Psych Testing for Presidential Candidates

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by Robert Rabbin

To reasonable people, it would seem unthinkable that a criminal psychopath such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson could ever be elected to the White House.

Maybe, someone might argue, one of their less brazen siblings, a socialized psychopath, could. Since so many of our culture’s icons of business success attain their wealth, social status, and power prominence at the unconscionable expense of other people and through ruthless disregard and reckless plundering of the Earth’s resources, why would we not expect one or more of these types of people to ascend to the political heights of Washington?

That scenario is no longer a conversation for intellectual snobs at evening salons. Anyone who watched the September interview of President George Bush by Wolf Blitzer could not think otherwise. I’m not talking about what President Bush said, but how he was.

Prof. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA long ago taught us that only seven to 10 percent of a person’s believability is based on their words: 90 percent is based on tone and body/facial gestures. In other words, if you open fully and intuitively to see, hear, and feel who a person is, you will receive 90 percent of their true message.

President George Bush’s true message is this: I am mad as a hatter.

“Mad as a hatter” actually derives from an early industrial occupational disease. Felt hats were once very popular in North America and Europe; an example is the top hat. The best sorts were made from beaver fur, but cheaper ones used furs such as rabbit instead. A complicated set of processes was needed to turn the fur into a finished hat. With the cheaper sorts of fur, an early step was to brush a solution of a mercury compound—usually mercurous nitrate—on to the fur to roughen the fibers and make them mat more easily, a process called carroting because it made the fur turn orange. Beaver fur had natural serrated edges that made this unnecessary, one reason why it was preferred, but the cost and scarcity of beaver meant that other furs had to be used.

Whatever the source of the fur, the fibers were then shaved off the skin and turned into felt; this was later immersed in a boiling acid solution to thicken and harden it. Finishing processes included steaming the hat to shape and ironing it. In all these steps, hatters working in poorly ventilated workshops would breathe in the mercury compounds and accumulate the metal in their bodies.

We now know that mercury is a cumulative poison that causes kidney and brain damage. Physical symptoms include trembling, loosening of teeth, loss of co-ordination, and slurred speech; mental ones include irritability, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, and other personality changes. This was called mad hatter syndrome.

If President George Bush did not scare the hell out of you, you were not watching. Forget what he said; he didn’t say it anyway, he repeated it. He doesn’t know what he is saying. He doesn’t know what he is doing. He is mad as a hatter. Why this isn’t being splashed across every front page in America is just beyond me. We have our own Nero, and no one says anything?

Popular legend remembers Roman Emperor Nero as a playboy engaged in petty amusements while neglecting the problems of the Roman city and empire, the emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned.” Because of his reported excesses and eccentricities, he is traditionally viewed as the second of the so-called Mad Emperors, the first being Caligula, a charmer if ever there was one. What I don’t get is why Americans are fiddling as their country goes down in flames.

I know, you may think President Bush is not nuts. Okay. I know this is just my point of view. Let’s leave this alone. Instead, let’s look to the future, to the 2008 elections, and consider that all candidates for the White House undergo psychological testing, the results of which would be made public. Just to level the playing field, and to give us some insight into who these people are, aside from their images, crafted by clever handlers and sold through the media.

Here’s why we must want this:

Just beneath our antiquated social radar is a thriving nest of subcriminal, or socialized, psychopaths though their deviancy is masked and their crimes less revolting, these psychopaths nonetheless pose grave dangers to our collective well-being.

In Without Conscience, Dr. Robert D. Hare, one of the world’s foremost authorities in the area of psychopathy, says that such psychopaths “appear to function reasonably well—as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, mercenaries, police officers, cult leaders, military personnel, businesspeople, writers, artists, entertainers and so forth—without breaking the law, or at least without being caught and convicted. These individuals are every bit as egocentric, callous, and manipulative as the average criminal psychopath; however, their intelligence, family background, social skills, and circumstances permit them to construct a façade of normalcy and to get what they want with relative impunity.”

What is a psychopath? Honored American novelist and wise elder Kurt Vonnegut, interviewed by Joel Bleifuss for In These Times magazine, offers some insight:

“To say somebody is a PP (psychopathic personality) is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose! And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!”

A checklist of emotional and interpersonal traits of psychopaths would include: a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, poor behavioral controls, lack of realistic long-term plans, impulsivity, and irresponsibility. Hmmm…let’s see: do we really want a president whose core behavioral patterns include lying, cheating, cruelty, irresponsibility, lack of remorse, poor relationships, exploitation, manipulation, destructiveness, irritability, and aggressiveness?

