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Politics and lunatics

We have no medical proof that our political leaders are crazy. The question is, would we be better off if they really were?

Mariano Rajoy isn't quite all there. Angela Merkel is unbalanced. François Hollande has lost his marbles. Mario Monti and David Cameron live in parallel worlds. We say these things these things all the time, in our impatience at the absence of European leaders capable of showing us the way out of the crisis. It's a manner of speaking. We have no medical proof that our political leaders are lunatics. The question is, would we be better off if they really were? According to a new book by an eminent American psychiatrist, the answer is yes.

In his book A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi looks at the personalities of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and several other leaders who suffered mental disturbances. His hypothesis: the depressions and manic attacks, or bipolar disturbances, that they all suffered, gave them the strength and lucidity necessary to forge ahead in times of crisis. "The best leaders in a crisis are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal: the worst, those who have healthy minds," writes this professor of psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston.

Ghaemi explains it thus: depression causes leaders to be more realistic, and to feel more empathy; mania makes them more creative and more resistant. Of the personalities he reviews in his book, none suffered more episodes of severe depression than Churchill, who in turn - especially during World War II - repeatedly exhibited manic behavior. Churchill was the first British politician to understand the threat of Nazism, and warned of the coming war while the parliamentary majority wanted to believe that peace was possible. Ghaemi compares Churchill with his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, a normal person, with no psychiatric history. As such, his sane, rational impulse, supported by a majority of normal British citizens, was to seek a peaceful, negotiated agreement with Germany. Churchill possessed the mental weapons to shape his response. Depression gave him the realism and the empathy necessary to understand the character and intentions of Hitler, another manic-depressive; mania gave him the clairvoyance and the illogical valor to convince himself and his compatriots that the war could be won when the consensus among other politicians, especially in mid-1940, was that all was lost.

"The afflicted," explains Ghaemi, "can give us the courage that we have lost, the strength that gives us balance. Their weakness, in short, is the secret of their strength."

Depression causes leaders to be more realistic, and to feel more empathy; mania makes them more creative

Roosevelt had two weaknesses. One physical, the polio to which he succumbed during the second half of his life; and a mental abnormality defined as "hyperthymic temperament." He possessed an inexhaustible energy and optimism, living in a state of almost permanent exaltation. Before his alliance with Churchill in World War II, Roosevelt had to face the Great Depression. His response to the 20th century's worst economic crisis was that the government had an obligation to intervene, to generate jobs and help the most unfortunate. A government "incapable of caring for the old, of providing jobs for the strong and willing [and] which allows the black shadow of insecurity to hover over every home, is not a government that deserves to last."

Thus was born Roosevelt's famous New Deal, an unprecedented campaign of public investment to foment growth, such as which the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman is crying to heaven to see repeated today, especially in Europe. European leaders are paying no attention. Stagnating in their policies of cutbacks and austerity, they are uninterested in Roosevelt's example.

This leads us to two conclusions. The first is what we already knew: that Rajoy, Monti, Merkel and the like will not go down in history as great leaders; the other, somewhat more novel, is that today's European politicians may be many things, but crazy they are not.

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