Primary Sources

The Presidential Mind

Of the thirty-seven U.S. presidents from George Washington to Richard Nixon, almost half may have suffered from a mental illness, according to a Duke University study. Two of the psychiatrists who authored the study reviewed biographical material on each president and assessed the likelihood that each chief executive suffered from various psychological disorders. While acknowledging the “limitations” of this method, they report that eighteen presidents exhibited tendencies suggestive of mental illness, with depression (in 24 percent of cases) being the most common, followed by anxiety (8 percent), bipolar disorder (8 percent), and alcoholism (also 8 percent). In ten cases, the disorder manifested itself during the president’s term in office, and in most of these instances, the authors argue, it “probably impaired job performance.” Franklin Pierce, for instance, lost his son in a railway accident immediately before his inauguration, and seems to have sunk into a depression so deep that associates commented that “he was not the person who had victoriously campaigned for office.” And the political “drift” associated with William Howard Taft’s term may be attributed to “the fact that he coped with the stress of the Presidency by overeating to the point of massive obesity and obstructive sleep apnea.”


—“Mental Illness in U.S. Presidents Between 1776 and 1974,” J. R. T. Davidson, K. M. Connor, and M. Swartz, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

Take Your Daughters to Work

If you want to know how a male legislator is going to vote on abortion-related legislation, you should find out how many daughters he has, a new study suggests. A Yale academic used voting-record scores for male legislators, compiled by the National Organization for Women and the National Right to Life Committee, to assess whether there was a link between having female children and taking a more liberal position on “women’s issues,” defined broadly to include topics from education to health care to abortion rights. The author found that the higher the proportion of female children in a U.S. congressman’s family, the more likely he was to lean left on these issues—that is, to have a higher NOW score and a lower NRLC score. (The pattern exists with both Democrats and Republicans.) And although the “gender gap,” which holds that women are more likely to be liberal than men, narrows into near nonexistence over abortion, the “daughter gap” widens when abortion rights are at stake: the relationship between having more daughters and having a liberal voting record was strongest for legislation specifically related to abortion and contraception.

—“Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues,” Ebonya Washington, National Bureau of Economic Research

20/20 Foresight

It turns out that sometimes U.S. intelligence gets things right, or close to right—even if nobody’s listening. When Hamas upset Fatah in January’s Palestinian elections, the radical Islamic group’s victory seemed to catch American policy makers entirely off guard. But they wouldn’t have been so shocked if they’d taken a look at a polling analysis carried out just before the election by the State Department’s intelligence service (and recently obtained by Secrecy News, an online service that tracks “new developments in secrecy, security, and intelligence policies”). While the State Department didn’t go so far as to predict a Hamas victory, its analysts did describe the race as “neck and neck,” with the Islamist group only two points off the lead. The analysis also cited a decade’s worth of polls showing Hamas steadily gaining the trust of Palestinians while the ruling party’s support diminished, and noted that corruption (an issue on which Hamas enjoyed a huge advantage in public confidence over Fatah) was the most-cited concern of voters leading up to the election. All in all, the State Department analysts concluded presciently that “these results show a closer race than other published surveys … which have tended to place [Fatah] ahead at the polls by a wider margin.”

—“Hamas and Fateh Neck and Neck as Palestinian Elections Near,” Office of Research, Department of State