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The Boston Phoenix Prozac Politics

Maybe we feel better about ourselves than we should. When Patrick Kennedy said he was on antidepressants, no one batted an eye. Have we really come that far?

By Robert David Sullivan

MARCH 13, 2000:  Last week, U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy let everybody know that he needs a little help. The story began when one of Kennedy's friends -- Tipper Gore, who happens to be the wife of the vice-president -- talked about the depression that had forced her to get professional treatment. Emboldened by her frankness, the Rhode Island congressman reassured Gore that she isn't alone -- that he, too, is taking medication and regularly sees a psychiatrist to cope with the nagging sense that life just isn't worth the effort. It was the kind of moment that's become a pop-culture cliché, familiar from works such as Annie Hall and The Sopranos. But it also happens in real life thousands of times a day.

This bonding between two people with the blues was unusual only in that it happened in public, at a mental-health forum in Woonsocket that doubled as a photo op for Al Gore's presidential campaign. But the reaction so far has been about the same as if Kennedy had spilled his guts to a few friends over brunch. "Well, who isn't crazy these days?" is the proper response to such an admission. "I know I should be on Prozac" is also good, especially when accompanied by an ironic glance at your fifth mimosa. At a minimum, you'd be likely to praise your friend's honesty -- or his "uplifting candor," to use a ponderous phrase from a Boston Globe editorial on Kennedy's disclosure. The Providence Journal had a similar reaction, lauding Kennedy for encouraging others to "confront their problems" and for proving that "highly successful, highly public people can function well despite their mental illness."

Neither editorial writer was rude enough to say that Kennedy, already known to have been treated at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic before he began his political career, may have been making a pre-emptive strike against a comprehensive biography that will hit bookstores this spring. And neither pointed out that the admission will keep this particular Kennedy from ever being treated as a prospective presidential candidate. We may take it in stride when we see athletes and entertainers struggle with disease or mental illness, but there's no evidence that we'd make the same allowances for our political leaders.

Indeed, though the Globe praised Tipper Gore as a spokesperson for mental illness, it failed to pose an obvious question for her husband, who was not at the Woonsocket event: with all the stuff you've endured over the past 52 years, and given that your health insurance probably covers everything, how come you're not seeing a therapist? No, the rule over the past 25 years has been that a politician lets his wife be the one to confess mental-health problems. Think not only of Tipper Gore, but also of Cindy McCain, who was addicted to painkillers, and Betty Ford and Kitty Dukakis, who struggled with alcoholism. (Tellingly, Elsa Walsh's recent profile of Tipper Gore in the New Yorker suggests that her depression has been exacerbated by demands that she cast aside her own professional ambitions to help her husband fulfill his.) As for the candidate, he has enough trouble telling the public about his cholesterol count and the suspicious moles on his back. We're just not ready to hear about what's going on in his head.

I certainly have no problem with someone in Congress being on antidepressants. (The Globe notes that only two other members publicly admit to having suffered from depression.) If I spent each working day trying to do something about poverty, discrimination, global warming, and greedy pharmaceutical companies, I'd be tempted to open a vein every time I saw Trent Lott. It doesn't make me feel better that most congressmen get around the problem by denying the existence of poverty, discrimination, global warming, and greedy pharmaceutical companies.

Kennedy's admission reminded me of a Cornell University study released a couple of months ago called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The researchers argued that people with mediocre skills are quite content with their work because they don't know any better, while more-talented people always see room for improvement in their own. In other words, ignorance is bliss. Perhaps the same holds true for mental health, and people who never suffer from depression just don't realize how much they have to be depressed about. In other words, bliss is ignorance. (Novelist Joseph Heller already figured this out in Catch-22.)

This hypothesis, in turn, made me think about the man who could be our next president. George W. Bush may be the Michael Bolton of American politics: unfailingly self-confident and thus completely unaware of his total schlockiness. Bolton destroys every song he can expel from his throat, but as long as he gets attention and sells CDs, he shows no sign of recognizing that his vocal range goes from "woman in labor" to "screaming newborn." Bush destroys every rule of fair campaigning, but if he wins the White House, he's not going to lose any sleep over how he got there. He may become our most mentally serene and least introspective president ever (yes, even worse than Ronald Reagan), and the country will be fine as long as we never expect him to admit it when he makes a mistake.

But even if depression can be considered a sign that you're paying attention, that doesn't mean we're ready to elect a living, breathing person with a prescription for Zoloft. Yes, as the Globe editorial on Patrick Kennedy reminds us, many great people overcame bouts of depression, including Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Winston Churchill. But some may point out that these guys had a lot to be depressed about (war, deafness, more war). Anyway, we're always forgiving of people who are safely dead and aren't going to ask us for votes.

