Bush On The Couch

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Reviewed by Jude Nagurney Camwell http://iddybud.blogspot.com (Iddybud)

Book review: Bush on the Couch by Justin A Frank M.D.

George W. Bush has never graced a couch in Dr. Justin Frank’s office, but he has a public persona that we, as a nation, have come to know well over these past four years. We were already familiar with his family since his father was our 41st President. After nearly four years as president, we are familiar with GW Bush’s style, his facial expressions, his words, his attitudes about religion, and his attitudes regarding the rule of law. We’ve even come to know a bit about his personal demons—as much as this secretive president will allow us to know.

Dr. Frank, a Washington-based psychoanalyst and clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at George Washington University Medical center, educates readers with a historical record provided by journalists, biographers, and those who’ve known the president well. He traces the development of Bush’s character from childhood to the present. Through psychoanalytic investigation, “Bush on the Couch” explores how the current president’s efforts to cope with his many anxieties weave their way through his familiar life story.

The purpose is not to reduce the president, but to enrich our way of being able to know and understand him. Dr. Frank's professionally developed conclusions are quite persuasive—some are very surprising. Dr. Frank asks us Americans to be compassionate yet realistically conscientious because we are, after all, the employers of the person in the Oval Office. It is our sober civic responsibility to determine and ensure that our leader is well suited for his position in every way.

Dr. Frank employs varied studies from both historic and contemporary luminaries in the field of psychoanalysis to help us understand the contradictions and inconsistencies which may cause us to seriously question our president’s sound ability to govern. I decided to format my review in the form of a number of questions and display Dr. Frank’s thoughts about them based upon his own psychoanalytic investigation.

-How can someone so friendly and playful be the same guy who cuts government programs aiding the poor and hungry?

Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s model of the development of an infant’s worldwide view holds the key to understanding the psychological processes at work, and Dr. Frank relies upon her work in the psychoanalytic field to help us unravel the mystery that surrounds the sometimes-confusing public actions and/or words of Mr. Bush. The role of the president’s parents is carefully explained, investigated, and analyzed. His mother’s, own insecurities may have prevented her from adequately nurturing her first-born son. His father was often unavailable and detached. Deep in Bush’s childhood are the roots of a dramatic psychic split that has forever hampered his ability to manage his emotions—filling him with anxiety and conditioning him to see the world in black and white. The death of his younger sister and the way he was sheltered by his family from naturally grieving left a psychological mark upon him—leaving him with a seeming lack of true empathy which is actually a self-protective indifference to the pain of others.

-Is Bush’s possible untreated alcoholism shaping our nation’s agenda? Has the press been walking on too many eggshells when it comes to asking all-important questions regarding our President’s state of mental health?.

By attempting to solve his own drinking problems, Bush has externalized his enemy rather than acknowledging that a greater threat than the alcohol has actually been the enemy within. The result has been his reliance on the crutch of his own rigid thought processes, which has become a hallmark of the GW Bush presidency. Too often, we see a consistent stubborn streak in Bush's words and actions, which may be the sole comfortable source of psychological solace for him, according to Dr. Frank.

Melanie Klein observed that the destructive forces we fear most are those we could turn against ourselves. Dealing with this fear can be a lifelong struggle and must be confronted directly. Bush’s admitted past alcohol-abuse was likely caused by his many anxieties which he now staves off by maintaining high control in most—if not all—aspects of his life. Examples used by Dr. Frank are the president’s famously short meetings, the near-obsessive exercise schedule, the daily Bible readings, limited office hours, and time spent away in Washington (42% of his first seven months in office). Dr. Frank suggests that the press needs to ask more questions intead of walking on eggshells as they've done in the past. The fear of their “excommunication” has stifled journalists' discussion of the issue in the past, making the press enablers of his alcohol-related psychological impairments.

-How can the president sound so confused and yet act so decisively? How does it come to pass that truth becomes the constant casualty of Bush’s fears? Does he think he’s fooling the American public?

Melanie Klein has proposed that we are all unconsciously subject to a Biblically-cited psychic law of retribution called the Law of Talion—or “What goes around comes around.” By Bush’s making our own world seem more dangerous, he creates a permanent self-fulfilling justification for his own behavior. Instilling the fear of discovery and retaliation, this ancient law of retribution helps Bush to control his own destructive impulses unconsciously. Dr. Frank explains how Bush’s refusal to accept blame for any wrongdoing suggests a consistent desire to live outside the Law of Talion. For instance, Dr. Frank mentions Bush’s abrogation of many international treaties and his exhibition of a flagrant disregard for the truth.

