Could America elect a mentally ill president?

Nixon’s opponent in the 1960 election, Kennedy, had an even fuller medicine cabinet; Lieberman, author of the recent Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, calls the regimen “more extensive and reckless” than Nixon’s. More than a decade ago, a committee of longtime Kennedy associates began allowing select historians, including Robert Dallek and James Giglio, access to many of the president’s medical records. The antispasmodics, hydrocortisone and painkillers for Kennedy’s physical ailments attracted much of the attention, but there were also several prescriptions to treat the president’s mental health. Like Nixon, Kennedy had a daily prescribed meprobamate dosage, as well as less regular prescriptions for Dexamyl, the stimulant Ritalin, the anti-anxiety medicine Librium and Stelazine—a powerful tranquilizer normally used to treat schizophrenia and psychotic disorders that could also be prescribed for severe anxiety.

No documentation has been released to suggest that Kennedy’s successor got treatment for mental illness. But from 1965 to late 1967, when Johnson had ramped up America’s troop presence in Vietnam from 15,000 to nearly half a million, his eccentricities began to seem worrisome. “It was a pronounced, prolonged depression,” Johnson press secretary Bill Moyers told Dallek. “He would just go within himself, just disappear—morose, self-pitying, angry. … He was a tormented man.” Moyers said he fielded alarmed phone calls from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and others “deeply concerned” about the president, who seemed “very depressed.” Johnson’s behavior had taken a “huge leap into unreason,” Richard Goodwin, Johnson’s special assistant, later wrote. Goodwin and Moyers—independently of each other—sought out three psychiatrists to discuss the president’s conduct. “All three doctors offered essentially the same opinion: that Johnson’s behavior—if the layman’s descriptions we provided were accurate—seemed to correspond to a textbook case of paranoid disintegration,” as Goodwin wrote. Moyers said in an interview that he does not know whether Johnson ever consulted a psychiatrist. “Lady Bird often acted as his therapist,” he says.