A Psychobiography
Vamik D. Volkan,
Norman Itzkowitz,
and Andrew W. Dod
The Presidential crisis, along with the many Clinton sex jokes, seems to be disappearing. People are losing interest in the prurient aspects of the affair, but everyone is asking the same question: "How can such a clever guy do something so stupid?" It's a question that has been asked before about an earlier resident of the White House, who was ultimately evicted.

Several years ago, Senator Pell, responding to a comment I made after his address to the Council on Foreign Relations in Providence, said, "I have always felt that we needed more psychiatrists in government." He foresaw a role for psychiatrists in understanding the motivations and behaviors of world leaders, and in helping them to free themselves from acting upon unconscious conflicts in the world arena. His remarks were greeted by those assembled with a good deal of irritated muttering.

Now comes a psychoanalyst and his colleague at the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia --- along with a marketing consultant --- with a retrospective analysis of our most enigmatic President.

Is it within the bounds of ethical and professional propriety for a psychiatrist to apply his craft to historical figures? In 1964, a group of psychiatrists, alarmed at the prospect that presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would lead us into a nuclear war, issued a statement declaring him mentally unstable and unfit to take office. In the furor that followed, a principle was added to the American Psychiatric Association's Principles of Ethics stating that a psychiatrist shall not offer a professional opinion or diagnosis about a person whom he has not personally examined.

Yet others (who have not called themselves psychiatrists) have applied the same kind of analysis to historical and fictional characters. Thomas Mann, writing in the thrall of the revolutionary theories of Sigmund Freud, compiled a massive historical novel, Joseph and His Brothers, based on psychoanalytic thought. And the writer(s) of the original story, who had never heard of Freud, didn't do so badly themselves in terms of character analysis.

When I was a child, I clearly understood the difference between biography and fiction, as well as the difference between a historical novel and a history book. I was raised to believe that biography was straight fact and a historical novel was filled with imaginative fabrications which made a story more vivid and interesting. Now the distinctions are quite blurred. Gore Vidal in The New Yorker, reviewing Seymour Hersh's new book on John Kennedy, writes of "the great disinformation apparatus put in place forty years ago, a monster that even now continues to metastasize within academe and the media to such a degree that myth threatens to overthrow history. Spin is all. Spin of past as well as present."

Nixon himself had something to say about it: "I happen to think that most of the so-called new 'science' of psychobiography is pure baloney." And I guess if it didn't bother Kitty Kelley that she didn't interview the members of the Royal Family, it shouldn't bother Vamik Volkan and his co-authors that they didn't meet Richard and the other Nixons. If you're tired of trashing or deifying Princess Di, there's always Dick Nixon to kick around.

The authors ask the right questions about Nixon:

  • "Why did he appear very moralistic and 'clean' while he bypassed personal integrity and frequently used 'dirty' words while talking with his staff and others?"
  • "Why did he become 'frantic' during the 1972 presidential campaign against Senator George McGovern, at a time when there seemed little doubt that he would win the election?"
  • "Why did he behave like a tough man yet have anxiety about firing a person who worked for him?" Speaking to David Frost on his firing Haldeman and Ehrlichman: "I cut off one arm and then cut off the other arm...and I suppose you could sum it all up the way one of your British Prime Ministers summed it all up, Gladstone, when he said that the first requirement for a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher." [Nixon's father worked as a butcher, and beat his son unmercifully.]
  • "Why did he collect 'historical firsts?'"
  • "Why did he order the bombing of Cambodia when many of his aides advised him not to do so?" [He had just suffered the rejection of two Supreme Court nominees, was dealing with refusal of North Vietnam to come to the bargaining table, had to cancel his plans to attend his daughter Julie's graduation from Smith College because of the potential for an angry confrontation with anti-war demonstrators, and was disappointed by the aborted moon voyage of Apollo 13.]
  • "Why did Nixon hold onto the Watergate tapes instead of destroying them?"
  • "Why would a man with as much intelligence as Nixon had, and with the ability to govern the most powerful nation on earth, behave at times 'irrationally' and in a self-destructive manner?"

