A few months before the 1964 presidential election, the now-defunct Fact magazine surveyed the membership of the American Psychiatric Association about the personality of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee. The psychiatrists savaged Goldwater, calling him “warped” and a “paranoid schizophrenic” who harbored unconscious hatred of his Jewish father and endured rigid toilet training. This absurd analysis prompted the APA to formulate the Goldwater Rule, advising members that it is “unethical for psychiatrists to offer a professional opinion unless he/she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
This is not to say that careful psychometric evaluations are invalid. In such studies, presidents (who were once candidates, of course) rate more highly than the average person in terms of narcissism. But there is no reason to suspect aberration as a general rule. A 2006 study by Duke University psychiatrists found that, over their lifetimes, presidents displayed no greater incidence of psychiatric diagnoses than the rest of the population. (The authors acknowledge that the raw data they had to rely on were not perfect and that politicians’ psychological difficulties, if they do manifest, may emerge as a result of the pressures of office.)
Still, for psychological insight on important political figures, we may do better to turn to biographers like William Manchester, Robert Caro and Lou Cannon. Beyond the obvious, and objectively documented, preponderance of ambition, outsized self-confidence and related traits in presidential candidates, anyone who offers fanciful theories about candidates’ psychological health or explanations of their foibles involving the neurotransmitter dopamine is probably just spinning.