The reaction to Bob Woodward’s new book Fear has been almost completely devoid of historical context. The very folks who are trying to convince us, based on Woodward’s account, that Donald Trump is unhinged are ignoring the fact that Trump is hardly the first American president to have temperamental deficiencies. Many of Trump’s alleged personality-related problems are not new in presidential history. Presenting his eccentricities as evidence of a constitutional crisis reflects a clear bias of omission by those doing the reporting.
Former CIA director John Brennan was among the earliest to call Trump “paranoid.” He was echoed by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who recently worried that an op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration staffer will make Trump even “more paranoid.” That op-ed used the term “erratic” to describe Trump. “Paranoid” and “erratic”—those terms have been used before, by top White House aides to describe another president: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Bill Moyers, who served as one of Johnson’s top special assistants and as White House press secretary, told historian Robert Dallek that Johnson was “paranoid” and “depressed,” as well as “morose, self-pitying, angry.” “He was a tormented man,” Moyers said, particularly after his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965. Professor Dallek, in a 1998 essay in The Atlantic, also used the word “erratic” to describe LBJ.
Yet the reaction to the anonymous op-ed among journalists and pundits would suggest that erratic behavior in a president had never existed before now (other than in Nixon), leading to calls for the 25th Amendment to be invoked. But as Dallek noted: “I asked Moyers if Johnson was so continually depressed as to be incapable of rational judgments on Vietnam. ‘No,’ he answered. ‘Johnson was erratic. One day he would be down and the next he would be upbeat. But always when he returned to the subject of Vietnam, this cloud in his eyes and this predictably unpredictable behavior would recur.’” Moyers distinguished between erratic behavior and irrational behavior, a distinction that has merit.
Johnson was unquestionably an insecure man. A graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College, he’d forever felt inferior to anyone with an Ivy League degree, especially if their last name was Kennedy. Richard Goodwin, President Johnson’s chief speechwriter, elaborated on this theme in the New York Times, saying: “Johnson once explained why Fulbright and ‘all those liberals on the Hill’ were squawking at him about Vietnam. ‘Why? I’ll tell you why. Because I never went to Harvard. That’s why. Because I wasn’t John F. Kennedy. Because the Great Society was accomplishing more than the New Frontier. You see, they had to find some issue on which to turn against me, and they found it in Vietnam.’”
Goodwin, like Moyers, used the word “paranoid” to describe Johnson. In his New York Times essay, he wrote: “My conclusion is that President Johnson experienced certain episodes of what I believe to have been paranoid behavior. I do not use this term to describe a medical diagnosis. I am not L.B.J.’s psychiatrist, nor am I qualified to be. I base my judgment purely on my observation of his conduct during the little more than two years I worked for him. And this was not my conclusion alone. It was shared by others who also had close and frequent contact with President Johnson.”
Goodwin recorded in his diary that Hugh Sidey, the White House correspondent for Time, visited to tell him “there was an increasing worry about the President around town. A fear that his personal eccentricities were now affecting policy.” Yet the press at the time was remarkably silent about Johnson’s psychological fitness for office. Such restraint then, as now, seems warranted.
We are told that Trump is not just paranoid but that he sees conspiracies forming against him. Once again, he is in good company with LBJ. As Richard Goodwin notes: “For Johnson, the omnipresent ghost of that past was reincarnated in the person of Robert F. Kennedy and his followers. But understandable hostility would soon be displaced by the more ominous conviction that Robert Kennedy was not just an enemy, but the leader of all Johnson’s enemies, the guiding spirit of some immense conspiracy designed to discredit and, ultimately, to overthrow the Johnson Presidency.”
And recall that Hillary Clinton, in a Today interview with Matt Lauer, spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Conspiracy theories are apparently acceptable for Democrats to espouse but for Republicans it’s a manifestation of paranoia. Barack Obama even used the words “conspiracy” and “paranoia” in a speech clearly aimed at Trump at the University of Illinois on September 7. Presumably, these are the new Democratic Party talking points for the midterm elections.
