The following was originally posted at In the Agora.
I’d like to bring to our readers’ attention this fine article in the October 2005 edition of The Atlantic on Abraham Lincoln (subscription required). Writer Joshua Wolf Shenk analyzes Abraham Lincoln’s mental health over the course of his life, and argues that Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, known in those days as melancholy. Lincoln’s contemporaries and the first generation of Lincoln scholars knew this, Shenk argues, but subsequent generations of historians have downplayed or ignored the role melancholy played in Lincoln’s life. His illness untreated by medicine, the 16th president first fought his bouts of debilitating sadness by writing essays and morbid poetry, before developing the steely resolve that he must contribute something meaningful to the world before he could rest in peace. Shenk does not portray Lincoln as ever fully conquering his personal battles. Rather, fighting off his anguish became Lincoln’s life-long project. Artists often use their mental problems to create profound works–their “issues” cause them to explore the depths of human existence to a greater degree than a mentally-balanced person–and Shenk argues the same thing applies to political figures like Lincoln. William Lee Miller gives Shenk’s book-length treatment of the issue a generally positive review in the Washington Post.
The hook for the article from the issue’s cover is the assertion that in the modern context, Lincoln would be considered “unfit for office.” I find this point unassailable. While we’ve come a long ways in understanding depression since the days of Thomas Eagleton, it is unlikely that a political candidate with depression–especially if it’s untreated like Lincoln’s–would be able to inspire voters. Americans simply prefer optimistic candidates, even if that optimism borders on the hyperbolic. Add the power of television to the equation, with its ability to magnify tenfold the simplest display of emotion (or lack thereof), and melancholic individuals have more than their own personal issues to battle with should they want to hold public office.
The issue of temperament is interesting as it comes up within the context of discussions about Bush appointees like Michael Brown or Harriet Miers. To be sure, Brown’s or Miers’ mental makeups aren’t on trial here–their qualifications are–but the president’s is. The appointment of close associates to important positions, some say, shows that the president doesn’t trust people outside of his own small circle. Browsing the liberal side of the blogosphere recently, I am likewise surprised at the number of writers who take it as fact that President Bush is battling depression himself or is still behaving as an alcoholic (they differ on whether or not he has fallen off the wagon), as he is unable to cope with the crisis in Iraq and the growing discontent with his presidency. Despite the lack of evidence for these assertions, they subsequently dismiss anything the president says as an inadequate attempt to compensate. Such armchair psychoanalysis is generally not all that helpful, but does speak to the importance we give to the mental makeup of our leaders. So where is the tripping point where the battle with one’s personal demons changes from debilitating to enabling greatness? Can such a line even be drawn?