Psychiatrists With Press Passes

January 11, 2018

Long before the presidential election, the populist candidate’s mental state was under attack. The New York Times ran a series over several days suggesting he was unfit for office. It included a letter from an anonymous psychiatrist diagnosing the candidate’s “megalomania” and saying he “presents in speech and action striking and alarming evidence of a mind not entirely sound.” Another piece said the political outsider was “laboring under the delusion he is persecuted” and possessed “an enormous passion for haranguing every time he sees a crowd gathered.” One psychologist refused to call the candidate “ordinarily crazy,” but added “I would like to examine him,” while another said he was “beset with what I believe to be delusions.”

But, dear reader, hold your amusement or your rage. These articles appeared in 1896. The victim of the Times’s insanity assault was not Donald Trump but William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic presidential nominee. It is a reminder that the media frenzy this week about Mr. Trump’s mental acuity isn’t the first time the question has been raised about a White House occupant or a presidential candidate. It won’t be the last.

The current conflagration was set off by Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” a lengthy tabloid gossip article masquerading as a book. It includes the genre’s usual collection of anonymous quotes, unsourced descriptions and clever insinuations, all heavily influenced by the author’s liberal biases.

The book contains little that will change the opinions of either Trump haters or Trump lovers. Some of the material is obvious score settling by West Wing adversaries. Some of it is spicy and sensational gossip. A good portion of it can never be confirmed, and some of it already has been credibly denied. My assessment is that much of the book is probably untrue, and most of what is correct Americans knew already.

Portions of the text undermine the author, not his target. Consider Chapter 8, where Mr. Wolff writes at length about the conflicting approaches of three top White House aides. In Mr. Wolff’s telling, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was “cultivating” congressional Republicans to advance the Trump agenda; son-in-law Jared Kushner was “concentrating on presidential bonhomie and CEO roundtables”; and senior adviser Steve Bannon was focused on “a succession” of executive orders “that would move the new administration forward without having to wade through Congress.” The president, according to Mr. Wolff, “didn’t understand why he couldn’t have them all.”

But why couldn’t he? One can criticize the effectiveness of Messrs. Priebus, Kushner and Bannon, but every Oval Office occupant wants Congress to pass his agenda, seeks support among outside constituencies to advance his program, and uses his powers as chief executive to advance his policies as much as that authority allows. If someone here doesn’t understand how the presidency functions, it is Mr. Wolff, not Mr. Trump.

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The book leaves many questions unanswered. Who was the PR genius who allowed Mr. Wolff, a writer of dubious accuracy and scandal-mongering tastes, to visit the West Wing 20 times, notepad and recorder in hand? Why the heck did Mr. Bannon belch out every profane thought he had about everyone else in the West Wing, including the president? The book’s most revealing quotes come from Mr. Bannon in extended interviews where Mr. Wolff’s recorder was clearly running so long that its lithium batteries must have almost caught fire.

Mr. Bannon’s political self-immolation was newsworthy enough, but the hubbub around “Fire and Fury” would have been much smaller except that Mr. Trump tweeted in response and even threatened to sue the publisher. The president has obvious and alarming deficiencies in his behavior and tone, but they are a long way from Mr. Wolff’s imputations that a madman works in the Oval Office. Still, Mr. Trump’s response helped turn a minor story that would have lasted a day or two into a weeklong national conversation about whether he is crazy. There was a better way.

Witness Mr. Trump’s televised 45-minute negotiating session Tuesday on immigration with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. If the president wants to ease concerns about his fitness for office, he should show the nation more moments like that—and fewer tweets claiming he is “a very stable genius” and “like, really smart.” He can’t erase Mr. Wolff’s book; what he can do is display more acts of leadership that disprove its central thesis. The choice is entirely up to him.

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