Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

After Florida: Why Newt Still Matters

Why does Gingrich appeal?

The race for the Republican nomination is not yet over, despite Romney's strong showing in Florida. Newt Gingrich, however one might feel about him personally or politically, still stands between Romney and the nomination, and Gingrich has one major strength, which also happens to be his weakness: his personality.

Newt is bombastic, unpredictable, arrogant, difficult, unfaithful - and popular among Republican primary voters. Mitt is calm, respectful, polite, sexually continent - and yet fails to generate excitement.

Despite all his advantages in funding and organization, Romney - and even Obama - should pay attention to the Gingrich phenomenon for what it teaches about political leadership.

Political factors help explain Gingrich's recent South Carolina victory (Southern roots, the need for a conservative alternative) and Romney's Florida triumph (advertising money, transplanted Northerners). But there is also a psychological factor in play: There's something about Gingrich's personality that Romney doesn't have.

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To those attracted to Gingrich, that something feels like charisma;  to those bothered by him, it feels like instability of character. Romney's staidness at least ensures predictability; with Gingrich, we know is that things will change, though in which direction is uncertain.

The Romney camp has made light of Gingrich's "grandiosity" in comparing himself to Winston Churchill, but, from a psychiatric perspective, the analogy is not entirely inapt, especially since we now know that the Gingrich's mother was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder, a highly genetic illness that often leaves traces in offspring.

Both Gingrich and Churchill were widely viewed as washed up in late middle age. For Churchill, his Wilderness years were the 1930s. "While we delight to listen to Winston in this House," Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, "we decline to take his advice." When, in 1940, the King appointed Churchill, many Conservative politicians gasped: they chose Churchill; now what would happen?

A reasonable question: Churchill had been a political failure in the prosperous 1920s as Chancellor of the Exchequer; he had no idea how to run a peacetime economy. Neville Chamberlain, a successful businessman and popular mayor of Birmingham, succeeded where Churchill had failed, and, throughout the 1930s, Chamberlain gained the trust of the Conservative party, while Churchill flailed about noisily. Churchill had severe depression, we now know, and was frequently suicidal; when not depressed, he was hyperactive, highly energetic, talkative, needed little sleep, and impulsive in some ways (especially with alcohol) - what adds up to the clinical syndrome of hypomania (mild mania). In other words, Churchill was manic-depressive. Chamberlain was supremely sane: calm, rational, cool.

Charisma, a concept invented by the manic-depressive German thinker Max Weber, only hints at the phenomenon. There's something more, something behind the charisma: a creativity and resilience, growing out of psychological abnormality, which voters can't explain but seem to sense.

Voters vote with their hearts as well as their minds. And that emotional connection is something Gingrich possesses naturally, even biologically. For Romney - and perhaps Barack Obama - the election may hinge on finding out how to simulate what nature hasn't bestowed.

None of this means Gingrich would make a good president; I for one don't agree with his politics at all. But then again Romney's politics don't appeal to me either.  The question is rather, if one were to agree with their politics, why would Gingrich appeal over Romney? One factor, separate from the political and economic, is the emotional. Candidates ignore emotion at their peril.

(NB: Documentation about Churchill's manic-depression and Chamberlain's normality is provided in A First Rate Madness. As is the general policy of this blog, uncivil comments and personal taunting will be deleted.)

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. more...

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