Despite Lyndon Johnson’s purported paranoia and erratic behavior, he is ranked tenth out of the 44 presidents (through Barack Obama) in C-Span’s 2017 poll of 90 historians, political scientists, and journalists.
Woodrow Wilson ranks eleventh, despite having more in common with Trump psychologically than even Johnson did. Vanderbilt University professor Erwin Hargrove notes that Wilson’s “great weakness was that he tended to shut himself off from advice. He was unable to accept it on matters in which he had a great emotional investment.” Arthur Link, editor of the Wilson papers, concluded that Wilson, because of “his egotism, secretiveness, and urge to dominance,” thought he alone must make and control foreign policy. Hargrove adds that Wilson “often ignored expert advice when it challenged his own intuitive sense.” In particular, Wilson “distrusted” his brilliant secretary of state Robert Lansing because of Lansing’s “refusal to give the kind of loyalty that Wilson demanded. This meant intellectual submission and agreement as well as understanding, and Lansing was not the man for this.” (Note the tension between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who, like Lansing, refuses to be totally subservient to the president.)
Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s closest confidant, noted that Wilson’s tendency to ignore the advice of experts was a “temperamental” defect. In House’s view, Wilson had a “one-track mind” that could not cope with domestic and foreign policy problems simultaneously. In 1916, long before Wilson’s stroke of 1919, House discussed the president’s inability to organize his work effectively, writing: “No one can see him to explain matters or get his advice. The President does not know what is going on in any of the departments. …The President is not a man of action and seems incapable of delegating work to others.”
Wilson reached his decisions by himself after “solitary deliberation.” Once an opinion was formed in his mind, “it became a moral position for him, and those who opposed him were either ignorant or immoral or both.” During the League of Nations debate after World War I, Wilson “translated a substantive fight into a personal one” in which his opponents “would have to bend their wills to him completely.” It became clear, Hargrove notes, that Wilson “intended to bypass the Senate as much as possible.”
Wilson may well have succeeded in achieving ratification of the League of Nations with “modest compromises.” Instead he declared that the treaty could not be amended, saying: “Anyone who opposes me in that I’ll crush.” Wilson’s “messianic vision and Calvinist moralism contributed to his rigidity,” according to Hargrove, though his stubborn behavior and lashing out at opponents ultimately resulted from deep insecurity. James David Barber, in his book Presidential Character, suggests that Wilson’s domineering and perfectionistic father, who had ridiculed Wilson as a youngster for not meeting his high expectations, had much to do with his rigid, compulsive behavior.
A final historical parallel with Trump is worth noting here. Jill Abramson’s Washington Post review of Bob Woodward’s Fear says ominously that the book “is full of Nixonian echoes, including Trump’s childishly short attention span and refusal to read briefing papers.”
Short attention span and an aversion to position papers sum up quite accurately the words used by National Security Advisor McGeorge “Mac” Bundy when he reprimanded John F. Kennedy for inattention to serious matters in a fully declassified memorandum written in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Bundy said: “We do have a problem of management…. We can’t get you to sit still. The National Security Council, for example, can’t work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day.”
Bundy continued: “Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozens in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet with you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings for about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me from Marguerite Higgins, David Lawrence, Scotty Reston, and others. The newspapers are important but not as an exercise in who leaked and why; against your powers and responsibilities, who the hell cares who told Maggie?”
Bundy concluded his memo as though he were still the dean of Arts & Sciences at Harvard reprimanding a wayward faculty member: “Right now it is so hard to get you with anything not urgent and immediate that about half the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them.”
As Bundy’s memorandum clearly illustrates, other presidents have been guilty of impatience, short attention spans, a refusal to read position papers, and intolerance of leaks to the press. Clearly, none of these factors rise to the level of invoking the 25th Amendment.
As noted previously, Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson are ranked among the top 11 presidents in American history. Yet how much did their personality flaws actually inhibit their overall records of accomplishment? The same question must be asked of Donald Trump.
Dr. Phillip G. Henderson is associate professor of political science at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His books include Managing the Presidency: The Eisenhower Legacy and The Presidency Then and Now.