[R-G] (Fwd) Addiction, Brain Damage and the President ...
Katherine van Wormer
vanworme at csbs.csbs.uni.edu
Tue Nov 5 12:18:04 MST 2002
Here is a fuller account of Bush's problem.
Katherine van Wormer
... "Dry Drunk" Syndrome and George W. Bush ...
Katherine van Wormer is a Friend (Quaker), Professor of Social Work at the
University of Northern Iowa, and co-author of the recent 'Addiction
Treatment: A Strengths Perspective (2002)'. A longtime member of the CERJ
colloquium, Katherine can be reached at: <Katherine.VanWormer at uni.edu>.
October 11, 2002
Addiction, Brain Damage and the President
"Dry Drunk" Syndrome and
George W. Bush
by Katherine van Wormer
Ordinarily I would not use this term. But when I came across the article
'"Dry Drunk" -- Is Bush Making a Cry for Help?' in 'American Politics
Journal' by Alan Bisbort, I was ready to concede ... in the case of George
W. Bush, the phrase may be quite apt.
Dry drunk is a slang term used by members and supporters of Alcoholics
Anonymous and substance abuse counselors to describe the recovering
alcoholic who is no longer drinking -- one who is dry, but whose thinking
is clouded. Such an individual is said to be 'dry' but not truly
sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes.
It was when I started noticing the extreme language that colored President
Bush's speeches that I began to wonder. First there were the terms --
"crusade" and "infinite justice" that were later withdrawn. Next came
"evil-doers", "axis of evil", and "regime change", terms that have almost
become cliches in the mass media.
Something about the polarized thinking and the obsessive repetition
reminded me of many of the recovering alcoholics/addicts I had treated (a
point worth noting is that because of the connection between addiction and
"stinking thinking", relapse prevention usually consists of work in the
Having worked with recovering alcoholics for years, I flinched at the
single-mindedness and ego- and ethno-centricity in the President's speeches
(my husband likened his phraseology to the gardener character played by
Peter Sellers in the movie, Being There). Since words are the tools -- the
representations -- of thought, I wondered what Bush's choice of words said
about where he was coming from. Or where we would be going.
First, in this essay, we will look at the characteristics of the so-called
"dry drunk" -- then we will see if they apply to this individual, our
president -- and then we will review his drinking history for the record.
What is the dry drunk syndrome?
"Dry drunk" traits consist of:
Exaggerated self-importance and pomposity
A rigid, judgmental outlook
Clearly, George W. Bush has all these traits except exaggerated
self-importance. He may be pompous, especially with regard to
international dealings, but his actual importance hardly can be
exaggerated. His power, in fact, is such that if he collapses into
paranoia, a large part of the world will collapse with him. Unfortunately,
there are some indications of paranoia in statements such as the following:
"We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients
before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against
the United States and our allies and friends." The trait of projection is
evidenced here as well, projection of the fact that we are ready to attack
onto another nation which may not be so inclined.
Bush's rigid, judgmental outlook comes across in virtually all his
speeches. To fight evil, Bush is ready to take on the world, in almost a
Biblical sense. Consider his statement with reference to Israel: "Look my
job isn't to try to nuance. I think moral clarity is important ... this is
evil versus good."
Bush's tendency to dichotomize reality is not on the Internet list above,
but it should be, as this tendency to polarize is symptomatic of the
classic addictive thinking pattern. I describe this thinking distortion in
'Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspective' as either/or reasoning --
"either you are with us or against us". Oddly, Bush used those very words
in his dealings with other nations. All-or-nothing thinking is a related
mode of thinking commonly found in newly-recovering
alcoholics/addicts. Such a worldview traps people in a pattern of
Obsessive thought patterns are also pronounced in persons prone to
addiction. There are organic reasons for this due to brain chemistry
irregularities; messages in one part of the brain become stuck there. This
leads to maddening repetition of thoughts. President Bush seems unduly
focused upon getting revenge on Saddam Hussein ("he tried to kill my Dad"),
leading the country and the world into war, accordingly.
Grandiosity enters the picture as well. What Bush is proposing to Congress
is not the right to attack on one country but a total shift in military
policy: America would now have the right to take military action before the
adversary even has the capacity to attack. This is in violation, of
course, of international law as well as national precedent. How to explain
this grandiose request? Jane Bryant Quinn provides the most commonly
offered explanation in a recent Newsweek editorial, "Iraq: It's the Oil,
Stupid". Many other opponents of the Bush doctrine similarly seek a
rational motive behind the obsession over first, the war on terror and now,
Iraq. I believe the explanation goes deeper than oil, that Bush's logic is
being given too much credit; I believe his obsession is far more visceral.
