The Man From Hope: Profiling Bill Clinton
How mental health professionals have sized up the president's personality.
Posted September 26, 2020
In 1992, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton emerged on the national political scene. Clinton touted a record of accomplishment in his state and claimed a newly important middle ground in the Democratic Party.
Clinton, who had started life in Hope, Arkansas, accepted the Democratic nomination in the name of “those who do the work and pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules.”
A video shown at the convention was called "The Man from Hope."
As president, Clinton was widely recognized as bringing something vibrant to the political arena. He himself later said that given his modest origins, he'd had "an improbable life" that was possible only in America.
But success proved elusive. Some observers noted that in his first year in office, Clinton used poor political judgment and lost focus. The administration’s ambitious plans for health care reform were introduced with much fanfare but were defeated. And eventually, Clinton became embroiled in the most consequential of the many sex scandals he faced in his career.
"No modern politician," said Clinton's biographer, "has so visibly won the public's support one moment and lost its confidence the next."
Though the articles were ultimately defeated in the Senate, Clinton’s 1998 impeachment by the House was the first impeachment since that of Andrew Johnson 130 years earlier. In his autobiography Clinton acknowledged having some "regrets," but he said: "I leave it to others to judge how to balance the scales."
Even before impeachment, mental health professionals wasted no time in probing Clinton’s psychology. Beginning as early as 1994, psychologist and psychoanalyst David Winter was examining the content of Clinton’s major speeches for clues to his personality.
Clinton, Winter concluded, was an idealist who was motivated primarily by achievement. Such an orientation, however, tended to predict frustration rather than success in the presidency. In contrast, Winter asserted that power motivation—a love of the vicissitudes of the political process itself—was the best predictor of success. A playfulness like that of Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy was the royal road to political success.
A version of Winter’s assessment later appeared in Jerrold Post’s edited collection The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders (2003). This remarkable volume probed Clinton’s psychology in depth. Contributors used a comparative approach (the book also examined Saddam Hussein of Iraq), drew on multiple sources, employed empirical rating scales, and in general deployed much professional rigor.
Going through the book today, one is struck by the depth and methodological care that the book’s contributors, all experienced in studying political leadership, brought to their task.
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Stanley Renshon, for example, explored what he saw as the central components of Clinton’s character: ambition, integrity, and relatedness. Using a psychodynamic approach and building on his own award-winning 1996 book, he postulated that Clinton’s character grew from his complex relationship with his mother Virginia. Renshon reviewed the Clinton marriage and identified Bill Clinton’s alleged ambition, impatience, persistence, and need to be special as important motives in his rise to power.
Psychoanalyst and political scientist Walter Weintraub looked closely at Clinton’s press conferences. In them, Weintraub found a high ratio of “I” and “me” statements to “we” statements, a ratio that to him suggested something distinctive: that Clinton saw himself as a leader who could get things done rather than the leader of an ideological crusade. Weintraub also saw a propensity in Clinton to assume “the victim role when attacked.” And Peter Suedfeld and Philip Tetlock looked closely at the quality of "integrative complexity" (flexibility, openness to ambiguity and to potentially conflicting ideas) as it applied to Clinton as decision-maker.
Renshon sounded a characteristic note of caution: In profiling public figures, “measured prudence” was preferable to "theoretical enthusiasm.”
It was a warning that few psychological commentators on presidents would heed in the years ahead.
Psychologist John Gartner, an open enthusiast for an idea, used an altogether different approach in his later book In Search of Bill Clinton (2008). The book aimed for a general readership rather than an academic one. And it was the product of two years of deep immersion in Clinton's world.
Gartner did not use empirical methods. Instead, he relied on extensive interviews. His project elicited cooperation from many friends and associates of Clinton's, including staffers, friends of Clinton’s mother, and journalists who had covered the president for decades. In all, the psychologist conducted 100 interviews in an effort to understand the man. Gartner also had two brief public interactions with Clinton himself.
Gartner called his method “psycho-journalism.”
Gartner's idea was that Clinton had a “hypomanic temperament.” Explored at length in a previous Gartner book, the hypomanic temperament is a chronic high-energy state in which a person has “immense energy, drive, confidence, visionary creativity, infectious enthusiasm, and a sense of personal destiny”—not to mention impulsivity. Gartner carefully differentiated this temperament from similar-sounding relatives: a hypomanic episode and bipolar mania. He concluded that the hypomanic temperament is the key to Clinton’s striking combination of strength and vulnerability.
The argument was not unprecedented.
