremendous amount of resentment that he talks about, that is even in his biographies, and wanting to have a fight with his father, man to man, when he would get drunk as a kid. And he didn’t really sober up until 1986, which was halfway through his father’s second term as Vice President. He was really hardly ever sober before that.
The other thing with his father is that he was also not around. His father never was there to protect him against a very tough-minded, critical, harsh mother. One of the advantages of having two parents is that when one parent gets off track, the other parent can help protect a child. So you can end up having parents balance each other. So, in that sense, his father was, on the one hand, a hero, but on the other hand, a huge disappointment, because he was never available emotionally. I think that what Bush now is doing is that he is essentially attacking his father yet again.
BuzzFlash: Two more questions, and one relates to Cheney. No one really quite understands how Cheney became the Vice President. We know he headed the search committee, and then Bush said: Oh, I like you the best. But what led to all that? Did Bush get a call from someone? Did Cheney just sort of insinuate himself? What is Cheney to Bush? Is he a father figure, or the strong father figure that Bush can embrace? What is going on in that relationship?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: I think it’s more a good cop, bad cop situation. I think that, unconsciously, Cheney is the father that he can control and have work for him. It’s not just a father he can rely on; it’s a father who has to do what he -- Bush -- says. I think that it has much more to do with control and domination. Bush is taking people who worked with his father -- and converting them to his way of working, which is far more radical, far more defiant, far more domineering as a President than his father ever was.
I think that it has to do with controlling people who were his father’s henchmen, which is why it was so easy for him to dismiss Baker. He’s going to dismiss anything from his father. And if he can’t dismiss them, he’ll control them and take them in. The difference is that having Cheney around -- he’s a great hatchet man. He’s really smart. He can help Bush see how to do things, and how to get things done, and at the same time he can be controlled, because he is Bush’s right arm. I think that he functions that way. I don’t think that Cheney is as dominating a driver of policy as many people think he is. Bush has an idea of what he wants to do, and then other people figure out how to get it done.
BuzzFlash: Let me bring up the word “sociopath,” because, as you mentioned, it seems Bush has this affability. Until recently, he came off very well on television. Despite his gaffs, somehow he’s got that Q-quotient as they call it, on television, that overcomes his malapropisms and dysfunctional language, and particularly when he’s in the settings that Rove puts together. I’ve known people who have met him who say, you know, it was hard not to like the guy.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Right.
BuzzFlash: Yet he seems to have very little empathy for the situation of sending more G.I.s off to die. He has empathy that’s scripted, but he doesn’t really seem to have any personal empathy.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Right. He is very consistent with being a sociopath. I think you’re not just throwing around a term.
BuzzFlash: What does that mean?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: A sociopath is just what you said -- a person who can be very charming, but psychologically is so massively defended against experiencing guilt that he cannot feel empathy. If you don’t feel guilt, you can’t empathize, because you never can feel concern about having hurt somebody else, or anybody else suffering. Guilt reins in destructive behavior. But if you don’t have any guilt, you don’t have to feel any anxiety or anything that will hold you back in terms of being destructive or being hurtful. And that leads you to being unable to feel empathy, because empathy actually threatens your safety.
If you feel somebody else is in trouble, then you may feel you are obligated to do something about it. That’s something that is anathema to a psychopath, and it’s certainly anathema to Bush. So he is really incapable of feeling empathy. What he has figured out, with the help of his advisors, is to run as a "compassionate conservative" so he looks like a person who’s empathic. And his affability is what fooled a lot of people into making them feel that he really was connected to them, because he’s so charming. That is classic psychopathy.
BuzzFlash: The psychopath or sociopath?
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Same thing. Psychopath is the old word for sociopath. It’s the same term. But even sociopaths have an unconscious. They have to do something with guilt and with conflict. They’ve wiped it out overtly, so what we are left with is a sociopath. Unconsciously, there is a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear, and fear of shame, and fear of humiliation, and a desperate need to maintain psychic integrity above all else. That’s why he also has no empathy -- because he is desperately devoted, which I wrote at the end of my book and concluded with, to protecting himself more than anything else. That’s ultimately what a sociopath is.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much.
Justin A. Frank, M.D.: Thank you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.