LBJ Was Bipolar (and Narcissistic) AF

Some have suggested it might be prudent to appoint a presidential psychiatrist. Seriously. Given the stakes, and given the 25th amendment options for dealing with an incapacitated president. It makes more sense than having professionals who have no contact with the president violate the Goldwater Rule and amateurs giving their amateur opinions. The problem is that bipolar can’t be detected during periods of remission. And hypomania can be beneficial in facing the workload of the presidency. Then there is Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, who believes that mentally ill leaders are often best equipped to handle crises. He wrote: “The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.” Would a psychopharmacologist, who could intervene in a presidential crisis in a timely manner, be too quick to act? Would a psychopharmacologist have too much power?

LBJ was quite possibly a member of the "Bipolar Team," although he wouldn’t be a star on the team. The events and accomplishments of Johnson’s presidency would seem to be bipolar. His presidency had its ups (civil rights and Great Society legislative victories) and its downs (the Vietnam quagmire). LBJ was an absolute workhorse of manic proportions. His energy, when he wasn’t experiencing heart trouble, left his staff exhausted.

Fact Magazine publisher Ralph Ginsberg got in hot water for publishing the survey of psychiatrists of Barry Goldwater’s fitness for office, thus inspiring the Goldwater Rule and inspiring a lawsuit. While fending off that lawsuit, he published another survey about President Johnson.

That the Vietnam mess exacted a toll on LBJ is beyond question. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a biographer who had inside knowledge as the wife of presidential adviser and speech writer Richard Goodwin. She described how the war had turned him sideways: “Now he became unrestrained and reckless, creating a fantasy world of heroes and villains. Members of the White House staff who had listened to the violent name-calling were frightened by what seemed to them signs of paranoia.”

Bill Moyers, who served as President Johnson’s press secretary, described the President’s depression over Vietnam in an interview for a 1998 article in The Atlantic: "It was a pronounced, prolonged depression.”  Furthermore, "He would just go within himself, just disappear -- morose, self-pitying, angry.... He was a tormented man.” Moyers described getting phone calls from cabinet members concerned with the President’s mental state. “[Secretary of State] Rusk would call me and tell me about some exchange he just had with the President that was very disturbing, and he would say that he seemed to be very depressed."

LBJ had an inferiority complex. He and Nixon both did. They each seemed to choose JFK as their benchmark for success. Neither was quite smart enough. Neither was quite handsome enough. Neither was quite lucky enough. Both LBJ and Nixon came up from humble beginnings. LBJ graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Nixon from Whittier College. They worked extremely hard to get through Georgetown Law School and Duke Law School respectively. Both resented the privilege and seemingly easy journey through life that John F. Kennedy enjoyed. Nixon swallowed his 1960 loss to JFK hard. LBJ swallowed hard the fact that he had to play second fiddle to JFK.

LBJ had some sort of an obsession with his body, maybe a sort of dysmorphia. He dressed in oversized clothes to hide his oversized belly. At the same time he had exhibitionist tendencies. He urinated in public perhaps to show off his large endowment. He even had a name for his organ, “Jumbo,” and he spoke of it often.  He seemed to always want to be the center of attention. And he clearly had the ability to command attention with his considerable wit and charm. His temper was fierce and his treatment of staff was deplorable. Robert Caro recounts this story from his Pulitzer-winning biography Master of the Senate: “…when he had buzzed out from his inner office for a Scotch a secretary made a mistake and poured a sherry instead, yelling, ‘You’ve poisoned me!’ Johnson hurled the glass against a wall so hard that it shattered..”

But LBJ also seemed to have delusions of grandiosity and of persecution. He had been destined for greatness if only the press hadn’t been against him at every turn. Nixon’s attitude about the press in this respect was similar.  This isn’t LBJ’s most paranoid quote by any means, but it sums up his relationship with the media: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: 'President Can't Swim.'”