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When illness strikes the leader

By Selwyn Ryan

The continuing public interest in the possible recovery of former prime minister Patrick Manning, the controversy surrounding the questions raised by Verna St Rose Greaves about the Prime Minister's health, and speculation that Dr Wayne Kublalsingh is not "all there", sent me searching my library for a book which I read some time ago, authored by Prof Jerrold Post, entitled When Illness Strikes the Leader.

While looking for that item, I also found David Owen's book, In Sickness and in Power.

Both books dealt with "illness in heads of government during the last 100 years".

The two books, plus some other titles (eg, Jeffery Kottler's Divine Madness) collectively reminded me of the number of great artists, musicians, poets, political leaders, etc, who were mentally impaired or assumed to be so by the people of their time. My concern in this particular column is with political leaders. Is it true, as one of our psychiatrists averred, all our political leaders were psychiatrically impaired? Is it also true alcohol is the lubricant, the fuel of politics, and that many politicians run the risk of becoming afflicted if not addicted? Is it true hubris is often driven and accelerated by excessive substance abuse?

One of the concerns of the political analysts concerned with leadership is whether leaders become mentally ill because of the strains and stresses of political life which result from the excessive responsibilities which many have to undertake at any one time, or whether they were a tad mad prior to their entry into competitive politics. My own take on the issue is that one cannot generalise and that either or both may true. It however seems to be the case that individuals who stay in power too long, and operate in environments or cultures that do not expose them to open criticism, come to think that they are God's chosen one and that he/she is indispensable, invincible or even immortal. The hubris syndrome or nemesis invariably set in to remind that immortality is for the gods to enjoy.

One of the preoccupations of such leaders is fear of illness, fear that the public would regard such illness as a sign of weakness or dispensability.

IIlness is seen as having a stigma attached to it, particularly if the illness is mental. They thus seek to conceal such blemishes or deliberately misdiagnose their health issues. Eric Williams did not fancy letting the people of the country know much or anything know about his health problems. Doctors visited him at his home, not at a hospital. Even when it becomes generally known that the leader is ill, many doctors or families lie about his or her condition.

Churchill provides a classic example of what often happens. Churchill and his doctors never wished to have his many heart attacks, his bi-poplar disorder or his drinking habits become publicly known. Churchill was a very heavy drinker. As one contemporary wrote of him in his diary, "The quantities of liquor he consumed—champagne, brandies, whiskies—were incredible."

There was also the question of whether it was liquor that made him manic or the excitement of politics that made him crazy or continuously drunk. Some who knew him believed alcohol abuse helped more than hurt him, taking everything into account. Alcohol was used to medicate himself.

Other great drinkers were Lincoln, Nixon,Yeltsin, Khruschev.

Some leaders are said to have become great in spite of their addiction or, in some cases, because of their addiction.

Prof David Linden of Johns Hopkins University argues that certain individuals feel a "dopamine" high in the pleasure centre of the brain during a crisis. "Since that is the same brain area that substance abuse stimulates, it may explain the mindset of people like Alexander the Great, Otto Von Bismark or Churchill."

As Linden continues, "For many leaders, it is not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also confer on them behavioural traits that serve them well."

Some people also have problems because they are not able to "hold" their liquor.

The men behind the leader who are ensconced in the "throne room of the palace" or the leader's wives or mistresses may also have a vested interest in secrecy. In some cases, doctors deliberately conspired and misled the public.

Eisenhower was said to have indigestion when in fact he had several heart attacks. Franklyn Roosevelt concealed his many illnesses from the public for many years, as did French Presidents De Gaulle and Pompidou.

Blatant denial became an art form. Some leaders went so far as to persuade the media that they were not as ill as they really were, fearing perhaps that public knowledge might lead to panic in stock markets or generate political instability.

It is now known that Churchill's son-in-law signed many a document to prevent the public from knowing his father-in-law was not hale and hearty. Roosevelt was also a very sick man when he signed away half of Europe to Old Joe Stalin. Their hubris and at times that of the men around them also led them to engage in the conspiracy of silence.

Turning now to hubristic behaviour, the syndrome expresses itself in many forms. Groups, and by extension, nations also behave in ways that invite analysts to assert that they are displaying the arrogance of power. The men who led the US in the '50s and '60s behaved as if they had been assigned divine responsibility from carrying the light of Western civilisation to the benighted peoples of the world. It was America's "manifest destiny" to do these things. John Kennedy, for example, promised America would "bear any burden" that was required to make "freedom ring" in the "Third World".

America saw itself doing what Britain and France did when they were responsible for carrying the "mission civilatrice" to Africa, Asia and India. They were the agents of change.

In most cases, national self-interest masqueraded as benevolence and the pursuit of good governance. It was not always pure cynicism, however, that drove them to be "Ugly Americans".

Many took it as given that Britain was destined to "rule the waves".

Bush and Blair were also hubrists par excellence.

Bush came to believe he had the right to pre-empt others as he sought "to spread democracy" to the Arab world. He was not subject to the law of nations if that law did not suit America.

Blair also believed in some of the messianism that characterised Bush. Nemesis eventually caught up with them both in the souks of Bhagdad.

Certain groups came to believe they were the people whom "God" chose and chartered to civilise the less advanced tribes of their world.

Israel is a hubristic nation par excellence. And many an Israeli genuinely believes he is Jehovah's chosen one and can do whatever is needed to give voice to the words of God.

One can also readily use the term hubris to describe the manner in which the PNM under Dr Eric Williams saw its role in relation to the peoples of Indian descent in Trinidad and Tobago, whom they claimed it was their mission to emancipate from recalcitrance, colonialism and all the other dangers facing the peoples of the Caribbean.

"Great is the PNM and it shall prevail," was the mantra.

The "stocks" are now on the other foot.

The People of Indian descent, however quietly, now regard themselves as the new hegemons, those who now have the responsibility for making over the economic, cultural and political landscape of T&T, all in the name of "righting old wrongs".

This too is a form of ethnic group hubris which is often at the root of wars of "culture". To be continued.

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