The Madman in the White House by Patrick Weil review

Delusions of grandeur: a ‘psychobiography’ of Woodrow Wilson.

President Woodrow Wilson with his war cabinet, 1918.
President Woodrow Wilson with his war cabinet, 1918. Wikimedia Commons.

Americans revel in analysing the state of their president’s mind, especially when it helps score political points. Former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson recently ‘diagnosed’ Joe Biden with ‘cognitive decline’, dementia and senility. Biden’s predecessor in the Oval Office, Donald Trump, was probably the most psychoanalysed president in history. Journalists routinely pronounced him a sadistic narcissist with delusions of grandeur. His niece, the clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump, even got in on the act with an explosive book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man, in which she argued that her uncle ‘meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder’. More than one million copies were sold in its first week. As Patrick Weil shows in The Madman in the White House, this is nothing new. In the 1920s, Sigmund Freud and the US diplomat William C. Bullitt co-authored a study of Woodrow Wilson. Almost a century later, in 2014, Weil found the original manuscript in Bullitt’s papers at Yale University.

Though today Bullitt’s fame is far overshadowed by both Freud and Wilson, during the first half of the 20th century he was an American diplomatic grandee. He had contacts in all the major chancelleries and served as US Ambassador to the Soviet Union between 1933 and 1936, and then to France until 1940. Bullitt had begun his career as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe in the Wilson administration during the First World War. After the Armistice, he became part of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, where the terms of surrender between the victorious Entente and the defeated Central Powers were to be negotiated. Bullitt admired Wilson’s idealism and strongly supported the president’s plan to build a liberal world order from the ruins of the war. But in Paris he found himself perplexed by Wilson’s erratic behaviour: his unwillingness to receive counsel, his constant flip-flopping, his repeated concessions and then his pompous denials that he had made concessions.

The Treaty of Versailles alarmed Bullitt in particular. He saw it as a complete betrayal of Wilson’s professed ideals. Far from securing a lasting peace, as the president boasted, it would lead to another war. Unable to get Wilson to see the errors of his way, Bullitt resigned and started a crusade against the treaty. Back in the US, he denounced it in front of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. His testimony was effective: the Versailles treaty was voted down by senators in 1919 and thus never ratified by the US government. Bullitt never forgave Wilson for missing such a momentous opportunity to remake international relations.

In 1926, Bullitt moved to Vienna and became a patient of Sigmund Freud. The therapist and the diplomat bonded over their common interest in the psychology of world leaders. Four years later, they co-wrote a ‘psychobiography’ of Wilson: Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study.

Their thesis in brief was that Wilson, an extremely pious man, suffered from a messiah complex. ‘He did ... love himself always’, they wrote. ‘We can find no evidence that he was ever deficient in admiration for himself or in attention for his own aggrandizement.’ Wilson believed that his purpose was to redeem the world. This delusion of grandeur made him unable to process reality when it did not align with his wishes. This, Bullitt and Freud argued, was why he had behaved so strangely at the Paris Peace Conference.

Their study was not published. By the time the manuscript was completed, Bullitt was in line to become US Ambassador to the Soviet Union under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; to publicly castigate Wilson, a fellow Democrat and one of FDR’s mentors, would have amounted to career suicide. Bullitt shelved the manuscript for more than 30 years. He eventually published it in 1966, but only after excising the most strident passages. By then, Freud was long dead and Bullitt himself only had months to live. The book was dismissed by critics and scholars alike. The original manuscript, co-written with Freud, was presumed lost until 2014, when Patrick Weil found it in a box of Bullitt’s papers.

Weil’s discovery is the starting point of an intriguing book that might be described as a biography of a biography. Deeply researched and scholarly, it tracks Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study from ideation to publication, analysing its contents and chronicling the lives of its authors and their subject. The bulk of the book is taken by Bullitt, but there are also compelling chapters on Freud and Wilson. Weil does an excellent job at analysing the latter’s political significance and shedding light on his serious flaws.

Despite this, Weil’s monograph is too niche to interest general readers looking for a primer on Wilson, or his decisions at the Paris Peace Conference. But it should certainly appeal to students of US diplomatic history and psychoanalysis. Its portrait of Bullitt is thorough and its treatment of Freudian theory rigorous.

But where Weil excels is in teasing out the contemporary implications of his research. ‘Even at a distance of ninety years, Freud and Bullitt’s call to recognize the signs of a pathological personality in our leaders has lost none of its urgency’, he writes. Given the political developments of the last decade, we might add that Freud and Bullitt’s call has only gained in urgency. Reading The Madman in the White House, I couldn’t help but think about those currently occupying the seats of power the world over. I wondered whether some sort of ‘messiah complex’ might be a help rather than a hindrance to would-be leaders. Or, put another way: you don’t have to be mad to want to work here, but it might help.

The Madman in the White House: Sigmund Freud, Ambassador Bullitt, and the Lost Psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson
Patrick Weil
Harvard University Press, 400pp, £30.95
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Theo Zenou recently finished a PhD in US history at the University of Cambridge.