If any current presidential candidate were to own up to a mental illness, however, the pundits would likely remind us of Thomas Eagleton, the Missouri senator who spent one week as George McGovern's nominee for vice-president in 1972. Eagleton was kicked off the ticket after an anonymous source told the Detroit Free Press that the senator had undergone electroshock therapy and had been hospitalized three times for depression. The fact that Eagleton had concealed this information from McGovern gave party leaders a reason to dump him, but of course he wouldn't have been picked in the first place if the truth had been known. Whatever McGovern personally thought about Eagleton's ability to serve, the press would have been all over the issue of mental instability for the rest of the campaign. During the few interim days when Eagleton was still the official nominee, Washington columnist Jack Anderson falsely reported (based on an unverifiable tip) that the senator had been arrested several times for drunk driving. Coming clean with the facts sounds like a quick and easy solution, but a candidate would still have to respond to new rumors throughout the campaign season.

In 1972, there were still a limited number of news organizations that decided whether a political story would get national exposure. But with the rise of the Internet, it's nearly impossible to contain any reasonably plausible rumor about a public figure. In the 1988 election, for example, George W. Bush's father was helped (how much is impossible to say) by a whispering campaign about the mental health of his opponent, Michael Dukakis. The Massachusetts governor was vulnerable to the rumor because his brother, who died in 1973, had been diagnosed as mentally ill, and because Dukakis had apparently (and understandably) been depressed after losing his bid for re-election in 1978. (He wasn't too depressed to win back the office four years later.) Given how easy it was to spread such rumors about an unflappable guy like Dukakis, it's not surprising that this year John McCain has been dogged by "Is he stable?" questions connected to the numerous times he's lost his temper in public and the lasting effects of five years' imprisonment in a Vietnamese POW camp. The beneficiary of those rumors, of course, has been George W. Bush.

An apparently abandoned Web page, www.tarpley.net/pdukakis.htm, gives some flavor of the crackpot coverage of the 1988 campaign. Called "Dukakis: New Face for the Fascist Corporate State," it includes a section titled "Is Dukakis the New Senator Eagleton?" The writer asserts that "Michael Dukakis suffers from a deep-seated mental instability that could paralyze him . . . in the event of a severe economic or strategic crisis. . . . This tendency appears to be linked to his family background." He also asks, "Why are psychiatrists so prominent a part of his personal circle of friends?" (That query reflects American discomfort not only with mental illness, but with intellectuals of any kind.) And he attacks Dukakis for "his small physical stature," suggesting that he must have been bullied in school and therefore would easily be bullied by the Russians. I don't mean to give credibility to this Web site, but it is worth remembering that most people don't base their political opinions on the editorial page of the Boston Globe.

Of course, it's nice to think that Americans in the year 2000 can accept our political leaders' human limitations, including physical problems much more serious than small stature. It's nice to think we would elect someone like Franklin Delano Roosevelt even if we knew that he couldn't walk, for example, or John F. Kennedy even if we knew about his debilitating back pain and Addison's disease. Jesse Jackson tapped into this sentiment with one of his biggest applause lines in the 1980s: "I'd rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse!" The media conspired to hide the medical conditions of Roosevelt and Kennedy when they ran for president, but surely we can handle the truth about our leaders today.

Well, maybe. One of the unintended consequences of using primaries to pick presidential and congressional candidates is that voters have to consider "electability" -- which is affected by every imaginable ailment, not just depression. In 1992, Paul Tsongas was doomed by questions about how strongly he would run against President Bush, and the fact that he'd been treated for cancer pushed a lot of primary voters toward the more robust Bill Clinton. This year, Bill Bradley didn't help his campaign by disclosing that he has an arrhythmic heart. Why give the Republicans that issue when there aren't so many ideological differences between Bradley and Gore anyway? If you have to choose from among candidates who are all saying pretty much the same thing, it can seem like a pointless risk to nominate the guy with diabetes or the one taking Prozac (or, for that matter, the black one, or the Jewish one, or the gay one). Voters may overlook these things if they come out when someone is already in office, but Patrick Kennedy's disclosure isn't going to erase the stigma of depression for someone trying to begin a political career.

And though Kennedy deserves credit for his honesty, he may be the member of Congress least likely to be hurt by such a revelation.

"The constituents already knew about it in a manner of speaking," Kennedy told the Providence Journal. "They knew I had substance-abuse problems. That's not a mystery. They also know if they have read the paper in the last several years . . . that my family has had a lot of trials and tribulations."

Knowing what we do about his family, including the headlines we can't turn away from in the supermarket checkout line, it's only to be expected that Ted Kennedy's son would need some help with his coping skills. It might be a different story if we found out that a prospective president needed a weekly session with a psychiatrist. We've grown accustomed to learning the truth about our candidates, but I'm not sure we've figured out what to do with it.

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