On this very day, a peace protestor in Portland held up the sign, "Drunk on
Power". This, I believe, is closer to the truth. The drive for power can
be an unquenchable thirst, addictive in itself. Senator William Fulbright,
in his popular bestseller of the 1960s, 'The Arrogance of Power',
masterfully described the essence of power-hungry politics as the pursuit
of power; this he conceived as an end in itself. "The causes and
consequences of war may have more to do with pathology than with politics",
he wrote, "more to do with irrational pressures of pride and pain than with
rational calculation of advantage and profit."
Another "dry drunk" trait is impatience. Bush is far from a patient man:
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize", he said in a speech he gave
at West Point, "we will have waited too long". Significantly, Bush only
waited for the United Nations and for Congress to take up the matter of
Iraq's disarmament with extreme reluctance.
Alan Bisbort argues that Bush possesses the characteristics of the "dry
drunk" in terms of: his incoherence while speaking away from the script;
his irritability with anyone (for example, Germany's Schroeder) who dares
disagree with him; and his dangerous obsessing about only one thing (Iraq)
to the exclusion of all other things.
In short, George W. Bush seems to possess the traits characteristic of
addictive persons who still have the thought patterns that accompany
substance abuse. If we consult the latest scientific findings, we will
discover that scientists can now observe changes that occur in the brain as
a result of heavy alcohol and other drug abuse. Some of these changes may
be permanent. Except in extreme cases, however, these cognitive
impairments would not be obvious to most observers.
To reach any conclusions we need of course to know Bush's personal history
relevant to drinking/drug use. To this end I consulted several
biographies. Yes, there was much drunkenness -- years of binge drinking
starting in college, at least one conviction for DUI in 1976 in Maine, and
one arrest before that for a drunken episode involving theft of a Christmas
wreath. According to J.D. Hatfield's book, 'Fortunate Son', Bush later
"[A]lcohol began to compete with my energies ... I'd lose focus". Although
he once said he couldn't remember a day he hadn't had a drink, he added
that he didn't believe he was "clinically alcoholic". Even his father, who
had known for years that his son had a serious drinking problem, publicly
proclaimed: "He was never an alcoholic. It's just he knows he can't hold
Bush drank heavily for over 20 years until he made the decision to abstain
at age 40. About this time he became a "born again Christian", going as
usual from one extreme to the other. During an Oprah interview, Bush
acknowledged that his wife had told him he needed to think about what he
was doing. When asked in another interview about his reported drug use, he
answered honestly, "I'm not going to talk about what I did 20 to 30 years ago".
That there might be a tendency toward addiction in Bush's family is
indicated in the recent arrests or criticism of his daughters for underage
drinking and his niece for cocaine possession. Bush, of course, deserves
credit for his realization that he can't drink moderately, and his decision
today to abstain. The fact that he doesn't drink moderately may be
suggestive of an inability to handle alcohol. In any case, Bush has
clearly gotten his life in order and is in good physical condition, careful
to exercise and rest when he needs to do so. The fact that some residual
effects from his earlier substance abuse -- however slight -- might cloud
the U.S. President's thinking and judgment is frightening, however, in the
context of the current global crisis.
One final consideration that might come into play in the foreign policy
realm relates to Bush's history relevant to his father. The Bush biography
reveals the story of a boy named for his father, sent to the exclusive
private school in the East where his father's reputation as star athlete
and later war hero were still remembered. The younger George's
achievements were dwarfed in the school's memory of his
father. Athletically he could not achieve his father's laurels, being
smaller and perhaps less strong. His drinking bouts and lack of
intellectual gifts held him back as well. He was popular and well liked,
however. His military record was mediocre as compared to his father's as
well. Bush entered the Texas National Guard. What he did there remains
largely a mystery. There are reports of a lot of barhopping during this
period. It would be only natural that Bush would want to prove himself
today, that he would feel somewhat uncomfortable following, as before, in
his father's footsteps. I mention these things because when you follow his
speeches, Bush seems bent on a personal crusade. One motive is to avenge
his father. Another seems to be to prove himself to his father. In fact,
Bush seems to be trying somehow to achieve what his father failed to do --
to finish the job of the Gulf War, to get the "evildoer" Saddam.
To summarize, George W. Bush manifests all the classic patterns of what
alcoholics in recovery call "the dry drunk". His behavior is consistent
with barely noticeable but meaningful brain damage brought on by years of
heavy drinking and possible cocaine use. All the classic patterns of
addictive thinking that are spelled out in my book are here:
the tendency to go to extremes (leading America into a massive 100 billion
dollar strike-first war);
a "kill or be killed mentality;" the tunnel vision;
"I" as opposed to "we" thinking;
the black and white polarized thought processes (good versus evil, all or
His drive to finish his father's battles is of no small significance,
If the public (and politicians) could only see what Fulbright noted as 'the
pathology in the politics'. One day, sadly, they will.
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