Lyndon Johnson, The Presidency & Bipolar Disorder

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson was an enigmatic and highly complex character.  His exuberance and capacity for sustained periods of hard work were legendary, as was his ability to bring people together to from across the political spectrum to put important legislation in place.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson assumed the Presidency in 1963, skilfully leading the nation through a tumultuous time.  He wasted no time in setting forth his vision for the “Great Society”, putting in place legislation on health care, civil rights, education and the environment.  Johnson was riding on the crest of a wave of popularity and political potency.

Yet by 1968, Johnson was barely able to hold it together, oscillating between paralysing depressions and wreckless mania. Paranoia was rife as Johnson found himself in the midst of an unwinnable and deeply unpopular war that would define his time in office, ruin his legacy and effectively end his public life.

So what happened?  This is essentially the question that is explored in much detail and with much skill in D. Jablow Hershman’s excellent book:  ‘Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson.’ Hershman examines in forensic detail Johnson’s life, relationships and political career, and in-so-doing paints a picture of a man who was struggling with a recognisable mental illness that was particularly acute during the years of his presidency.

I am generally very wary of post-hoc diagnoses of mental illness, largely because they tend to be made on the basis of limited documentary evidence, and perhaps more importantly, because such assessments are normally made at such a distance that they are ripe for erroneous interpretation.  Thankfully, this is not the case with this particular publication, but I would add the caveat that as Hershman is not a clinician, any ’diagnosis’ must be seen in this context.

That Johnson’s illness was primarily characterised by mania is evidenced by careful analysis of a wide-range of documentary evidence uncovered by Hershman.  Johnson was for the most part of his life incredibly driven, but also prone to reckless and impulsive behaviour, both in his private and public life; he worked incredibly hard, barely resting or taking time off, expecting the same unrealistic work ethic from staff and colleagues. He was also frequently grandiose and expansive in both thought and deed – classic signs of mania.

Initially, when Johnson’s extended periods of manic behaviour were punctuated by depression, these were short and rather superficial.  According to Hershman however, the depressions became more serious and were often accompanied by bouts of physical illness that required hospitalisation.

The Vietnam War proved to be the turning point, not only in Johnson’s presidency, but also in terms of his mental health.  The President saw enemies everywhere he looked, even among friends and colleagues; his paranoia was at its debilitating height.  Hershman argues, very effectively it must be said, that at this point Johnson was unfit for office; his decision-making skills were severely impaired and he was not able to make rational decisions, particularly in relation to the disastrous war in Vietnam.  Frighteningly, Johnson himself once confided in a colleague that he had discussions with God during the night, and that God told him where to direct the bombing campaign.

Hershman’s book represents an excellent insight into the inner turmoil that eventually overwhelmed one man who struggled to hold on to what must be the most difficult job on earth.  A man or woman in peak mental health would struggle with the punishing schedule and competing demands of such an office.  But as Hershman argues, Johnston was battling with untreated bipolar disorder which made the task in hand even more difficult and eventually made him unfit to hold the office that he had coveted for so long.

Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson’ is an important historical document, but it also prompts the reader to look beyond the challenges of one man. Those of us who live with bipolar disorder frequently make reference to characters like Newton, Dickens, Beethoven, and Van Gogh, making the point that bipolar disorder is certainly no bar to greatness, and may actually be an advantage in some circumstances.

But how do we deal with mental illness in those who hold high office? Can a person with bipolar disorder successfully be a President? It would seem that untreated, and even undiagnosed bipolar disorder presents the most dangerous and unpredictable scenario; and this was the realm inhabited by Johnson according to Hershman’s hypothesis. However, I would argue that an individual who has been properly diagnosed, stablilised and is on a specific treatment plan presents a very different scenario. That said, the demands of the office, the enormous stress and unpredictable hours may well be unsustainable for someone with bipolar to cope with.

I would very much recommend ‘Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson’ as a superb insight into the dynamics of bipolar disorder and how this can affect the functioning of an individual.  Hershman is very adept at bringing together pertinent information from a wide range of historical and contemporary sources and brings forth a new understanding of the personality of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the interaction between it and his latent bipolar disorder.  The book is very well written, concise and always interesting; the appendix contains an extensive and accessible overview of bipolar disorder that gives the general reader an understanding of the condition.

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