According to Sigmund Freud, those who felt that normal laws didn’t apply to them were assigned the character type he termed as “the Exceptions”, and Dr. Frank believes this comes close to what we know about GW Bush. One of the capacities that help us distinguish fact from fiction is the ability to process complex thought. When this ability relies on a mental apparatus that is primitive and misguided, limitations and mistakes may become unrecognizable to the individual.

While he avoids an exhaustive review of our current president’s many misrepresentations, Dr. Frank carefully explains Bush’s flagrant flouting of authority throughout his professional life. He examines Bush’s manifestations of grandiosity where “magical thinking” borne of a false sense of omnipotence is filtered down to the American people in all-too simplified terms. Bush’s often-repeated use of sweeping phrases results in a failure to take realistic consequences into consideration. In this process, Bush (and his administration) tap into the part of our personality that hates internal reality and prefers to cling to a simplistic, secure worldview. This theory is supported by 20th century British psychoanalyst Wilfed Ruprecht Bion (pioneer of group dynamics). Bion pointed out that the part of the personality that hates internal law—the law of reality, of time, of responsibility, and of loss—hates external reality as well.

Dr. Frank throws Bush’s obvious antagonism toward the press into the mix, using examples such as Bush’s method of distracting his press-questioners from the truth, his threats to psychologically punish skeptical press-questioners, and his actual statements about the press using “trick questions” against him. Sadly, Bush’s own difficulty with reasoning itself seems to have bred an indifference—and perhaps even hatred--toward it.

Unfortunately, truth is the casualty of Bush’s limping psychological coping mechanisms. When much of the truth is left behind—unchallenged and unquestioned, it is truly a frightening national proposition. Because of Bush’s own fear of vulnerability (which his grandiosity cannot hide), Dr. Frank shows us that it is natural, when Bush feels threatened, that we all (appropriately) feel vulnerable.

Living in a psychological world where the fear of discovery motivates stonewalling, Bush seems to fear of any “evidence he might uncover if he were so bold as to pick up a newspaper on his own”. Dr. Frank uses a reference to Jeff Daniels’ character in the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo to compare Bush’s inhabiting of an unreal world whose laws are dominated by magical thinking. In the film, Daniels’ character was a movie character-turned-real person who only had fake money to pay his restaurant bill and he didn’t imagine anyone would have a problem with it. This drives home the point that Bush’s own theatrics may fool some people, but unless he’s entirely mad (and no one’s suggesting that he is), it’s unlikely that he can completely fool himself.

-How is it that our deeply religious president feels free to bomb Iraq—and then celebrate the results with open expressions of joy?

One of the most compelling chapters in the book deals with Bush and God. Religion has been seen by some as a parental substitute and, according to Kleinian theory, has the capacity to discourage intellectual independence. In religion, the president may have found a source of calm not wholly different from alcohol.

Because belief can simplify one’s life, it tends to narrow most debate—greatly reducing the number of questions and stifling the natural curiosity that would usually stem from a wide universe of possibilities. Fundamentalist religion narrows this universe of possibilities even further. While protecting his own self from his many fears and anxieties, it’s quite possible that Mr. Bush may actually believe he’s protecting the rest of us as well (although the result is just the opposite).

Dr. Frank discusses how religion replaces ambiguity with dualism. Banishing ambivalence and nuance from his anxious mind, Bush envisions himself in a belief system as fixed as his fundamentalist faith—which can be used to justify any and all types of behavior since it views the world as full of one kind of infidel after another. It is all too easy to cloak oneself in the certainty of ‘goodness’ while disregarding the possibility that you could make a mistake. Bush’s inability to deal effectively with opposition and get along with the world arises directly from this handicap. It is a handicap his affability and religiosity cannot cover.

