Bush on the Couch: Psychoanalysis of a Mad Man

[ Although Laura Miller complains that Justin Frank’s new book, Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President is sometimes simplistic, others uneven, she finds in it some insights, excerpted below. Thanks to Alexandra Dadlez for forwarding the original article. The underlining below is mine. –BL ]

Three new psychological portraits of George W. Bush paint him as a control freak driven by rage, fear and an almost murderous Oedipal competition with his father. And that’s before we get to Mom.

excerpted from 16 June 2004 | Salon.com

by Laura Miller

… What emerges is the image of a man shaped by rage and fear. Frank … has his own ideas about where Bush’s anger and anxiety come from. Some of those ideas … make sense, like the probability that Bush, who surely experienced the usual sibling rivalry, felt some unconscious guilt over the death of his younger sister Robin, from leukemia, when he was 7 and she was 3.

Bush’s parents dealt with Robin’s death by squelching any expression of grief; there was no funeral and they played golf the day after she died. This, according to Frank, is a key example of the family’s approach to all such painful emotions, and the result was to distort and cripple the psyche of their firstborn son. Frank provides an elaborate description of how the healthy process of psychological “integration” is supposed to work … [I]n general, his thesis is credible: If a child’s parents teach him that his feelings of suffering, fear, weakness and rage are so unacceptable that they can’t even be acknowledged, he is likely to spend his life projecting those feelings onto other people and punishing them for it. It’s one of the ways bullies are minted.

George W. would find plenty of opportunities to practice the art of projection as he grew up. Frank, who is always on firmest footing when he’s working from concrete biographical material, points out that from an early age, George W. Bush consistently failed in everything at which his father excelled. He got poor grades at the same schools where his father did well, and was a disaster in the same industry (oil) where his father made his fortune. His father was a varsity athlete; George W. had to settle for the cheerleading squad. His father was a torpedo plane pilot in World War II; George W. was a desultory member of the Texas Air National Guard.

Frank’s psychoanalytic training pays off in one aspect by giving him an eye for the eloquent detail. There’s George W.’s first, abortive engagement at 20, the same age at which his father married. And then there’s George W. celebrating his role in the purchasing of the Texas Rangers by printing up baseball cards with his picture on them, a pathetically transparent effort to erase the fact that “he could never be the baseball star his father was.” Even the exhaustively analyzed “Mission Accomplished” charade on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 takes on new meaning when you interpret it as a “pantomime of [George W.’s] father’s war heroism.”

Some observers have read George W.’s obsession with ousting Saddam Hussein as motivated by revenge for Saddam’s attempted assassination of his father. It could also be seen as the determination to pull off something that his father failed to achieve. But dig a little deeper and it also looks like an attempt to exorcise what must be one nasty case of Oedipal resentment. By Frank’s formula, families like the Bushes, where difficult emotions are banished, produce children who cast other people as the symbols of their own unintegrated negative urges and feelings: “I don’t want to kill my father, he does, and to prove that I’m devoid of such bad impulses, I’ll take him out.”

Of course, not everyone faced with such a nightmarish Oedipal setup as George W. Bush’s deals with it by simply playing through. Most, in fact, probably do something like what George W. himself did in his youth: act out, get in trouble and stifle the internal conflicts with booze. Bizarrely, seen in context, George W.’s drinking actually starts to look like a relatively straightforward way to confront a miserable situation, as in the notorious 1973 incident in which the 26-year-old George W., called on the carpet for driving drunk with his teenage brother, crashed through some garbage cans and called out his father to “go mano a mano right here!” Sure, it’s a messed-up way of venting, but it’s better than starting a war.

Now (ostensibly) sober, George W. toes the family line, and when he’s not letting off steam geopolitically, he uses the outlets favored by his mother, a less-discussed but probably more significant influence on his character. By most reliable accounts a truly scary piece of work, Barbara Bush is known around the Bush home by the nickname “the Enforcer.” (A family friend described her to George W. biographer Bill Minutaglio as “the one who instills fear.”) Barbara seems to be the source of George W.’s penchant for teasing, that overtly chummy but covertly hostile technique he especially likes to use on the press, who alarm and intimidate him. The animosity swirling beneath the placid surface of the Bush family keeps leaking out in little puffs of chilly spite disguised as jokes, whether it’s George W.’s cracking wise about his mother’s cooking, referring to his wife as “the lump in the bed next to me,” or telling the press that a daughter recently hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy might join the family for a Florida vacation, but “if not, she can clean her room.”

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