Poli-Psyche

Will a long-distance analysis of McCain tell us anything new?

John McCain released his medical records over the weekend, and now we know all about our senior senator's skin cancer (cured), colon polyps (benign) and prostate (slightly enlarged, but normal for a 63-year-old). We even know that in 1980 McCain's doctors spotted a "herpetic lesion" on his genitals -- and we know that "herpetic" does not necessarily mean "herpes."

But McCain's political opponents are less concerned with his hay fever (under control, with nose spray) than with the fevered pitch of the presidential candidate's legendary temper. And so McCain orchestrated the release of records to end what he's calling a vicious Washington whisper campaign to discredit his ability to serve as president.

"It may have the effect of allaying any concerns that people might have,'' McCain said Sunday on Meet the Press.

Or maybe not.

The psychological assessment of McCain was much less specific than the physical -- at least, it was from what I read from the Associated Press and New York Times, two of the news organizations allowed access to the materials over the weekend. Reportedly, no one was -- or will be -- allowed to copy anything from the three thick binders, and a couple of pages are being withheld, although the AP reporters were allowed a glimpse to assure them they weren't missing the mother lode.

As expected, McCain's doctors say that while he does have a temper, he is not unfit to hold a position such as, oh, let's say the presidency.

The reports date back to McCain's 1973 release from the Hanoi Hilton, and describe him as intelligent and strong with a high pain threshold. They say he survived five and a half years in prison camp by indulging in fantasies so real he would get annoyed when the prison guards interrupted his reverie with a meal.

Doctors also state that McCain learned to better control his anger in prison -- he'd been a rebellious kid, causing his family grief over everything from his hair length (long) to his class rank at the U.S. Naval Academy (fifth from the bottom).

The material I read -- albeit filtered -- is interesting. But many people, particularly those who've witnessed a McCain tongue-lashing, won't consider it at all conclusive. For one thing, only a handful of journalists will ever get to see the actual documents. Even if McCain put the records on the Web, it wouldn't matter much. John McCain could go live on Larry Kingand do Rorschach tests for an hour, or saw open his skull, remove his brain, offer it up to the best neurologists in the country, and some would still question whether we know enough to make him president.

But that hasn't stopped Aubrey Immelman from putting McCain on a couch, figuratively speaking.


Aubrey Immelman is a psychology professor at a tiny school with a big name -- St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict -- in Collegeville, Minnesota. He teaches a course called "Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates" in which Immelman and his students apply a model using materials found in the public domain -- biographies, autobiographies, newspaper stories, broadcast interviews -- to do psychological workups of individual candidates. Immelman's students are now at work on John McCain.

Many modern political observers hate what they call personality politics, saying that Americans focus too much on whether a candidate has smoked dope or cheated on his wife and too little on public policy. Immelman argues that personality can play a significant role in the formation of government policy.

"People do focus on personality quite a bit, of late, but I don't think it's misdirected in a general sense," says Immelman, who grew up in South Africa but whose accent is straight out of the movie Fargo. "I think character, personality and so on, temperament, are legitimate campaign issues, because there's clear evidence now that it does have an impact on people's functioning in office."

Immelman was intrigued by this notion as a young man in South Africa, and his earliest works analyzed the styles of leaders such as Nelson Mandela.

"Indeed, there were major personality differences between Pieter Botha and F.W. DeKlerk, which make it easier to understand . . . why South Africa moved away from its old apartheid policies and towards a nonracial democracy," he says.

Immelman's methodology employs a list of 170 criteria (for example, is the subject highly defensive) that students are taught to look for in the available literature. Only 30 to 50 criteria apply to each candidate; for instance, since Bill Clinton is an extrovert, none of the criteria signifying introversion would apply. Two or three independent sources must be cited before a criterion applies to a politician.

Once the raw data are gathered, a complicated scoring process begins.

This allows him to analyze a great deal of material with varied reliability to come to more reliable general conclusions, Immelman says.

"It's not that you can go and read, let's say, Gail Sheehy's new biography and then you go and sit down and write a little summary of what she found," he explains. "It's a little bit more complex. . . . I look for information that's valid, that's reliable, that can be depended on in the sense that various independent observers have made the same observations, but I then put it in a psychological framework. What typically happens when you read profiles of politicians, even those that are psychologically informed, they're usually conducted by people without the training in psychology or political psychology or personality, and people often make very insightful interpretations but it doesn't really fit into a consistent theoretical framework."

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