Is Gingrich Much Crazier Than the Rest of Us?

My previous post suggested that maybe Newt Gingrich suffers from a condition known as hypomania--which is like the manic phase of classic manic-depressive illness except a bit less so. (Hence, as the commenter Xclamation noted, the prefix "hypo" rather than "hyper"--signifying a state of mind that is sub-manic, though still intense.)

Speaking of commenters: Some weren't happy with my post. Two kinds of complaints seem especially worth addressing:

1) I didn't offer enough evidence for my armchair diagnosis and, anyway, I don't have the credentials to make it. True and true. But I did link to the Slate piece in which Jacob Weisberg had made the Newt-is-hypomanic argument in December, and there you'll find more evidence, including a quote about Newt from an actual hypomania expert.

2) Even if we accept that Gingrich suffers from hypomania, does that really make him "crazy"--a term I used in the headline of my post?

The "crazy" question is a good one. First the technical answer: hypomania is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so if you equate having a mental disorder with "crazy," then you can justify using that term.

Still, it's true that many people use "crazy" to mean "delusional," and Newt isn't delusional in the sense of hearing voices. He is delusional in the sense of being prone to a grandiose self-conception--thinking he can be president when almost nobody else does, telling us that he's a "transformational figure," a guy who will "shift the entire planet," etc. And you could argue that we're all kind of like that. I don't mean we all think we can be president, let alone transformational ones. But don't we all, at some point in our lives, feel optimistic about accomplishing something that is in fact really unlikely--writing the pathbreaking book, charming the beautiful woman who seems to be gazing at us longingly but in fact is just wondering whether to tell us that we have a piece of potato salad on our chin? Everyone is sometimes delusional in some sense--it's just a question of how big and persistent the delusions are.

Still, the fact that a psychological tendency can exist in varying degrees doesn't mean you can't draw a line at some point on the thermometer and define everything to its north as crazy. Most of us exhibit paranoid tendencies in the sense of suspecting malicious intent when a cool consideration of the evidence doesn't warrant that suspicion. And some people do that a lot, and some people do it a whole lot--and at some point people are doing it so much that they can be diagnosed as paranoid. But where exactly you put that threshold is a judgment call.

A common place to put the threshold is the place where significant dysfunction sets in. One commenter (Xclamation again!) said "if a person can, by and large, make it through the day without more hassle than is 'normal,' then they're not crazy." If dysfunction is the threshold, then whether Newt is beyond it depends on things such as (1) Whether you think his past marital turmoil was dysfunctional, and whether you attribute that to hypomania; (2) How dysfunctional you think it is when his more grandiose endeavors--like introducing legislation that specifies conditions under which a moon colony can apply for statehood--come back to damage him politically.

In any event, it's worth noting that we often, in common parlance, use the word "crazy"--with a straight face--to describe someone whose mental condition isn't obviously dysfunctional. (Haven't you ever said to someone in a hushed, emphatic tone, "He's crazy," while discussing someone who on the surface leads a normal life?) Some who commented on my previous post seemed to take this line. The commenter evensteve wrote, "The description of someone as 'mentally ill' is not a categorical one. It is well known that many politicians, and even successful world leaders, are high on the sociopathic dimension, so one might reasonably refer to some of these people as mentally ill as well."

This idea of non-dysfunctional craziness seems to be embraced by John D. Gartner, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins who is quoted in the Weisberg piece and has opined that Gingrich is hypomanic. Gartner, citing Christopher Columbus and Andrew Carnegie as examples, sees hypomania as sometimes being an ingredient of high achievement. His book on the subject is called The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America. (Of course, it's the successful hypomanics who come to our attention--there's no telling how many derailed hypomanic careers there are for every Andrew Carnegie.)

I should note that, according to Wikipedia, Gartner is unusual in thinking of hypomania as a more or less stable personality trait. In the aforementioned Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, hypomania is described as a phase that can wax and wane. In particular, it can be a recurring phase in "bipolar II" disorder, which is less severe than "bipolar I," i.e., classic manic-depressive illness.

Weisberg adduces some evidence that Gingrich is prone to depressive phases. When Gingrich's presidential bid finally ends, there may be more evidence--though, if so, it probably won't be available for public inspection.

[Update, 3/19, 12:45 a.m.: Here, on Pajamas Media's PJ Tatler, is a post from November by Dave Swindle which proves that pondering Newt's mental health is not an exclusively left-wing pastime.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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