Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

A Great Businessman - A Failed Political Leader

We've seen this scenario before

Mitt Romney appeals to many Americans because he is so clean-cut: the boy next door, all grown up. A business leader who became rich; well-educated, from a prominent family; a successful governor during good economic times; a solid personal life, with a happy, long-lasting marriage, and many children and grandchildren.

Reminds me of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (he of the Munich accord with Hitler): A business leader who became rich; well-educated, from a prominent family; a successful mayor during good economic times; a solid personal life, happy and long-lasting marriage with children. 

Winston Churchill? He was severely depressed and suicidal for months on end (and treated with amphetamines for those symptoms). When not depressed, he had manic symptoms of hyperactivity, overtalkativeness, irritability, and mood swings – as well as increased use of alcohol. He had a long-lasting marriage and children, but one of his daughters committed suicide, as did others in his family. Severe depression was everywhere in his extended family, despite very privileged outer conditions (wealth, prestige, peerage). 

We tend to forget, in retrospect, that before World War II, Chamberlain was a huge political success, and Churchill a failure, unpopular even within his party. Chamberlain was a great leader in normal times, with peace and prosperity, while Churchill was terrible. We know how the roles reversed with war.

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The lesson: Sometimes, it’s not good to be normal. Especially if you’re a leader; especially if you’re a leader in a time of crisis.

This is my conclusion after looking at the major leaders of major crises in US history in the past century: in those leaders, you don’t find the traits of mental health that we psychiatrists and psychologists so often applaud. You find mood symptoms of depression and mania – the kinds of symptoms that we say are bad, but in fact seem to be good, in the setting of crisis leadership.

Romney is so normal and healthy and stable and successful. Barack Obama, in contrast, has a colorful and, to many voters, bothersome life background: an unpredictable white mother with multiple marriages to men of other races or ethnicities, an impulsive alcoholic black father, and limited success in life before the presidency (as Rudy Giulani famously and contemptuously reminded us, he was a mere “community activist” and state legislator).

The natural tendency of many Americans is to prefer Romney’s normality and success and question Obama’s singularity. My study of our greatest leaders suggests the reverse: Romney’s past conventional success is exactly the reason he is the wrong man for the presidency in today’s economic and political crisis.

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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