Most alarming of all is the “…frightful and perplexing theme that runs through the case histories of all psychopaths: a deeply disturbing inability to care about the pain and suffering experienced by others—in short, a complete lack of empathy, the prerequisite for love.” If this inability to experience or care about others’ pain and suffering marries compulsive lying in the Church of No Conscience, presided over by impulsivity—well, good lord, that’s a train wreck for sure.

It is unconscionable to elect a president who lacks empathy and conscience, honesty and integrity, and mature impulse control. Shouldn’t these qualities represent the minimum standard of mental health for someone who is commander-in-chief of the largest military force in the world and who has virtually unlimited power to affect the lives of billions of people?

It’s not easy to know if candidates for president are mentally sound. At the moment, the only requirements for holding office are set forth in Article II, Section I of the Constitution. It specifies that, to be president or vice president, a person must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years of age, and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. That’s it; nothing more—except tons of cash. I don’t like that the bar is set so low.

How can we, the citizens who are charged with making wise and considered choices about who becomes president, evaluate whether a candidate is mentally sound or suffering from mental illness? We do not have that kind of access to candidates, who we finally empower to set our national priorities, influence public policy, command the military, raise or lower taxes, establish budgets, maintain or violate treaties, assemble a cabinet, and so much more. We can only witness manufactured, media-based performances that are scripted and rehearsed to produce an effect. We need to get behind the curtain of smoke and mirrors, behind the misdirection antics of press secretaries and publicists, to see who is really pulling the levers. We need a way to ascertain the mental health of presidential candidates before they are granted world-shaking powers.

So, I propose a Constitutional amendment calling for all candidates to submit to a battery of psychological tests to be administered and interpreted by eminent psychologists—and the results made public. I’m surprised this hasn’t already occurred. After all, psychological tests, along with drug and polygraph tests and background investigations, are routinely required in the public safety sector, including police officers, correctional officers, dispatchers, security guards, park rangers, SWAT teams, fire fighters, and emergency medical technicians. Military psychologists conduct psychological testing and applicant assessment for general fitness-for-duty and for highly sensitive jobs requiring security clearances. (It’s interesting to note that the Department of Defense employs more psychologists than any other organization or company in the world.) Courts may sometimes order a battery of psych tests to determine parental fitness. Work-related aptitude, ability, and personality trait testing, a billion dollar industry, is common practice in Fortune 500 companies. In a document entitled “Nuclear Security—Before and After September 11,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “requires background checks for nuclear facility employees to ensure that they are trustworthy. Every employee who has access to safety equipment is required to pass background checks, including an examination of past employment, references, credit history, education history, military service history, an FBI criminal record check, as well as to undergo psychological testing. While on the job, each employee is also subject to random drug and alcohol testing.”

Granted, working in a nuclear facility is an important and sensitive job and I can understand the rigorous screening procedures intended to qualify a candidate’s worthiness to handle the job.

I’d like to have an equivalent screening process for candidates for president. I’d like to know that they have a human heart that can feel the pain and suffering of others. I’d like to know they have a conscience to hold their base instincts in check. I’d like to know if they can tell the truth or whether they are compulsive liars. I’d like to know they can work cooperatively with others. I’d like to know that they are not seeking to conquer the world as compensation for lovelessness. I’d like to know that they respect living things, that they have a sense of the sacred. I’d like to know that their soul moves toward peace, not war; toward forgiveness, not vengeance; toward freedom, not oppression; toward tolerance, not hatred. I’d like to know these things. This is where I want to set the bar.

As it is now, I don’t take any candidate at his or her word. I don’t trust any of them to represent their true motives and goals. A Constitutional Amendment requiring candidates to be evaluated for mental health is one way we can level the playing field in our search for the truth about candidates. My guess is that in the eyes of most Americans, a psychopath is not fit to be president.

There are a number of valid and reliable tests used to evaluate and assess a person’s personality traits and psychological health. The Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) can provide a comprehensive assessment of adult psychopathology and can help assess major symptoms of social and personal maladjustment.

With good reason, we already require firefighters and police officers and nuclear facility workers to be rigorously evaluated. With equal good sense and foresight, we should now apply the same standard to candidates for president.

Don’t you want to know if a presidential candidate is mad as a hatter?