David Owen

Medicalizing Poor Political Leadership, Part II

VTR Date: April 2, 2011

Lord David Owen continues discussing illness in heads of government.


GUEST: Lord David Owen
AIR DATE: 04/02/2011
VTR: 11/08/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest again today is Lord David Owen, an English physician … a neurologist and student of psychiatry … and a politician as well — a member of Parliament for 26 years, a founder of the Social Democratic Party, and, under Labor governments, Navy Minister, Health Minister and Foreign Secretary.

Now, in his Praeger book, In Sickness and In Power, Lord Owen writes that he has been particularly “interested in the effect on the course of history of illness in heads of government.”

He might well have written: “Illness in the heads of heads of government”. For Lord Owen refers here to various American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, who over the past century alone some have considered to have been mentally ill while in office.

Then, of course, there is Lord Owens intriguing new diagnostic category, his “Hubris Syndrome”, about which he and Duke University’s Jonathan Davidson recently wrote in “Brain” the Journal of Neurology, and which they question as a possible acquired personality disorder, reminding me, as I said last time, of what Lord Acton, my guest’s fellow Peer of the Realm, so famously proclaimed, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I asked Lord Owen whether his insights here are the same … perhaps equally House of Lords-driven and we went on from there last time. We should do the same again now.

And Lord Owen I am interested, we talked about … I had the temerity to put the question to you … given the Hubris Syndrome … what you would have done had you been asked to participate in a group of medical people, psychiatrists, neurologists … who were passing judgment upon the appropriateness of the candidacy of certain of our Presidential candidates. I won’t refer to Tony Blair and the Brits you write about.

I asked you about Jack Kennedy. I didn’t ask you about someone like Calvin Coolidge who was one of the people who was mentioned as suffering mentally. What would you do in a situation like that?

OWEN: Well, I think when you go passed a certain point in history, it’s too difficult … I mean I only go 100 years back. And even then … Calvin Coolidge … what was the knowledge of psychiatry? What was really the, the knowledge neurology?

I think I’d prefer to take somebody like Lyndon Johnson. Now Lyndon Johnson had very serious depression, particularly after a heart attack when he was Senate leader.

Now, in an article in America … a group of psychiatrists from Duke University, including Professor Davidson have made the diagnosis that Lyndon Johnson had bi-polar disorder.

Now he was very secretive, nobody … his doctors, nobody has really told … except we do know he had depression. But there are some very interesting writing of people who were close to Lyndon Johnson … young writers who definitely describe a very serious depressive and very odd behavior at various times.

And yet me looking from my vantage point … I consider him one of the great Presidents. I mean I think his legislative record after the assassination of Kennedy is fantastic. And I don’t … I can’t think of a single American President who could have got through the legislation for dealing with poverty and race to the extent that Lyndon Johnson did. So, would I have wanted to exclude Lyndon Johnson from being President? No.

HEFFNER: You don’t think then that we were in jeopardy?


HEFFNER: Because of his past?

OWEN: Well, I think his … he made some of the wrong calls, I think, on Vietnam. But let’s face it … Robert McNamara a perfectly sane and sensible person went along with that for a longish time. McGeorge Bundy went along with it for all of that time. And they are very, you know, sensible and serious persons.

So I don’t think that in the conduct of Vietnam, you may disagree with what was done, and I personally do … but nevertheless I don’t think you can find a medical explanation in Lyndon Johnson for that. To some extent I think that Lyndon Johnson was always uneasy … I mean he was not at peace with himself, you know.

He wanted … he was actually a formidable figure. But he … you always got the feeling he was bugged by the Kennedys, they were all so bright and so … there was a … I think he found it very difficult to be seen to be withdrawing from Vietnam. That it was … what was it … it would be … he would be compared with what John F. Kennedy would have done. And he wanted to be a sort of macho figure.

He agonized over it. I, I … I don’t know … I can’t … I’ve looked at Lyndon Johnson’s life as far as I can … I, I’m not sure personally I would even say he had bi-polar disorder. He certainly had depression.

But in Britain and across the Atlantic his … we are divided by many things. Sometimes language and the use of words. And we don’t diagnose bi-polar disorder unless there’s a florid, manic episode.

I can’t find a florid, manic episode in Lyndon Johnson’s life. But people who are better psychiatrists than I and closer to it and American … have made that diagnosis on a very careful analysis of all the biographical details of Lyndon Johnson.

HEFFNER: But the depressive aspects are there?

