A conversation with Dr. Justin Frank about two presidential hopefuls’ debate performances doesn’t offer the usual political analysis.
Frank analyzed the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney not just as a voter — he is a liberal Obama supporter, it should be noted — but as a psychoanalyst. Frank is both the author of “Bush on the Couch” and “Obama on the Couch,” and a Freudian, which means he is interested in how people got to be the way they are, judging by unconscious factors in their childhood.
“I’ve had a lot of history doing what’s called applied psychoanalysis, which is looking at the past, looking at patterns, looking at behavior, looking at repetitive things,” he said.
In his debate analysis of Obama and Romney, Frank notes the big difference between the two men is their fathers. Romney had a strong father, while Obama’s father was never part of his family. Romney also had five sons, which Frank said means he has to be tough.
“Romney was what’s called a narcissistic fighter, meaning he fights by taking a superior position and sort of talking down to the other person,” he said. “It’s much harder to fight against a person who’s a narcissistic fighter because they don’t actually discuss the facts, they just put you down.”
Psychoanalyzing presidents and politicians one has never met is not so odd. The CIA does this with world leaders and many historians and pundits have been doing this for years: Was Abraham Lincoln gay? Why was Jack Kennedy so reckless in his personal life? Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush’s relationship with George H.W. Bush — there is no shortage of material.
Of course, politicians might have another take on it. Vice President Joe Biden, for one, might say it’s “malarkey, you know, stuff.” Yes, long ago stuff, buried in the psyche stuff.
But Frank posits that Obama’s belief he could change Washington had its genesis in his childhood. He referenced the story Obama tells on the campaign about his father, a black African man, talking down another man making racist slurs in an all-white bar in Hawaii.
“He was fed a myth as a child about his father,” Frank said. “That was a story that Obama was fed over and over again and I really think it’s very important that the idea of power of reason, that he can really reason with people, and talk to them, but you can’t reason with somebody who is convinced, like say, Mitch McConnell, for instance, in just destroying you, making sure you’re a one-term president.”
For the Freudians, one of Romney’s seminal moments came when his father, George Romney, Mitt’s hero, was essentially chased out of the Republican presidential race after he dropped his support for the Vietnam War, saying, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”
His quote was twisted unfairly, and George Romney became, sadly, something of a punch line. It was scathing for his son and Mitt seemed to learn a lot of lessons from his father’s defeat.
“One of the lessons he learned was never to risk being humiliated and therefore, never to really say what you actually think,” Frank said.
On one level, for anybody to seek the office of the presidency, who thinks that he or she should be the leader of the Western world, it would seem to suggest a level of egomania that would almost be disqualifying. But Frank believes it is necessary for candidates to have some egomania in order to make the tough decisions of the office, decisions about sending people to war and breaking up their families.
“You have to have a certain kind of tough skin and a certain kind of egomania,” he said. “I am sure that if I had analyzed any of these people before they ran, I’m sure, they might not have ever run, because they would have worked through some of that egomania.”