Current Weather
The Spy FM

Crazy Good: Does ‘Madness’ Make A Leader Great?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 16, 2011

It’s been almost 40 years since Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, the 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president, revealed that he’d been hospitalized for depression and treated for the mental disorder with electroconvulsive therapy. The party’s presidential nominee, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, famously issued a statement indicating he supported Eagleton “1,000 percent,” but nonetheless asked Eagleton to withdraw from the ticket shortly thereafter.

Politics have gone through some dramatic changes since then, but it’s probably still safe to say that many Americans would feel uncomfortable voting for a candidate they knew to be mentally ill. But that attitude could be counterproductive, especially when it comes to times of crisis, claims psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi in A First-Rate Madness. Pointing to the likely mental states of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ghaemi argues that “[w]e should accept, even celebrate” the possibility that our decision-makers have dealt with mental illnesses — disorders which, he writes, tend to promote the qualities of “realism, resilience, empathy and creativity.”

His thesis might seem counterintuitive to voters who have long sought stability and composure in the officeholders they elect. After all, the country most recently elected as president Barack “No Drama” Obama, who, Ghaemi writes, “might be considered the epitome of mental health,” over John McCain, who was criticized by his opponents for his “volatility.” It’s a testament to the author’s nuanced and careful prose that his thesis comes across so clearly and convincingly — you might not agree with all of his conclusions, but he presents a cogent, persuasive argument for them.

It is, of course, impossible to know which psychiatric disorders, if any, public figures of the past have endured. But Ghaemi, through extensive historical research, makes educated guesses based on their biographies, paying special attention not just to symptoms and treatments but also to the family histories of the leaders. The details he uncovers along the way can be surprising: Abraham Lincoln was so depressed that he refused to carry a pocketknife because “he couldn’t trust himself with it”; and Martin Luther King Jr. tried to kill himself twice as a teenager. But their experiences with depression might have enhanced their leadership skills. “Their weakness,” Ghaemi writes, “is, in fact, the secret of their strength.”

Some of the author’s conclusions are bound to be controversial. Adolf Hitler, he argues, was not psychotic, as some assume — he had bipolar disorder that was worsened by his abuse of “opiates, barbiturates and amphetamines.” Ghaemi also contends that many recent officeholders who likely did not have mental illness proved to be failures when it came to crisis leadership. He points to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Tony Blair as examples.

Ghaemi is a remarkably disciplined writer, and he examines both psychiatry and history with impressive clarity and sensitivity. A First-Rate Madness will almost certainly be one of the most fascinating books of the year, not just because of the author’s lucid prose and undeniable intelligence, but because of his provocative thesis: “For abnormal challenges, abnormal leaders are needed.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

1PM to 2PM Seasonal Shows

Seasonal Shows

Listen Live Now!

2PM to 3PM The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party

Think NPR meets Vanity Fair. In each episode, hosts Rico Gagliano & Brendan Francis Newnam talk with some of the world's most interesting celebrities, and along the way equip you with bad jokes, fresh drink recipes, hot food finds, odd news stories... and etiquette tips from the likes of Henry Rollins and Dick Cavett. It's all you need to get an edge in your weekend conversations. Past guests include Michelle Williams, Judd Apatow, Kid Cudi and Sir Richard Branson. Wallpaper magazine calls The Dinner Party one of the Top 40 Reasons To Live In The USA.

View the program guide!

3PM to 4PM The Splendid Table

The Splendid Table

Hosted by award-winning Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table is a culinary, culture and lifestyle program that celebrates food and its ability to touch the lives and feed the souls of everyone.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center