OWEN: Yes. Definitely. But then, again, you know, depression has often made great writers, artists … the mere fact of being depressed I don’t think should be an exclusion of holding high office.

HEFFNER: Well, but you mention creative people, you mention authors and poets, but you have, yourself, both in the book and in this fascinating paper that I read that you gave at Cornell … on the syndrome … you indicate that here we’re dealing with something much more important, we’re dealing with matters of State … of life and death … of the committing …

OWEN: Right. Well, take, take Richard Nixon. Now Richard Nixon was an alcoholic and a depressive . He had … now which came first is also one of the often difficult questions into this. Now, again, you look at his record as President. And people are still divided over it. But there is no doubt that there were elements of his Presidency … which are given, historically now, considerable praise. Coming out of Vietnam, maybe a little too slowly, some people would say.

But nevertheless, he did come out of Vietnam. A sensational victory … I mean the biggest vote of confidence of almost any President. Terrific victory that he got after his first four years.

And yet he, under threat of impeachment, lawyer … conducting himself, undoubtedly, illegally … in being involved, at the very least, in the cover-up of the Watergate affair … and at certain stages in the Vietnam decision making, but perhaps particularly in the Middle East in the Arab-Israeli War … in ’73 … drunk upstairs in the White House while Henry Kissinger and General Al Haig … who was then, I think, in … his principal advisor in the White House … making decisions, in the name of Nixon and he wasn’t there.

Now, that is … raises very serious questions. And, of course, alcohol is a big issue in many political people’s lives.

I mean there’s no doubt now … we’re all too kind to do it, but most doctors would diagnose Winston Churchill as being an alcoholic. On the other hand, he had a huge capacity to take alcohol and still (laugh) make very sensible decisions. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But you see that’s what brings us to this … this so difficult border point. What do you do? What would you do? And I keep coming back to you because you see this Hubris …

OWEN: Well …

HEFFNER: … Syndrome …

OWEN: … let’s take … go back to Churchill because it’s an interesting, very, very interesting case. I mean he was called to be Prime Minister on a cross party basis despite the fact that many people hated him in his own party. And many other people, in other parties distrusted him.

They chose him in the full knowledge that he was depressed, in full knowledge that he moods when up and down. They had serious reservations, but they wanted an inspirational leader.

Now I think they made a … well history has shown … they made a … undoubtedly the, the finest judgment. And within a few weeks, this man was faced by his foreign secretary … Lord Halifax coming to him and saying the Italians had made an approach … and he wanted to open negotiations.

And Churchill, over nine Cabinet meetings, managed to kick this proposal into touch or, you know, take it off the table … and bring Neville Chamberlin, who he’d succeeded as Prime Minister, who was a close friend of Halifax … onto his side.

It’s an amazing description, really, of intellect and power and vision. And single-handedly saved Britain and Europe from having a domination by Hitler that would have gone all through the forties and into the fifties.

Because I have no doubt that we had opened those negotiations, we’d have ended up with a cease-fire, we’d never have been able to start it … the war again … and the German presence would have penetrated Britain … not perhaps quite as much as France, but certainly the war would have been over.

Now is this is a man who had great strengths underneath his weaknesses, if you like. And his fellow MPs knew it. And that’s why they voted him in and they made him Prime Minister.

HEFFNER: Are, are you really talking about what we had called here during the Second World War … in training films … shades of gray and that some of the chief executives whether in corporate life or in political life are of a shade of gray mentally, emotionally …

OWEN: Yes, though you …

HEFFNER: … that they can take this drive …

OWEN: Yes. Driving leadership is something you need. Take General Patton, for example, you know … I mean there is, no doubt …

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Where do you come down on him?

OWEN: I … well, Eisenhower thought he was the greatest tank commander under him and therefore he kept him. Even when he slapped two soldiers in the face, who he thought were … in a hospital … and kicked one up the rear and shouted at them, and it became known, and Eisenhower told him that he had within … he had to do all that he would … could do himself to apologize. He had apologized to these two soldiers, he had to go in front of all his men and do a sort of half-hearted apology.

But Eisenhower kept him on and he kept him … he kept him back, he didn’t use him on D-Day, but he used him a week later and eventually, of course, it ended up with tears.

But I mean, he was … you’d have to sometimes take people warts and all and what makes a military commander is very … take McArthur. McArthur definitely had Hubris Syndrome by the end.