The hyperthymic personality, which appears similar to Gartner's construct, is familiar to many clinicians. In 1996, psychologist Aubrey Immelman's empirical research findings about Clinton suggested something arguably similar: an asserting/self-promoting and outgoing/gregarious personality type. In 2011 psychologist Dan McAdams, in comparing Clinton to George W. Bush, saw both as extraverts. And psychiatrist Nasser Ghaemi has long argued for the value of depression and bipolar disorder to some success in politics and in life. (In a review Ghaemi found Gartner's previous book "one-dimensional" and superficial in its approach to bipolar disorder and related states.)
Gartner’s book did hammer home its thesis relentlessly. But as a portrait of Clinton it was more deeply thought out, better documented, and more nuanced and textured than any other psychological study of this president that I have seen.
One example of Gartner's ability to see in unusual depth is his treatment of the relationship between Clinton and his mother. In the Post volume, Stanley Renshon treated Virginia Kelley as a simple narcissist. Gartner, on the other hand, uncovered what he saw as an early template for Clinton's complex behavior.
For most of his first four years, Clinton was raised not by his mother, but by his maternal grandmother, Edith Cassidy. This “aggressive, controlling, and protective” grandmother, Gartner believes, made a sharp contrast to Clinton’s mother Virginia. Because Virginia was away at nursing school in New Orleans at the time, she could only see young Bill occasionally—but when she was present she was “warm, sunny, sexy.” Visits with her were exciting for the young boy.
Gartner is not straying far from the evidence here. In his 957-page autobiography, My Life, Clinton himself calls his maternal grandmother, Edith Grisham Cassidy, “smart, intense, and aggressive.” His mother, says Clinton, was “a beautiful young widow” in those early days; he remembers that a visit to her in New Orleans at age three filled him with “awe.” Clinton pays tribute to Virginia on the last page of the book as “a fascinating mother who adored me.”
In Gartner's view, Clinton's grandmother was a prototype for his future wife, the protective and stable Hillary Clinton. From this point of view, the Clinton marriage was not primarily a matter of convenience or political utility, as some believe. Gartner concluded that Clinton loved Hillary deeply, while in many respects Clinton’s extramarital affairs repeated the excitement of his early visits with his seductive and fascinating mother.
These efforts at psychological understanding from a distance, whatever their merits, have obvious limits.
Neither Post's volume nor Gartner's substantially addresses the ethics of evaluation from a distance. Yet none of Post’s contributors interviewed Clinton; none obtained his permission for their evaluations. Gartner’s two encounters with Clinton took place in public and lasted only a few seconds each: he shook hands with Clinton on one occasion and asked him one question on another.
Post himself is the profession’s major contributor to the question of the ethics of such comment. His argument, advanced elsewhere, is that the risks of comment on public figures must be weighed against the benefits to public education and public safety. For example, informing the public about a national danger related to a leader’s mental state may make the effort ethical. No such danger is documented in these books.
Bill Clinton's fascinating complexity represented a turning point in the psychological evaluation of leaders from a distance in America. In the Clinton years and after, the practice of comment from a distance would become almost routine.
Admittedly, few of us can devote the time and care that Gartner devoted to his interviews and assessment of Bill Clinton. But more and more, the mental health professions continue to see clearly from a distance—and to try to get it right.
Next time: Is Trumpism a cult?
Clinton, Bill (2004). My Life. New York: Knopf.
Clinton’s Psyche (1994) [on David Winter]. Psychology Today. July 1, 1994. Accessed on August 23, 2020 at https://www.pImmelman, Aubrey (1996). A Comparison of the Political Personalities of 1996 U.S. Presidential Candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Paper Presented at the 19th Annual Scientific Meeting of the international Society of Political Psychology, Vancouver, British Columbia, June 30-July 3, 1996. Accessed on August 24, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&cont….
Gartner, John D. (2008). In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Ghaemi, Nasser (2005). Review of The Hypomanic Edge [by John Gartner]. November 26, 2005. Accessed on September 12, 2020 at https://www.gracepointwellness.org/4-bipolar-disorder/review/2913-the-h….
Immelman, Aubrey (1996). A Comparison of the Political Personalities of 1996 U.S. Presidential Candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Paper Presented at the 19th Annual Scientific Meeting of the international Society of Political Psychology, Vancouver, British Columbia, June 30-July 3, 1996. Accessed on August 24, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&cont….
Maraniss, David (1995). First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster.
McAdams, Dan P. (2011). George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream. New York: Oxford University Press.
Post, Jerrold, ed. (2003). The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders. With Profiles of Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.