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 King and 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."
Immelman consults literature on personality disorders. The process takes months and profiles are often updated when new materials, such as comprehensive biographies, are released.
This sounds somewhat unreliable, since Immelman must take what reporters and others say as gospel, and in the age of Nexis journalism, anecdotes and personal details get passed around. What appear to be three separate accounts could really be just one.
At the same time, Immelman's work sounds pretty tame. After all, his are not clinical observations, but a detached study based on public accounts.
But long-distance psychoanalysis can be trouble, and no one knew that better than the late Barry Goldwater, another Republican who, like John McCain, once represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate and once ran for president.
Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964 with the slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right." Supporters of his Democratic opponent, incumbent Lyndon Johnson, came up with their own slogan: "In your guts, you know he's nuts."
The slogans are well-known, but the history behind them isn't.
Naysayers were arguing that Goldwater was too unstable -- read: too politically extreme -- to be trusted with the country's nuclear weapons, so in the summer of 1964, the now-defunct Fact magazine set out to test the theory. (I could not get my hands on a copy of Fact, but Stanley Renshon devotes a chapter to it in his 1996 book The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates.)
The magazine sent questionnaires to more than 12,000 psychiatrists who belonged to the American Psychiatric Association. They were asked, "Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to be President of the United States?" The shrinks were asked to evaluate Goldwater's mental health and suitability to hold office, based on materials taken from six biographies of Goldwater -- including the claim that Goldwater had suffered two nervous breakdowns.
About 2,400 psychiatrists returned the questionnaire. Responses ranged from, "There is no doubt that Mr. Barry Goldwater is 'mentally deranged'" to "[Goldwater is] intellectually honest, reliable, consistent and emotionally mature." Diagnoses ranged from "compensated schizophrenic" to "narcissistic" to "severe obsessive-compulsive neurosis."
As part of the magazine's release of the results, Fact's editor and publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, wrote an article in October 1964 titled, "Goldwater: The Man and the Menace." Ginzburg argued that by examining interviews and other reports published in the media, "a comprehensive psychiatric portrait definitely does emerge."
Ginzburg announced that Goldwater was paranoid. His article included claims that Goldwater had a cold relationship with his father but was close to his dynamic and somewhat masculine mother. Ginzburg maintained that Goldwater played cruel practical jokes as a child and was preoccupied with masculinity.
Sadly, Fact didn't do a workup on LBJ, who harbored no shortage of Texas-size pathologies himself.
Goldwater lost the presidency, but did prevail in a libel suit against Fact. The American Psychiatric Association subsequently wrote the "Goldwater Rule," which prohibits psychiatrists from offering evaluations without meeting the subject.
Since the Fact fiasco, there have been some attempts to psychoanalyze leaders from afar -- but many of the researchers, like Aubrey Immelman, find themselves under siege.
Immelman defends his practice.
"I don't have the same ethical responsibilities towards public figures as do a psychiatrist or a psychologist in private practice with his or her clients," he says.
"When people make themselves available for public office, they basically subject themselves to scrutiny. . . . I'm just taking information that's out there already and I'm just packaging it in a form that's consistent with mainstream psychodiagnostics and personality theory, which allows one to take one's understanding to a higher level."
So what will Aubrey Immelman have to say about John McCain? The final results of Immelman's analysis aren't in, but he and a student did co-author a piece about McCain's temper on November 28 for the St. Cloud Times .
In the piece, Immelman and Melisa S. Illies write that their jury is still out, so to speak, when it comes to the question of whether McCain is fit to serve as president:
"Our tentative conclusion is that McCain's anger is expressed directly and appropriately, yet we red-flag this question for closer scrutiny as the campaign unfolds, and for good reason: Displacing one's anger onto groups or individuals unlikely or unable to retaliate may be indicative of an authoritarian character structure or an underlying sadistic tendency. Concerning the latter -- a deeply ingrained, maladaptively aggressive predilection to revel in the humiliation and misfortune of others -- the Arizona Republic's characterization of McCain as 'sarcastic and condescending,' though cause for concern, warrants independent verification."
Such independent verification is just what Immelman will spend the next several weeks looking for. He expects his analysis of McCain will be completed by early next year -- and he is eager to get access to as much of McCain's just-released medical records as possible.
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