And he hid from Truman the fact that there was a … the Chinese had come across the border into North Korea. And he … his intelligence … head of his intelligence … never had revealed this. He took on the Chiefs of Staff, he took on the President. He was … I think … getting very near dragging you into … or we, because we had forces there … it was a UN force in Korea … into a nuclear exchange.

And Truman, in my view, quite rightly sacked him. And it, but that stage, I think … this great soldier and who had been … there’s no doubt … a great servant to the United States … towards the end of his life had acquired Hubris Syndrome.

HEFFNER: Now you talk about Harry Truman. What was it in his blood chemistry that kept Harry Truman from ever showing what you call the Hubris Syndrome? There was a little man, who became President of the United States …

OWEN: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … leader of the free world, who won an election that he was supposed to have lost hands down. And yet, he remained totally outside.

OWEN: And that very same time that you were having that leadership, who I think was a great man … Harry Truman … we were having Clem Attlee, who was also a very great post-War Prime Minister. You know, one of our great Prime Ministers.

And now acknowledged even by people on the Right Wing and Conservatives. A very modest man. Churchill was always said say that a taxi drew up outside the House of Commons … an empty taxi … and out stepped Mr. Attlee.

He always denied that he’d actually said this. Attlee was a formidable figure but he was an inconsequential figure, if you met him. He didn’t appear to be … but he was very decisive.

I, I think both these men show you can be great leaders without all the panoply of power going to your head.

I think Eisenhower is … was a great general, you know. I think the, the constant denigration of Ike was wrong and also a very formidable President. Who ended up his Presidency warning America about the military industrial complex. And gave them a very clear warning of the dangers of a large army and its power to penetrate the body politic.

Also, incidentally, Eisenhower is one of the first of your Presidents to be honest about his health. He wasn’t actually honest about his health when he was a General, but when he became President, he was completely open about his heart attack and he let everybody know what was happening to his guts and his operations prior to deciding to run for a second term. And because he was honest, I think people accepted and he had a considerable victory.

HEFFNER: Let me go back to a question I asked you about in our first program together and it, it concerns me greatly and that is … the chemistry of your Hubris Syndrome … that complex of ideas, emotions. You say Hubris Syndrome is acquired … can be acquired … can it be identified … do you think we’ll ever … reach the point where we can identify it scientifically?

OWEN: Yes. I think we will. I, I think … I’m not saying in every case, but I think sometimes it will be … most of these illnesses are spectrum illnesses anyhow. And I think some will … you’ll never find out. Someone will say, “Well it was always there, it just came out when they were in power, you can see it through their early life”.

Others will not show any signs of it, but it comes out actually when they get into power. And I think it will vary. But I think there will be.

But take Margaret Thatcher now. She’s a perfectly good example, I think of Hubris Syndrome. I don’t think she had Hubris when she first came into office. She was actually quite cautious. There was a miner’s strike. A popular miners leader … she paid up … but she saw a big strike coming and she was prudent and cautious and she built up the coal reserves and then she faced down the miners for nearly a year in ‘84/’85.

I watched her very carefully in the Falklands War and on Privy Council terms spoke to her privately during the war. She was very cautious, worried, anxious and this was not a woman who was … she came out once, after we took South Georgia and said “Rejoice, rejoice”. Then it went slightly to her head. But this was not a leader who was gripped by Hubris. It came in the last two to three years of her period. After she’d won the third General Election in ’87 … she started to ignore the Cabinet and there, again, she had had in her life somebody who was … somebody she respected, the person called Willie Whitelaw, who was in the Cabinet with her, who had challenged her for the leadership and lost.

And she would behave herself when he was there. When he stepped out of the Cabinet, she started to take off. And she was then disowned by her own party, as, indeed, was Tony Blair.

I mean both of them had had three electoral victories. Both of them had won Democratic vote and yet basically were told to go by their own MP’s … the people who watched them closely and who realized they had got out of control.

HEFFNER: What is the future that you see for investigation, acceptance …

OWEN: Oh, it’s things like …

HEFFNER: … of the Hubris Syndrome?

OWEN: … well, it’s things like brain imaging. You know we’re seeing this now … most recent stuff is they’re doing brain imaging of women with their orgasm and they’re suddenly seeing that the whole brain lights up.

There’s much more … this is not just a physical thing of sex, it relates to a psychological state. I mean many people have always known it. And, but now we’re beginning to see it.

And we’re showing what parts of the brain can be ignited, what parts of the brain have got … and we know it’s, it’s going to be in the dopominergic system, it’s in that sort of area.