Bush has not been shy to tell America that he relies heavily upon God, and whether it's a fixed set of faith-based beliefs or a set of stock phrases in press conferences on which he relies, the need to cling to such objects can reveal an act of desperation when an individual feels lost and threatened by the complexity of possibilities in the wide universe. Ironically, Bush has used faith to attempt to escape his powerful fears by retreating to an all-too simplistic view of a frightening situation. This character trait, in a national leader, does not contribute to protecting the nation itself. Dr. Frank asks us, for example, to compare Rudy Giuliani rolling up his shirtsleeves after 9/11 and getting directly to the work of his terror-stricken city with Bush’s early advice to terribly frightened and confused Americans to shop and travel as they had before (a near-denial of radical measures he was taking in the nation’s actual response to the attacks). We have witnessed similar conflicting information in the most recent terror alerts in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Washington D.C. Do we honestly feel protected and do we trust our leader who tells us one thing (go about your normal day-we are safer than ever) and does another (wielding carefully timed homeland threats like a color-coded Chicken Little)?

I’m sure you have heard our president tell us time after (nauseating) time that terrorists “hate us for our freedoms”. You may wonder where that‘s coming from. By externalizing evil (even more quickly than he "externalizes" American jobs), Bush absolves America--and himself-- of responsibility, transforming his non-integrated infantile worldview into a combative foreign policy.

The concepts of ‘Mr. Bush-- the nation’s president’ and ‘Mr. Bush-- God’s own chosen president’ become nearly interchangeable, which makes it easier to cheer when we see bombs dropping over civilian heads in “evil” lands.

When you’re aligned with angels, you’re pretty much beyond reproach.

-How can a president send American soldiers into combat under false pretenses and then proceed to joke about the deception, finding humor in the absence of WMD under his Oval Office desk?

Lo and behold—GW Bush has brought institutionalized sadism to the Oval Office. The grandiose Bush’s indifference to the real sufferings of others is a passive manifestation of innate sadism. While he tries to maintain an inner life free from conflict, he betrays an unconscious fear of conferring reality to others. His own sadism may escape undetected if the object of his attacks is a known sadist. (Can you say Saddam Hussein?)

While he can joke about the absence of WMD, he denies the public a chance to view the Dover military coffin photos. Dr Frank believes this may suggest an unconscious resentment toward troops whose extreme bravery put his own sad wartime service record to shame.

Falling back on the infantile apparatus that causes the individual to “project” (or “call the kettle black” in simple terms), a sadist detaches his destructiveness and assigns it to someone else. Interestingly, Bush turned the public’s post-9/11 pain into a fantasy of even greater pain—diminishing the real tragedy of 9/11 while trying to elevate his ”anti-Saddam vendetta” into a new national crusade. His treatment of the killings of Saddam’s sons sent a vivid message about his insensitivity to violence. (I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t inspire those at the Abu Ghraib prison to act out as they did).

Why did Bush feel the truth was so terrible during the lead-up to the Iraq war that it had to be concealed?

Dr. Frank suggests that Bush was incapable of safely confronting the true extent of his own innate sadism.

I experienced an “Aha!” moment when I read that Saddam Hussein was an “ideal vessel” for Bush’s projected sadistic self. Ultimately, sadism is a confusion of love & fear---of leadership & torture. The sadism that motivated the war in Iraq was evident in Bush’s lack of any plan for the post-war phase. His delusions of omnipotence appear to have prevented him from thinking about the future as anything but victorious.

Sadly, Dr. Frank compares the sad reality of the Iraq charade to the domestic charade Bush has sadistically created right here at home—with no provisions for the ruins left behind as a result of his “barrage of domestic initiatives”.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

If Mr. Bush was to be elected in 2004 (note that I didn’t say re-elected), Dr. Frank reminds us that he would only be poised to add to his already-existing history of failures, which have become our collective national failures. (Does anyone you talk to really have a clear vision of how or where the Iraq war is going?) Dr. Frank believes a collective denial on our part has helped to put Bush in his position (along with five Supreme Court justices) and it is our work to overcome any further denial. This leads to Dr. Franks’s bottom-line analysis and recommendation:

“Having seen the depth and range of President Bush’s psychological flaws … our sole treatment option — for his benefit and for ours — is to remove President Bush from office.”

Many thanks to Dr. Frank for his professional analysis and advice. I don’t think we can afford to doubt him. Frankly, (no pun intended), I think we'd have to be nuts to allow this president to continue to sew up his record of failing America while hanging by a psycho-thin thread.

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