The authors offer us three faces of Nixon, all part of a narcissistic and paranoid personality:

  • A grandiose self, convinced of his moral and political excellence, bent on the utilization of ruthless power at all costs.
  • A hungry self, crippled with the paranoid distrust of others, trapped by behavior that led to his own destruction.
  • A peacemaker, attempting to integrate his grandiose self with his hungry self, bringing about reconciliation with the USSR, with China, with Vietnam, and within the segregated South. (Once, he even broke up a fistfight between Senator Joseph McCarthy and columnist Drew Pearson.)

The best insights into the character of tragic heroes come from Shakespeare. And Nixon was a tragic hero. Nixon: A Psychobiography reminds us of Nixon's many accomplishments on the foreign and domestic fronts, achievements that have been buried under the avalanche of tragic flaws that brought him down. And the accomplishments were many: facilitating "détente" with the Soviet Union, opening the door to communication with mainland China, promoting the passage of the Welfare Reform Act, ending the Vietnam war, and making major strides in desegregation.

In addition, the psychobiography is filled with interesting little facts about Nixon:

  • Nixon and his four brothers where all named for kings. In Richard's case, it was Richard the Lionhearted.
  • The name Nixon is Celtic for "he wins" or "he faileth not."
  • Nixon became a Republican, following in the footsteps of his father. At the age of seventeen, the senior Nixon had a chance encounter with William McKinley, who was running for president in 1896. Nixon promised him that he would vote Republican.
  • Nixon was so determined to win the heart of Pat, to whom he proposed on the night they met, that he ignored her repeated refusals for a date, and even drove her, in his car, to meet other young men on dates.
  • In 1950, then Democratic Congressman John F. Kennedy contributed one thousand dollars to Nixon's smear-filled campaign for the senate against the liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas.
  • Nixon sent a gracious,sensitive, and empathetic letter to the son of Senator Thomas Eagleton after the latter was removed from the Democratic ticket because he had received psychiatric treatment.

There are many good laughs, as well, for those who are not Freudian Fundamentalists:

  • An interpretation of one of Nixon's dreams has Nelson Rockefeller representing Nixon's brother Donald (a rival for childhood attention) and the microphone and applause (for which they were vying) symbolizing their mother's milk.
  • As a young child, Nixon was a "crybaby." His cries of distress were sublimated into behavior that calls for using the mouth and respiratory system --- he excelled in both public speaking and drama.
  • Following his pardon by Gerald Ford, Nixon developed a recurrence of phlebitis. Another psychiatrist, Samuel Silverman, is quoted in Time magazine as saying, "I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Nixon has any unconscious guilt, but if he does, with the threat of legal punishment removed, the only punishing force left is himself. That is why pardons can kill."
  • In an attempt to explain the rudiments of Freudian thought to the layman, Volkan creates a reductio ad absurdum to explain the Oedipus Complex and Nixon's self-destructive acts. He reacts to his brutal father by declaring, "Look, Dad! I castrated myself. You don't need to hurt me." In the same way, he alleges that Nixon's physical clumsiness represented dependency and a plea for assistance, and "may also correspond to anxieties related to masturbation or to murderous fantasies directed toward the oedipal father."
  • Leaks from the White House aggravated Nixon because they represented anal insufficiency and loss of bowel control.
  • Nixon never destroyed the Watergate tapes because they were "anal gems that could not be given away," and because they, "like a mother's milk, supported the inflation of his sense of self." Moreover, on these tapes, his "obsessional discharge of 'dirty' words represents the elimination of 'bad' [read fecal] contents held in too long."

There is a danger, however, in dismissing worthy insights into Nixon's personality and behavior in Nixon: A Psychobiography as mere psychoanalytic bullshit. Many of them have a clarity and validity that enhance our understanding of this puzzling man.

The book is a serious one, thoughtful, well-documented, interesting. and fun to read. Like psychoanalysis itself, it is full of promise and asks the right questions; but it comes up short on answers. The journey is fascinating, but the outcome is often unrewarding, and the truth, like the real Nixon, remains obscure.

--- Michael A. Ingall, M. D.

[Ingall is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine.
He claims to have voted for Kennedy, McGovern, Humphrey --- but neither Hoover nor Coolidge.]

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