And, the, the general public know it. Very often they use the word “adrenaline” when they’re talking about people who are “high” on …

HEFFNER: You do. You use …

OWEN: I do. Yes.


OWEN: Well, of course, I, I did research in adrenaline when I was a young man and on beta blockers and … but when the Kosovo crisis was … when Tony Blair started to lift off, you know, and one of Clinton’s aides apparently said, of Tony Blair … “He sprinkled too much adrenaline on his corn flakes”. Well you can’t sprinkle adrenaline (laugh) on your corn flakes, but it’s a lovely way of drawing attention to it.

The general public are much more alert to this. They, they know … they have phrases … “he’s off his rocker”, or “he’s, he’s up there”, or “he’s away”, “he’s out of control” … they, they spot it. And it’s there in every walk of life. Professors in universities, consultant physicians … we already talked about businessmen.

It, it, it … this is something that affects our daily life and people’s lives and the good side and the attributes of it have got to be weighed in the balance against the downsides.

But people who are in crucial positions like heads of government, people who decisions about war and peace, we’ve got to be very careful about these people.

HEFFNER: You say we have to be very careful about them. Suppose one were to say “yea, verily … true”, do we then move on to the next subject?

OWEN: No. I mean Shakespeare wrote about it … Coriolanus is a play that is a study in hubris. The Greeks warned us all about it. Always look for contempt. This is a way you see this … when a leader starts becoming contemptuous of the people around him, contemptuous of society … then that’s a big danger sign, in my view.

HEFFNER: I was interested that when you gave your talk at Cornell recently, at the medical school … Grand Rounds, psychiatric Grand Rounds, you annexed and acquired to Hubris Syndrome … an acquired personality disorder … question mark.

“Proposed criteria for Hubris Syndrome” … and you listed “A narcissistic propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which they can exercise power and seek glory”. I know a lot of people like that.

“A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast them in a good light, that is in order to enhance their image”. Most of the people I know … are like that.

“A disproportionate concern with image and presentation”, well, this is television, so we don’t even dare go into that …

OWEN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: “A messianic manner of talking about what they are doing and a tendency to exaltation. An identification with themselves with the nation or organization to the extent that they regard their outlook and interest as identical. A tendency to talk of themselves in the third person, or using the royal ‘we’.” Don’t hear that so often here.

OWEN: Mrs., Mrs. Thatcher once said, “We are a grandmother”. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I thought that a wonderful, wonderful line …

OWEN: Yea …

HEFFNER: … in the book. But it’s not that these are commonplace, but I would assume that this goes with the territory of anything public.

OWEN: Yes, I think it does. And, you know, if you are a chief executive and you are doing extremely well and your company’s splitting its stock, or paying big dividends, who’s to say that what’s … but there’s always a risk that some decision will be taken, some risk, which has not been carefully calculated and the next thing is the company’s in the receivership. And many, many people are out of a job … mass unemployments and all that. You know these are the downsides of it. So, all I think we can do is discuss it openly, be much more candid about it, be much more honest about it and realize it can be acquired.

So somebody who is perfectly sensible when you first elect them, or perfectly sensible when you first choose them to be a chief executive, can slowly, almost imperceptibly, develop a different personality, from being cautious and calculating and careful to being incautious, impetuous, impulsive and ignoring advice and warnings. These are dangerous qualities which, when you start to spot them, you’ve either got to be able to change them, or you’ve got to get rid of them

HEFFNER: Do you believe that you can identify the individuals who are most likely going to succumb to the lure of power in this way?

OWEN: I think so. I think if you talk to any of the people in the banks that collapsed here in America, there were people in their organizations who knew these people were out of control.

HEFFNER: And the question I ask is … beforehand?

OWEN: I think you can easily recognize it beforehand, if you’re honest.

HEFFNER: There is a personality.

OWEN: Yes. But the trouble is that the people … is “who is going to bell the cat?” And who is going to take the risk, and who is going to report some of this conduct?

I mean some of the conduct, for example, in business, you don’t see it unless you … Directors of companies don’t see it unless somebody comes and talks about it. Around them they build a coterie of support, an uncritical support … and who … excuse in their own mind, their behavior. Also, they become imperceptibly tolerant of it.

HEFFNER: Lord Owen , I think that one way we can … not assure or guarantee … but hope for success in identification is if people read In Sickness and In Power … Illnesses in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years, which you have so well authored and I appreciate your joining me here again to talk about it.

OWEN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you, sir. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.