Power  /  Book Review

Pathologies of a President

A new book revisits Freud’s analysis of Woodrow Wilson to ask: how much do leaders’ psychologies shape our politics?

Many have tried to make sense of Wilson’s contradictions. The most improbable effort was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study, co-authored between 1930 and 1932 by William C Bullitt and Sigmund Freud. Bullitt was a wealthy Philadelphian who as a young diplomat had publicly resigned in protest from the American delegation to Paris in 1919, greatly upsetting Wilson. Some half a dozen years later he became a patient of Freud’s in Vienna. They discovered a deep mutual dislike for Wilson, and Freud was intrigued that Bullitt had actually known the man. Wilson was now dead, but Bullitt interviewed many others who had worked with him, and, interrupted by a further spell on Freud’s couch, doctor and patient wrote a book together, one of the first attempts to apply Freud’s insights to understanding a historical figure.

By the time they finished, however, Franklin D Roosevelt was on the way to becoming president, and Bullitt, an enthusiastic supporter hoping for a job, did not want to publish a harsh critique of the most recent Democrat in the White House. The two co-authors set aside their manuscript. Bullitt then served as FDR’s ambassador to the Soviet Union and to France, remaining one of the president’s closest advisers, and an occasional speechwriter, until the early 1940s. By that point Freud was dead, but Bullitt, still uneasy about attacking a Wilson now widely admired, claimed that he couldn’t publish the book until Mrs Wilson died. It finally appeared in 1967, five years after her death and just weeks before his own.

The book is not without merit. For example, Freud and Bullitt blamed such contradictions as Wilson’s vast faith in his own righteousness and then his submission to British and French demands for a harsh peace treaty – acting now too preacherly and now too submissively – on his unresolved fear of his minister father. They also talked, and not improbably, given Wilson’s inflated self-image, about his identification with Jesus. (On his ill-fated speaking tour, he at one point called the League of Nations an “enterprise of divine mercy and peace”.) This highly reductionist portrait drew much criticism, however – some from those who found the Freudian language of ego, superego and libido rigid and dated, and some from admirers of Freud, who argued that the volume’s flaws all must have been the work of Bullitt.